MIND MELD: The Influence of “The Princess Bride” on Today’s Writers
Today’s Mind Meld was suggested by Orbit’s publicist. [Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
The movie The Princess Bride is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2012. Next year, by the way, the William Goldman novel that inspired it will turn 40, another landmark to be celebrated by fans worldwide.
So, we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
The Princess Bride was the first movie I’d seen that was able to take fantasy, give it a gorgeous look and feel, add a snarky, humorous edge and NOT fall over into broad comedy … the jokes were razor sharp, the acting was brilliant, the fencing was Old Hollywood fantastic. And let’s face it, who among us hasn’t said, “Have fun storming the castle!” or, “Never go in against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line!” … or, my personal favorite, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya …”
In fact, I think Inigo Montoya formed the basis of what I wanted in a character — someone with a tragic past, a sense of humor, a wicked talent for mayhem, and the ability, when the moment of truth came, to shed all of that and convey the fury and passion inside.
It was a watershed for much that came after its release — suddenly, writers in fantasy felt free of the old constraints. Fantasy could be epic without being humorless, and it could be funny without falling into slapstick. It set a solid middle course that allowed fantasy to be seen as thrilling, funny and romantic all at the same time — a feat that Joss Whedon would repeat years later for the paranormal genre.
It’s quite simply my favorite fantasy movie of all time. So excuse me, but I need to go watch it again …
I can’t actually remember the first time I saw The Princess Bride. It’s one of those stories that’s always been part of my life: the go-to film for substitute teachers on rainy days in Middle school, the tape my parents could put in during a sleep over and count on everyone having a good time. It’s one of the most universally likable films ever made, and that, I think, is its greatest legacy: The Princess Bride is the fantasy movie that everyone, even people who think they’re too cool for fantasy, can unironically admit to loving.
As someone who writes swashbuckling lighthearted fantasy, I in particular owe a lot of what I do to The Princess Bride. It, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams practically invented the idea of comedic genre fiction for adults. It wasn’t the first funny fantasy, it is still one of the biggest and best, and though none of my characters or plots were directly inspired by Team Buttercup, without the place The Princess Bride carved for itself in my mind and our culture at large, my books (and I’m sure many others) would not be what they are today.
Still, if I had to pick the most glaring example of how The Princess Bride influenced me as a writer, I’d have to say craft. It’s hard to find a story that’s more about story than The Princess Bride, which is, as it clearly states, “just the good parts.” Even long before I knew I wanted to be a writer, this movie started me thinking about what are the good parts of a story? And, if you can skip the bad parts and have the story still make sense, then why put them in at all? Also, The Princess Bride taught me an invaluable early lesson in the vital importance of character motivation. To this day, I can not sit down to create a character without asking, “who is this person’s six fingered man?”
I still remember the night my dad took me and my brother Ben to see a new movie at the theater. I was ten years old, and my brother (who’s also turned out to be an f/sf author) was seven. Neither of us knew anything about what we were about to see, but Dad promised it would be something special.
The fairytale magic, the romance, the swordfights – The Princess Bride had everything I already loved by then about fantasy as a genre…but that wasn’t what took my breath away. What made me sit frozen and overwhelmed and amazed – what made me fall in love, immediately and forever – was the sheer, impassioned JOY of that movie. It was the exuberance that powered all those fabulous jokes – and they made wonderful, hilarious and loving in-jokes about fairytale tropes I’d always taken for granted, jokes that genuinely blew my mind! – but also powered the sheer wild imagination of it all.
I was almost staggering as I walked out of that film. I’d never seen anything like it.
In the next few years, I devoured the original William Goldman novel, and I laughed at the meta-humor of that, too, but it was the movie, not the book, that I came back to again and again. Honestly, it was THE film for me and my brother and so many others. I could – and still can! – quote long passages by memory. Back then, videos were too expensive for my family to buy, but my grandpa knew how much we loved that film – he loved it, too – and he recorded it off the television so that we could watch it again and again.
As much as I’ve loved other films in my life, this is the only one I’ve watched SO often, I can’t even guess at a true count. That’s really rare for me.
And as much as I loved fantasy before I watched that film – I’d imprinted hard on The Lord of the Rings and Narnia at a very young age – this was the film that taught me just what fantasy – the kind of fantasy I wanted to write – could be. It was magical, it was sweeping, it was romantic (ohhh, how I swooned over Westley! I had a picture of Cary Elwes pinned over my bed as a teen), and it had fabulous sword-fights with really great banter – but it was also wonderfully, joyously funny. It taught me that fantasy could be light-hearted and loving and FABULOUS.
Now, as an adult, I write my own fantasy adventures full of humor and joy – and I have my own copy of The Princess Bride on DVD. I adore it. It’s joy and comfort, all in one. And as much as Tolkien was my first (and still much-loved) introduction to the fantasy genre, I could never have written my own books if I hadn’t gone to the theater that night when I was ten and discovered The Princess Bride.
It’s given fantasy writers great quotes that they can easily toss into bar conversations when stuck for something funny to say, thereby allowing them to retain their reputations as people skilled in witty dialogue.
To be honest, I don’t see much direct influence of The Princess Bride on fantasy writers, at least not in novels. In part that’s because the movie is a comedy, and humour is really hard to do well in print. Also, TPB harks back to the swashbucklers of the 1940s and 1950s, but fantasy fiction has veered away from light-hearted heroics towards grim and gritty “reality”. Perhaps this anniversary will be an opportunity for more writers to buck that trend and bring some fun back into the genre!
I don’t know if it’s a direct influence, but it’s notable that in spite of often being labelled as fantasy, there isn’t a lot of actual fantasy content in TPB. Yes, there’s The Machine, but a) it’s more “weird science” than magic and b) it’s really there to allow a family-friendly story to include a man being tortured to death (well, to “mostly dead” anyway). And Miracle Max is more of an eccentric but powerful alchemist than an actual wizard, IMHO. Has this given writers licence to produce fantasy novels with equally low fantastical content? Maybe. But let’s face it, fantasy movies in the 20th century were hampered by the limits of special effects – TPB has endured partly because it doesn’t go there.
I think its main direct influence is on screenwriters like Joss Whedon, who was an undergraduate when TPB came out and whose own debut movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was released only five years later. The combination of action, comedy, romance and razor-sharp dialogue that are Whedon’s trademark are also the defining features of TPB.
What’s the movie? A wry, nimbly-paced adventure in which fast friendship and true love conquer. It’s about personal stakes and defying death itself to achieve them. It tells its story and is done in a concise package, with a narrator who skips the boring parts for us.
What’s our contemporary market? Fantasy seems dirtier, grimmer and more cynical every year. The notion that you need “conflict on every page” strains friendships and forces romances to lean on lust. The stakes? Even Harry Potter becomes about the fate of the world. And brevity? Harry Potter looks conservative at only seven books (or eight films) compared to some series that run on even after their authors expire.
If The Princess Bride has a lasting influence on writers, it may be on them as people rather than producers. It’s something for the awkward panelist to quote for a laugh, and a model of warm extroversion to emulate. People don’t write so much swashbuckling feel-good stuff, but I swear that half the Fantasy authors I meet want to be Westley. Guys and girls alike want to be clever, attractive, omni-talented and passionate – and pirates. They all want to be dread pirates who will most likely kill you in the morning.
I was one of those boys who didn’t want to watch a movie with that title, that cover, or those first five minutes. Reiner and Goldman undertook an unusual challenge: approach American boys with their naïve masculinity and rejection of all things romantic, and attempt to make the sweetest and most exaggerated form of love desirable to them. And they won! They didn’t slay our anxieties with emotions and ideals that created the problem, but they pinned it for one film’s runtime. They got us. They got me for at least a dozen re-watches and two read-throughs of a superb doorstopper, and I know I’m not alone.
If The Princess Bride appeals to us so much, why don’t we write more of it? Are we still an eleven-year-old Fred Savage, afraid to admit we like that sappy, dashing stuff? One imagines him excitedly describing the kiss at school the next day. He’s pantsed, loses his lunch money, and quickly socially conditioned to only like edgy stuff, like A Game of Thrones.
Of course, George R.R. Martin is a nice person with a great sense of humor. Nothing about him suggests he’s about to go home and write what he puts Daenerys through. I’ve never met an author whose personality was reflective of their dark fiction. It’s as though we compartmentalize, wanting to treat others kindly and pursue vibrant lives, but not express that in the worldviews of our prose. That’s fascinating. You’d think we’d want to do that at least a little more often.
There are many kinds of great fiction, and both Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Goldman’s The Princess Bride fit the bill. There’s room for it all. We don’t need a Princess Bride reboot, or Disney to buy the property and manufacture new sequels, or to hide what we really want in YA. Every sub-genre is big enough for all the things that inspire us, including much more of S. Morgenstern’s satirical vision that never was.
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