Monday, December 23, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: The Princess Bride (1988 Best Dramatic Presentation)

Dossier:The Princess Bride (1987) [Act III/20th Century Fox] Directed by Rob Reiner; Screenplay by William Goldman; based on his novel.

Filetype: Dramatic Presentation

Executive Summary: As I'm celebrating a birthday today, I thought it would be a great time to look back at something from the Hugo winners from my birth year, and The Princess Bride is the closest to a festive pick from that particular list so here we are!

The Princess Bride adapts William Goldman's novel of the same name, and shares its central conceit, in which The Princess Bride story is actually an in-universe book by S. Morgenstern, which an older man is trying to share with his [grand]child. That story, despite its opening being suspiciously close to a "kissing book", is a fairy tale, featuring  Buttercup, a beautiful farmer's daughter, and Westley the farm boy, who fall in love only for Westley to disappear at sea and Buttercup to become promised in marriage to the unpleasant Prince Humperdinck. When, years later, Buttercup is kidnapped on the eve of her wedding by a trio of bandits - two of whom turn out to be sympathetic in their own right - it falls to a mysterious masked gentleman (you'll never guess who) to try to rescue her from the range of miserable fates laid out for her, and demonstrate that true love wins over all. 

Of course, this relatively traditional framework doesn't do justice to all the asides and subplots which flesh the movie out, from Inigo Montoya, a Spanish swordsman seeking single-minded revenge on a six-fingered man who killed his father, to the unusual heredity of the Dread Pirate Roberts, to the medical marvels possible on a "mostly dead" patient. It all adds up to a satisfying and funny adventure that's not quite like anything else. 

LegacyPerhaps unsurprisingly given its weirdness, The Princess Bride wasn't a critical success on release, but Hugo voters in 1988 clearly saw the value which would cause it to become a well-known cult classic over 30 years later. The Princess Bride isn't necessarily a trope creator, but it sure is a trope codifier; take Westley, a man who is literally introduced as a "farm boy", who takes only five years to become a smart, skilled, eloquent swordsman capable of taking down royalty to get what he wants. There's also the trio of Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo highly memorable archetypes of a certain type of mid-level villain troupe: the supposedly smart mastermind, the gentle giant, and the wisecracking swordy one, with two members being hapless or generous enough to be easily redeemable within the confines of a relatively short movie (indeed, Inigo and Fezzik are never unsympathetic in the first place.)

Moreover, The Princess Bride's highly quippy nature means that its full of quotable lines, all of which are given weight by the way they underscore and enhance the character narratives. From Inigo Montoya's "My Name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die" to Westley's "As you wish", to slightly more niche wisdom like "never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line", so much of this movie is designed to stay with the viewer after watching, and for the more dedicated quote aficionado, there's pieces like Fezzik's rhyming or the entire Miracle Max sequence to enjoy. Coupled with its grasp of physical comedy (though never in a way that descends into farce), and its highly entertaining set pieces (the sword fight!) it makes for a movie that defies its age and cheesiness to be a compelling and fun movie. In some ways, the Princess Bride has become its own embodiment of the grandfather character, and I'd like to hope that there are plenty of kids out there whose initial scepticism at having to put down the video game and watch a weird old movie is overcome when they start to become invested in the story itself.
In Retrospect: Despite its cultural importance, The Princess Bride wasn't part of my own childhood (unsurprising given that it's a kids movie that came out the year before I was born), and I actually encountered William Goldman's book first. That book pushes a lot harder on the meta-narrative elements by recasting S. Morgenstern's book as a dry political text full of weird asides which Goldman finds himself adapting to appeal to his son in the same way his own father did for him. In creating a fairy tale out of the fictional Florinian equivalent of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Goldman's insert gets to muse a lot not just on his relationship with his father but with the results of what that editorialising did, and what truly makes a good story, and a good storyteller: so taking out all the chapters about royal wedding preparations is fine, but altering some of the terrible things that happen to Buttercup, Westley and co would be untrue to the story. Sorry, but those things happen. Except, maybe some don't? You decide.

Of course, the Princess Bride is far from the only narrative to have explored stories in this way, particularly when it comes to fairy tale narrative, and we live in a time where there's a particularly rich vein of this stuff coming out in SFF, from Cat Valente to Seanan McGuire and Holly Black to T. Kingfisher (not forgetting short fiction brilliance like Amal El Mohtar's "Seasons of Glass and Iron"). In a separate vein, scepticism around traditional "Disney narratives" is also a pretty fashionable standpoint at the moment, to the extent that Disney's own live action remakes often take time to "fix" "plotholes" in original animated movies like Beauty and the Beast (as Lindsay Ellis notes in her video essay on "Woke Disney", Belle is a #girlboss now and that makes everything about all that "Stockholm Syndrome" OK!). It's notable that The Princess Bride, while it pokes fun around the elements of story, never questions the elements which make up its basic fairy tale - the subversion is all around the characters and driving forces trying to usurp the concept of "true love" (and related things like "narrative catharsis for your Dad's death" and "convenient matching horses are available"). It's part of the movie's charm, but it also provides a lot to chew on when compared to stories that do question deeper levels of fairy tale tropes.

A lot of what doesn't stand up today is, unfortunately around Princess Buttercup herself. Buttercup, defined by her extraordinary beauty and her ability to do a lot of physical activity without getting her long flowing blonde hair even slightly messy or tangled, is given very little to do beyond needing rescuing on about five distinct occasions. Even her one moment of exercising agency - when she bargains to return to Humperdink if he will allow Westley to go free - is undercut by Humperdink immediately undermining her trust in him. While the narrative doesn't go so far as to blame Buttercup for her situation, it does portray her acceptance of marriage with Humperdinck as a choice borne of becoming closed off and heartless, a judgement she gets almost no chance to overturn before Westley, of all people, comes at her with a stream of misogynistically charged frustrations before she realises who he is (and he realises that she's still into him enough to fall down a hill for her). It adds up uncomfortably to a woman who is given no opportunities for agency and is then blamed for not exercising agency by men and by the narrative itself, and even her main character strength - survival - is knocked down pretty quickly once Westley comes onto the scene. Compared to the many stories we have now in which women in fairytales exercise their own agency and are respected for their choices and survival within the patriarchy, The Princess Bride's treatment of Buttercup feels by far the most dissonant element of the movie, and the one area where datedness has definitely not increased its charms.

Despite its treatment of its lead (and almost only) female character (and the lack of diversity in any other sense), what the Princess Bride does still offer is a strong antidote to the "deconstructing Disney" trend, and a world where things exist because it makes narrative sense for them to do so. Fictional European countries coexisting with references to Spainiards, Sicilians and land wars in Asia? Giant unscaleable cliffs in the middle of a super calm ocean? Machines which use water wheels and suction cups to suck life out of bodies? The Princess Bride has them all, and it doesn't need to explain them to the likes of you - it has them because it's a story, and because stories have cool things that make them work. This is a movie that's very clear that its ultimate aim is to tell a story of true love, and if you don't like the way its doing so... well, you can always take a nap and see if you feel better in the morning.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 3.5/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 7.5/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.