As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride By Cary Elwes (with Joe Layden) (Touchstone, 2014) 259 pages
I have a confession to make (two, actually): I had never heard of The Princess Bride movie (let alone William Goldman’s book) until I met my wife Camille in 2000. Second, when she showed it to me for the first time, sprawled around the TV, both of us on chairs with dogs, I was so tired that I fell asleep as Westley and Buttercup ran down the path to the Fire Swamp. Problem solved, princess rescued. When I woke up, the credits were rolling and my wife asked “So, wasn’t that great?” I, of course, replied that it was very, very good (I liked the sword fight, which I thought was cool) and that I had once met Andre the Giant. I didn’t find out until years later that I had missed more than half the movie, and that the story had really just begun. Forgive me, Camille.
Now, I am the first to admit that certain movies and books are acquired tastes, and that as much as other people really want you to like and appreciate what they like and appreciate, there are films and stories that leave some people flat. So if you are one of those eye-rolling not-that-stupid-story-again people when it comes to The Princess Bride, you can still read this book for what it reveals about the art of making movies. Movie-making is something people know little about, I think, and today it seems that all you have to do is capture some people with sensors moving around and add all the rest with CGI.
But there are still movies made the old-fashioned way, and The Princess Bride is one of them, although it took shape in 1986 (the Star Wars movies, of course, had changed everything not long before). The mountains and scenery are real, the flames are real, even the sword-play is very real. In fact, Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin (as Inigo Montoya) were taught to fence by the same guy, Bob Anderson, who did the Stars Wars light-sabre routines. The sword scene was one of the last to be shot because they both needed every minute of practice to make the scene (described as “the greatest sword fight in history” in the book and script) as convincing as possible. The training was complicated by Elwes’ broken toe (which shows up in the movie in several places, once you know where to look for it) and another accident he suffered on the set (when the evil Prince Humperdinck bops Westley on the head with his sword at the exit of the Fire Swamp, that’s 100% real and drew blood and knocked Elwes unconscious).
No one should let the fairy-tale-ish and admittedly juvenile aspects of the film deter them from enjoying the movie and this book. Enjoy Vizzini’s “inconceivable” portrayal by Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant’s struggles to be mean instead of his usual amiable self (and with a sore back yet!), Mandy Patinkin’s noble quest to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the evil Count Rugan (Christopher Guest), and Bill Crystal’s completely unrestrained and over-the-top turn as Miracle Max. Then read the book and find out what really happened behind the scenes and during the scenes. The movie thrives because all of the parts thrived (Elwes admits that it is nearly impossible to tell during production how it all will turn out: the entire cast is seldom even in the same place at the same time and this can lead to very uneven performances). Rob Reiner, the director, was probably one of the few who could turn out this movie and have it appear as such great fun.
The book is peppered with boxed quotes from other cast members remembering the production. Patinkin’s are the most touching. He knew the movie was magic, and Montoya’s convincing grief at losing his father grounds the entire second half of the movie, especially considering that Westley spends a large part of it “almost dead.” Rob Reiner’s thoughts are always enlightening, and Robin Wright appears to have enjoyed making the movie as much as anyone else. However, Wallace Shawn’s few quotes are oddly pedantic about the experience. Instead of reinforcing his reputation as an intellectual, or just reveling in the silliness going on, his comments are more appropriate for some fuddy-duddy professor (Rob Reiner laughed “hysterically” at Billy Crystal’s scenes, but “That didn’t happen during my scenes,” Shawn grouses on page 155). Then again, Shawn was convinced that he was about to be replaced by Danny DeVito (page 157), an idea reinforced by Shawn’s agent(!).
The book includes a very helpful timeline in the chapter headings so you can see how long (and how short) different shots on location, at the castle, or in the studio took. I won’t go into the quotes form the movie, mainly because there are whole wed sites devoted to them. The Princess Bride is not just a book or movie or anything else: it is a cultural phenomenon and a product of a certain time and place. No one would try to duplicate it today without big names and explosions and so many special effects that the characters fade away.
As good as this book is, if you ever have a chance to see Cary Elwes in person, by all means do so. (Elwes went to Sarah Lawrence College, and my professor of Ancient Greek taught there, so (see?) we’re connected!) My wife and I saw Cary Elwes at Dobson High School in Mesa, Arizona, on December 19th, 2014, where he appeared as part of his book tour sponsored by Changing Hands book stores (they now have two: I should talk more about this extraordinary bookstore here, but for now you can just go to changinghands.com). It was part Christmas present to my wife Camille, and the auditorium was nearly packed to capacity. I don’t know how many seats the auditorium has, but the enrollment is over 2,700 (Dobson is the 11th largest high school in the state) and if I have to guess, I’d say the auditorium seats more than 1,000 (I think the 84-acre campus has more than one). Elwes spoke for about an hour and answered question form the audience for about an hour and a half more, a very unique thing among the authors I have seen in action. As much as the poor moderator form the Arizona Republic tried to call for “one last question,” the author plunged into the audience, microphone in hand (the first was “almost dead,” someone in the audience quipped) and posed for pictures, hugged, and joked with anyone who caught his attention. I give Cary Elwes very high marks for patience, good humor, and all around relaxed and relaxing demeanor.
What else? Let me try to relate the book and movie The Princess Bride experience to what I’ve learned from my other reading this year.
After seeing Cary Elwes and reading his book, I immediately went back and watched the movie. The Christmas day marathon helped too, and I never tired of watching poor Westley try to sit against and rise from that tree stump when “Dread Pirate Roberts” is finally revealed as Princess Buttercup’s beloved Westley.
This reminded me that we don’t record a movie or a book in our heads when we encounter it, a point made by Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read. So in spite of my sleepy first encounter with the movie, and seeing Cary Elwes talk about the book before I actually read the book after Christmas (it was wrapped up under the tree, after all), I can still enjoy the book and the movie over and over again. Whether you read in a foxhole (see When Books Went to War) from a battered and stapled paperback, or read in bed form a tablet, the story – and you! – are different every time.