Life must be lived forward, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, but it is only understood backwards. Which is to say, sure it all makes sense from the comfy confines of old age, but it’s bloody chaos when you’re plowing through it – and that’s what makes everything so damn difficult. Curiously, that’s one of the uses, however, of art. At its best, or at least at its most useful, art can serve as a sort of decoder, as a guide; not so much to help you navigate the moments you’re going through as you’re going through them; but rather, to help you understand what you are seeing by showing someone else’s trials and tribulations – even if they are fictional – as they moved forward through their life.
Which, I realize, would be a peculiar way to begin a review of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride under any circumstances, but within the context of an advertising site it must seem the height of peculiarity. But The Princess Bride is a peculiar book, more peculiar, frankly, than the movie. And more peculiar now, in the editions that are floating around us today, than it was when Goldman first finished writing it in 1973.
For at its core, The Princess Bride is more a quantum than a book. A quantum, you will recall, is that ultimate element of light, that thing that sometimes is a wave and sometimes is a particle. And so it is with The Princess Bride. Sometimes it is one thing, and sometimes it is another, sometimes it’s both at the same time, sometimes it’s neither.
The work drifts back and forth in time and space, fact and fiction, now and then, like the elementary particle itself. Here it is, the tale of adventure that we know from the movie with Cary Elwes and Robin Wright. But here it is also, the memoir of William Goldman’s childhood in the Chicago suburbs as he discusses his father the barber (not true) and the inspiration of the local writer Edith Neisser (in fact true – you can see her books here). Here it is, telling the tale of writing and researching the very book you are reading. But then, here it is again, talking about writing the screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men”, telling tales that may be fact or may be as fictional as the exploits of Fezzik and the Dread Pirate Roberts himself. Tales which, of course, Goldman is going to extraordinary lengths to tell us, are actual events and not fiction at all. Or rather, are based on an actual book about them, which, in turn, may or may not be entirely true itself – and about which Goldman himself has doubts. Or, as he writes on page 320 “Life imitating art, art imitating life; I really get those two confused.” Yeah, no kidding.
All existing amongst the pentimento of a movie most of us are much more familiar with and the memories of which we bring to any reading of the book. For who does not open The Princess Bride without knowing that in time Inigo will indeed confront the six fingered man with his famous taunt? No one! Who does not understand the legal nuances of Buttercup’s marriage to Humperdink even as it happens. No one! We can see Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes fencing on the rocks above the Cliffs of Insanity. We can hear Wallace Shawn saying every one of Vizzini’s words – even the ones he doesn’t actually say in the movie but that appear only here in the book (“’I don’t like killing a girl’ the Spaniard said. ‘God does it all the time; if it doesn’t bother Him, don’t let it worry you.’” – tell me you can’t imagine him saying that, even though what he says in the movie is this).
And indeed, it is those moments that are not in the movie that give it yet another dimension, a behind-the-scenes aspect, one of being simultaneously familiar and not.
All of which make The Princess Bride something that anyone with even a passing interest in literature or 20th century American culture, should read.
But, what does any of this have to do with advertising? Well, a couple of things. First, of course, is that anything that is as much a part of 20th century American culture as The Princess Bride is, should be on the syllabus for anyone who wants to use the things of culture as the vocabulary for his or her own communication. And as the basis for a movie that the AFI considers one of the greatest love stories of all time, with quotable lines that routinely appear in other forms of popular culture, clearly it has earned this status.
But perhaps more importantly, read it because we, as people who craft communications in the real world, must keep ourselves attuned to the reality of that world, if we have any hopes of making ourselves understood in it. And just because the reality does not always align with our pre-conceived notions – that things must be either one thing or another, that the writer cannot be a character in his own work, that a novel must always be clearly fictional, that art must be always linear and forward-moving, that a children’s book must always be simple and therefore too pedestrian to bear the weight of existential philosophy – should not impede our progress in this direction.
We must constantly be on the lookout, not just for new ways to communicate, but for more authentic ways. And here, in this simple book, Goldman is doing just that. Looking to craft something authentic, but not in the way any of us usually expect. Is that fair for a simple children’s book?
No, but then, as Goldman himself writes, in the lines that ended the original 1973 edition of the book “Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”
The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on 10/08/07 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).