Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In a recent Variety article detailing the life and legacy of television writer/producer Norman Lear, a passing reference suggested that one of the most beloved films of the 1980s might be getting a remake. “Very famous people… want to redo The Princess Bride,” Sony CEO Tony Vinciquerra told Variety. In an era of retellings, reimaginings, remakes, and recycled ideas, it should no longer shock us when this sort of news comes out of Hollywood, but the mere hint of a suggestion that The Princess Bride might get the 21st century rinse-and-repeat has sent the internet into a firestorm of fury. Angry tweets, memes, and celebrity tirades against any such retread have united people from all walks of life behind a common rallying cry: No remake of The Princess Bride is necessary. And not only is it unnecessary, but why would anyone even consider such a thing? The flurry of responses prompted even a Vanity Fair article (amongst others) on the united front of resistance to the hypothetical remake. But perhaps the best take of all came from actor Cary Elwes, who starred as Westley in The Princess Bride, who took to Twitter with a snappy twist on one of his funniest lines from the 1987 film: “There’s a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to damage this one.”
And that, probably, is where the passion behind the resistance lies—in the belief that The Princess Bride is a perfect movie. It’s a belief firmly held across demographic barriers and generational lines, and because of this, The Princes Bride is a story well worth our serious consideration. How did William Goldman (book and screenplay author), Rob Reiner (film director), and the cast capture magic on the screen? How did they make something so beloved and enduring that the very suggestion of remaking it has united people across the country?When the grandfather reads the story to his grandson, he invites us all to sit at his knee and listen. He invites us to be children again.
The story of The Princess Bride isn’t that complex—some might even call it simple or basic. There’s nothing about it that, at face value, would indicate lasting cultural impact. It’s a fantasy tale in which a farm boy named Westley (Cary Elwes) falls in love with a girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright). Westley leaves to seek his fortune, promising to return, but on his journeys, he disappears and is taken for dead. In the ensuing years, Buttercup becomes engaged to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), a scoundrel who hires a Spaniard (Mandy Patinkin), a Sicilian (Wallace Shawn), and a giant (Andre the Giant) to kidnap her and stage it as a hostile act from a neighboring kingdom. But the kidnapping trio, with Buttercup in tow, are pursued by a man in black who they take for a villain known as the Dread Pirate Roberts. He expertly defeats each of them in turn to win Buttercup until it is revealed that he is Westley, returned to claim his long-lost love. But Humperdinck rallies against Westley and Buttercup, and in the end, it takes the combined efforts of Westley, the Spaniard, and the giant to save Buttercup and prove that true love conquers all.
I could say much about the movie itself, about how it masterfully balances adventure, romance, comedy, and drama. About how William Goldman coined lines so witty and memorable that it has become inexorably anchored in our cultural consciousness (the film sits at #1 on IMDb’s list of “Top 50 Most Quotable Movies Ever”). About how the perfect people were cast to bring to life roles for which they have always been, and probably will always be, remembered. All of these things (and more) contribute to why The Princess Bride is beloved to so many, but I think there is something notable in the delivery of the story itself that makes this perfect movie linger while others fade with time.
At the heart of the enduring legacy of The Princess Bride is the fact that it’s a love story—and not a love story between Westley and Buttercup, but a love story between a grandfather and his grandson. What I neglected to mention in my summary above, but what you probably know about the film, is that it’s a story within a story. I summarized the plot of The Princess Bride, the novel—the movie actually begins in our world with a sick little boy in bed and a grandfather who comes to visit him with a book to help entertain him. The grandfather (Peter Falk) drags the grandson (Fred Savage) somewhat reluctantly out of the world of his video games to engage in the world of The Princess Bride, and when the grandfather reads the story to his grandson, he invites us all to sit at his knee and listen. He invites us to be children again.
The Princess Bride is a story of love told to one little boy, and as the grandson listens to it, it forms in his imagination, and that is what takes place on the screen. The story within a story forms a special kind of magic between audience and characters. We are once removed from the grandfather and grandson, but twice removed from Westley and Buttercup and Humperdinck. The story forms from the words of the grandfather reading it to his grandson, and so all the characters leap into being from a sort of childlike innocence. We view the story through the narration of the grandfather and the imagination of the grandson. In the delivery of The Princess Bride, we get almost a perfect degree of separation from what is happening on the screen as the narrative interruptions and interludes of the grandfather and the grandson remind us that the story within a story is just, after all, a story. It allows a suspension of disbelief about elements that might otherwise have fallen flat on delivery—of elements that might otherwise feel dated after the passage of a decade or two or three.
It is a story that will never go out of style because it will never go out of style for a grandfather to read to his grandson, and what happens in a child’s imagination is timeless. Like many classic books, The Princess Bride did what some movies fail to do: it avoided the trappings of the era in which it was made, becoming truly a story out of time. We can forgive even the low production value of things like the Rodents of Unusual Size because they fit within the ethos of a story told to a child by a grandfather—a story that is happening within a child’s mind. Whatever leaps of imagination the child makes, we also can make. Secondary belief is established by the grandson—we are just along for the ride. The decades can pass as they will; The Princess Bride lives forever in the narration of an old man and the imagination of a child.
In short, it allows all of us to receive the story as a child again, with childlike joy and excitement and awe. The Princess Bride, like all good stories, says big things. But perhaps the biggest thing it says is that a grandfather loves his grandson, and in that love is birthed a world of imagination and wonder. It invites us in, and it needs no reimagining because it’s perfect, just as it is. Just as perfect as the grandfather’s love is for his grandson. The characters of the grandfather and the grandson are never named, which allows them to become sort of “every people” to us, allowing us to relate more perfectly to them. Wherever we are in life, we can find ourselves sitting somewhere between these two—either listening or telling, and always in need of more stories that are actually offerings of love. And as the grandfather reads the story to his grandson, it becomes a love story to us all.