The Princess Bride as Neo-Traditional RomCom

The Princess Bride (1987) is an action-adventure; there are sword-fights, horse-back chases, and a treacherous climb. It is also filled with fantasy (there’s a princess, a prince, and a castle) and romance (kissing, a handsome man, and true love). There is also comedy; The Albino gets hit on the head so hard he become unconscious, Inigo falls face first into his food, and Fezzik and Inigo play childish rhyming games. The Princess Bride can be easily identified as a fantasy or an action-adventure through “easily identifiable elements and themes” (Bartfeld & Symons, 2007, p. 90). However action packed and fantastical the film is, the action and the fantasy are not the heart of the story.

According to McDonald (2007) “a romantic comedy is a film which has as its central narrative motor a quest for love, which portrays this quest in a light-hearted way and almost always to a successful conclusion.” (p. 9).  The heart of The Princess Bride is the love story between Westley and Buttercup (Bartfeld & Symons, 2007).  Since the heart of the story (the central narrative) is a quest for love and the film is filled with comedy – funny lines, exaggerated action, things that clearly are not real or are clearly staged – it makes sense to call The Princess Bride a romantic comedy. However The Princess Bride can fit into a specific sub-genre of romantic comedy, the neo-traditional romantic comedy. What follows is an account of the film (its creation and the basics) and why it fits into the neo-traditional romantic comedy sub-genre.

Plot and Premise, production details, etc.

Around 1970 William Goldman started to work on a book about princesses and brides for his daughters (Goldman, 1995; Bartfeld & Symons, 2007). The early pages were lost, but eventually he came back to the idea (Goldman, 1995). The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure is the abridged version (all the good bits) of a love story by S. Morgenstern, with contemporary comedic commentary added (Gehring, 1999). In the book Buttercup, a beautiful and fair maiden, is engaged to the repellent Prince Humperdinck (who also has questionable intentions), but is in love with Westley (a former farm hand turned pirate). Westley tries to save Buttercup from Prince Humperdinck, but all does not go according to plan. Goldman admits that he struggled with the story, but it eventually became the only novel of his own creation he liked (Goldman, 1995). Not only did Goldman enjoy his book, it became a “cult success” (Goldman, 1995, p. 278), and would eventually lead to film, The Princess Bride.

One of the Greenlight Guys from Fox liked the book so much, that Fox bought the book and asked Goldman to write a screenplay (Goldman, 1995). Goldman wrote the screenplay and the Greenlight guy liked it, but the Greenlight Guy was fired so Goldman and his screenplay were dropped from Fox (Goldman, 1995). Goldman bought his book back from Fox because he “didn’t want some fuckhead destroying” his best work (Goldman, 1995, p. 273). “The Princess Bride had a hell of a time being made… [it] bounced around Hollywood for a decade and a half” (Jacobson, 1987, p. 60).Other people liked the idea of turning The Princess Bride into a film too, but things always fell through.

Goldman knew Carl Reiner, Rob’s father, through theater and gave him a copy of The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, when he finished writing it. Carl gave the book to Rob, who was in his mid-twenties and he loved it (Jacobson, 1987; Goldman, 1995)! About dozen years after Rob Reiner read the book he was a director looking for a new project, he remembered the book and it became his quest to turn the book into a film (Jacobson, 1987; Goldman, 1995). Reiner and Goldman meet and discussed turning the beloved book into a film. In order to make the film Reiner and Goldman “beefed up the love story” (Jacobson, 1987, p. 60).With the love story beefed up the two men found money, a cast, and production of The Princess Bride began.

The film follows the book as best it can, with some deviations. Reiner (2007) says the film is good, but that it is not nearly as good as the book. Reiner (2007) says he captured as much of the book as he could, but that he believes he got feel and tone of the book in the film. The biggest deviation from the film is that a grandfather reads to his grandson, rather than the father reading the good parts to his son (Goldman, 1995). The movie opens with a young boy (Fred Savage) sick in bed (Scheuer, 1987). His grandfather (Peter Falk) comes to read him a story about ‘fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles …’ (Reiner, 1987). The story is about the beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright) who falls in love with the farm boy Westley (Cary Elwes). Westley and Buttercup are separated and Westley is presumed dead. Time passes and Buttercup finds herself engaged to the odious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). Prince Humperdinck has Buttercup kidnapped, by Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his associates – an accomplished swordsman, as Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and a super strong giant, Fezzik (Andre the Giant) – in order to start a war. The Dread Pirate Roberts (Westley, Buttercup’s love) stumbles upon the kidnapping and it is up to him to save the woman he once loved. Westley is successful in his rescue and the lovers are reunited. However Westley and Buttercup are captured by Prince Humperdinck. In order to save Westley Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck. The lovers are separated, again, but not for long. Westley joins forces with Inigo and Fezzik to stop the royal wedding. According to Gehring (1999) this fairytale does two things: “it reminds us that life is not fair and sometimes the wrong people die… despite this warning, it gives us a happy ending” (p.79). Gehring (1999) posits that Goldman gives the story a happy ending because “you are not going to get [it] in reality” (p. 79).

The Princess Bride was released in theaters in September 25, 1987. Due to miss-marketing, or as Goldman (1995) put it not knowing how to sell the film, the film did not become popular until it was already out on VHS. Scheuer (1987) called The Princess Bride delightful and urged people to both read the book and watch the film.  In the fall of 2012 the cast got together for the films special 25th anniversary screening at Alice Tully Hall in New York (Murphy. 2012). Most of the cast did many interviews in which they talked about his experience with the film. In the fall of 2012 Mandy Patinkin did an interview with NPR to commemorate the 25th anniversary. Just after the 25th anniversary Cary Elwes was interviewed on Maltin on Movies to also commemorate the films continued love and success.

Argument of Neo-traditional

In McDonald’s (2007) view “the neo-traditional romantic comedy reasserts the old ‘boy meets, loses, regains girl’ structure, emphasising the couple will be heterosexual, will form lasting relationship, and that their story will end as soon as they do so” (p. 86). In The Princess Bride Westley meets Buttercup and they fall in love. Westley loses Buttercup when he goes to sea and becomes a pirate. Westley gets Buttercup back when he rescues her from Vizzini, only to lose her again when they are captured by the Prince. Eventually Westley saves Buttercup from the Prince and the two ride off together. The Princess Bride follows the narrative structure mentioned in McDonald’s definition perfectly. Maybe Reiner and Goldman take the narrative structure to the extreme for comedies sake – Westley does loses Buttercup twice, but each time he gets her back. Westley is a man and Buttercup is a woman – so the couple in the film is heterosexual – another point for Reiner and Goldman in following McDonald’s definition. In fact Westley is so masculine and Buttercup is feminine that Henry & Rossen-Knill (1988) call Westley the “Ideal Man” – he is “strong, intelligent”, and a protector – and Buttercup the “Ideal Woman” – she is “beautiful, submissive,” and “in need of protection” (p. 53). As The Princess Bride ends Westley and Buttercup have finally defeated Prince Humperdinck and we are lead to believe as they kiss for the final time that they will be wed and live happily ever after together. By implying marriage Westley and Buttercup have a lasting relationship, another point to Reiner and Goldman for following McDonald’s definition. At first glance The Princess Bride fits McDonald’s over all definition of a neo-traditional romantic comedy well. So it is time to look deeper to see if The Princess Bride contains some of the key characteristics common in neo-traditional romantic comedies.

According to McDonald (2007) there are five characteristics common in a neo-traditional romantic comedy. First, there is the use of romantic signifier’s in film titles (McDonald, 2007). Second, “a backlash against ideology of the radical film alongside a maintenance of its visual surfaces” (McDonald, 2007, p.91). Third, is “a mood of imprecise nostalgia” evoked in the film (McDonald, 2007, p. 91). Fourth, is the use of “vague self-referentialism” during the film (McDonald, 2007, p.91). Fifth, is a “De-emphasising of sex” throughout the film (McDonald, 2007, p.91).

Like many neo-traditional romantic comedies The Princess Bride has a romantic signifier in title. The word bride references the inevitable outcome, which is the princess will one day be a bride at her own wedding. Weddings are a common romantic motif in neo-traditional romantic comedies. As Henry and Rossen-Knill (1988) point out there are actually two weddings in the film. The first is the horrible wedding in Buttercup’s dream, and the second is Buttercups wedding to Prince Humperdinck.  The title mentions both a princess and a wedding, which will attract the attention of many girls and women, who yearn for a fairy-tale and romance.

A common theme in The Princess Bride is True Love. According to Bartfeld and Symons (2007), true love is Westley and Buttercup’s ultimate goal. The concept of love or True Love and the desire to attain it is traditional in romantic comedies, neo-traditional or not. According to Henry and Rossen-Knill (1988) The Princess Bride give the audience two messages: the first is “Twue Rove is funny”, the second is “True Love is good” (p. 43).

According to Henry and Rossen-Knill (1988) Reiner and Goldman parody True Love through deferral, indirection and humor. The parody of True Love gives The Princess Bride most of its humor. When the clergyman calls True Love “Twue Rove” everyone, audience and characters laugh, because the man is so incoherent (Henry & Rossen-Knill, 1988). The scene is made even funnier because the marriage is rushed or incomplete, and the man ordained by god to sanction the union just goes with it (Henry & Rossen-Knill, 1988). Even when True Love can be said properly it can be funny. In the film Miracle Max says, “Sonny, true love is the greatest thing, in the world -except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe” (Reiner, 1987). Max’s line is honest, true, and funny as all get out.

Henry and Rossen-Knill (1988) also say that “The Princess Bride professes true love” (p. 47). It does so by highlighting scenes in which an avowal of love takes place (Henry & Rossen-Knill, 1988). When Buttercup finally finds out what Westley mean when he says “As you wish” the grandfather tells us what is happening as it happens on-screen. By showing the audience what is happening while an outsider comments on it draws attention to the scene. The contrast of avowal and disavowal highlights the concept (Henry & Rossen-Knill, 1988). At the beginning of the film the grandson objects to Westley and Buttercup kissing, which represents their love for each other. However about halfway through the film the grandson objects to Buttercup marrying Prince Humperdinck saying: “Hold it hold it grandpa. You read that wrong. She doesn’t marry Humperdinck, she marries Westley. I’m sure of it” (Reiner, 1987). The grandson has gone from disliking true love to demanding it wins. The contrast is great and highlights True Love importance well.

The second characteristic of a neo-traditional romantic comedy is backlash against radical films. In The Princess Bride this is done a number ways. The first way this is done is by clearly demonstrating the couples’ togetherness. Westley and Buttercup face Prince Humperdinck together, and are separated. But once they are separated they do everything in their power to get back together. Buttercup sends out letters to Westley and Westley defies death, again, and stops the wedding. The second is that the lovers face insurmountable barriers. When Westley and Buttercup first fall in love they are separated by the high seas for five years. Later they are kept apart, with Buttercup in the castle and Westley in the Pit of Despair. Finally, despite the barriers a couple forms and ends up happily ever after. By the end of the film Westley and Buttercup defeat Prince Humperdinck and at last they are together, forever. According to Bartfeld and Symons (2007) a “well-known convention of the romance, is the final embrace and kiss that confirms or consolidates the love of the hero and heroine” (p. 94). In the last few minutes of the film Westley and Buttercup sit atop their snow-white horses and kiss as the grandfather says: “Since the invention of the kiss there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind” (Reiner, 1987). With a kiss and evil behind them, Westley and Buttercup live happily ever after. The formation of  couple and happy ending are essential to neo-traditional romantic comedy.

Neo-traditional romantic comedies also tend to be vaguely nostalgic. In The Princess Bride a grandpa reads a story to his grandson. Everyone watching the film has probably been read to, by a parent or grandparent. Thus anyone watching the film can relate to what is happening. Watching the grandpa reading to the grandson probably stirs up happy memories for many people. Giving the film a fairy-tale setting, in rural and beautiful medieval times can also make people nostalgic. They might think about how when they were young the pretended to be a princess or a prince. Or reminisce about their trip to the countryside and all the fun they used to have playing outside in the muck.

The Princess Bride is very self-referential, it barrows locations and characters from old Hollywood swashbuckler’s. For the cliff top duel between Inigo and Westley the “environment in the style of classic Hollywood swashbucklers” (Henry & Rossen-Knill, 1988, p. 55). There is a stone staircase and sandy ground. “The sheer excess is comic in and of itself”, both Westley and Inigo are masters with the sword, with both hands, and are amazingly agile (Henry & Rossen-Knill, 1988, p. 55). Westley “has been constructed from iconographic conventions” of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks (Bartfeld & Symons, 2007, p. 92).

The Princess Bride is also self-referential when its uses known actors. According to Scheuer (1987) “many of their faces will be familiar to you”, and indeed they are. Aside from Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin there are other popular film and TV stars. Christopher Guest plays Count Tyrone Rugen, the six-fingered man. Billy Crystal plays the hilarious and peculiar Miracle Max. Carol Kane plays Valerie, Max’s wife. There are even some British TV actors; Peter Cook is the Clergyman, and Mel Smith is The Albino (Dunne, 1992).

Another way that The Princess Bride is self-referential is that it is out of touch with reality. According to Bartfeld and Symons (2007) the film has a blatant “disregard for the rules of reality and science” (p. 93). Things happen throughout the film that are not or should not be possible, yet they happen, because what happens on-screen is just pretend. The first example of the fantastical could be Fezzik’s in human strength. As Barfeld and Symons says: “it would be impossible for anyone, even the world’s strongest man, to pull himself up a rope hung over a cliff-face many hundreds of meters high with the burden of four other adults. Yet… Fezzik comfortably achieves the task” (p. 93). Everyone knows this action to be impossible yet it happens, because it’s a movie. Everyone knows it is impossible for someone to come back to life. Yet “Westley is brought back from the ‘mostly dead’ with the aid of sorcerer Miracle Max’s power and the probably delicious, chocolate-coated magic pill” (Bartfeld & Symons, 2007, p. 93).  A third disconnect from reality happens “when Princess Buttercup … jumps from a high window into the arms of Fezzik, she falls in slow motion, as characters do in movies not in life.” (Dunne, 1992, p. 102). This happens close to the end of The Princess Bride, thus reminding the audience that what they are watching is not real, but most defiantly pretend.  When looking for Westley Inigo comes across the tree which serves as the entrance to The Pit of Dispair, however the door is hidden so “Inigo prays to his father’s ghost and discovers the secret through some sort of ESP” (Dunne, 1992, p. 105). Most people do not believe in ghosts and ESP, but it does not matter that they are not real, it is amusing and since this is a movie and not reality, it works. In the castle Inigo faces Count Rugen, the man who killed Inigos father and left him scarred.  “After Inigo has been stabbed, apparently to death, by Count Rugen, he brings himself back to life by recalling his vow to revenge his father’s death. He grows stronger each time he says, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”” (Dunne, 1992, p. 105). Anyone who knows anything about anatomy knows that after the blows Inigo sustains to his shoulder, arm, chest and stomach, he would have bled out quickly. But Inigo must get his revenge, he’s one of the good guys after all. Each time he repeats the now famous lines, he grows stronger, is able to defeat Count Rugen and stave death off, permanently. Dunne (1992) states that “Reiner is making movies, not life, and he gives his audience credit for knowing this.” (p. 105). Reiner makes it obvious, through these fantastical actions, that what the audience is seeing is not real. And by doing this over and over he expects the audience to notice that he is mocking reality for their amusement.

One final bit of self-referentialism in The Princess Bride is the fact there is a story with in a story. “The film presents the grandfather reading from a book in his grandson’s bedroom and then proceeds to present the contents of the story that he reads, interspersed with occasional interruptions and commentary about the story” (Diehl, 2009, p. 23). It is the story within a story (media within a medium) and the comments about the story, made by the grandfather and grandson throughout that make the film self-referential. In the film the grandfather and grandson frame the principal narrative (Dunne, 1992). Sometimes the framing takes place as a fade (Dunne, 1992). Like at the beginning of the film, when it fades out of the grandson’s bedroom and onto the farm with Buttercup and Westley. Sometimes the narrative jumps from one scene to another by use of the grandfather or grandson’s voice (Dunne, 1992).  When Fezzik finds Westley’s dead in The Pit of Despair, the grandson says: “What does Fezzik mean, he’s dead? . . . Westley’s only faking, right?” The audience is slingshot from the Pit back to the bedroom, a prime example of a narrative jump (Dunne, 1992).  Jacobson (1987) calls The Princess Bride “a narrative wrap… featuring a kid and his grandpa reading the central story” (p. 60). This wrap showcases the fact that there is a story taking place inside another story.

The fifth and final characteristic of a neo-traditional romantic comedy is the de-emphasis of sex. In The Princess Bride sex is not mentioned even once, and it is not alluded to in any conversations. Westley and Buttercup are rarely alone, and when they are they are too busy fighting to stay alive, so the topic of sex or opportunity to have it, never comes up. Westley and Buttercup do kiss, a few times, but their last kiss is called passionate and pure. If something is pure, sex is not involved.

Conclusion

The Princess Bride is a neo-traditional romantic comedy. It follows the traditional romance narrative, complete with a happy ending. It is also self-referential and vaguely nostalgic. The title hints at the idea of love and marriage, and True Love conquers all obstacles. Reiner (2007) said The Princess Bride was the most difficult film he worked on, because he had to balance satire, romance, and adventure and be truthful. But he balanced romance, comedy and adventure well, the audience laughs, jumps, and cries with and for the characters. As testament to Reiner’s and the crews’ hard work and dedication The Princess Bride is still loved and quoted today.

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