Rob Reiner's 1987 film The Princess Bride enjoyed only moderate box office revenues, but developed popular underground appeal and has become a cult classic. The enduring respect for Reiner's quirky romantic comedy is immediately apparent: it is far from formulaic, and does not truly fit in either to the "rom com" designation or that of a fantasy. The Princess Bride also includes a cast filled with luminaries like Peter Falk, Andre the Giant, and Christopher Guest. Its cast and celebrity director therefore enhances the credibility of The Princess Bride. Ultimately, though, the script and the overall tone of the film make The Princess Bride classically compelling. William Goldman's eponymous novel, upon which the film is based, transforms seamlessly into a film that capitalizes on the clever story-within-a-story concept. Peter Falk reads The Princess Bride to his grandson, who is staying home sick from school. At first, the grandson balks at the idea of a fairy tale read to him by grandpa. Yet as the story unfolds, the boy is as sucked into the tale as viewers are to the film. The Princess Bride accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both earnest and mock fairy tale at the same time. It tells the story of Buttercup and Westley, who are torn apart by circumstance in a Romeo and Juliet-type of forbidden romance. The story overturns the traditional fairy tale because Buttercup does not want to marry the prince, but rather, a commoner. Yet The Princess Bride also ends far more cheerfully than does Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The Princess Bride contains amusing elements of adventure, political intrigue, monsters, and "kissing," as Falk's character tells his dismayed young grandson. Pirates, swordfights, and rodents of unusual size enhance the visual appeal of the film without it becoming overloaded with special effects. In fact, few special effects are used and the film comes across as being humble and low budget. Its fantastical elements are rendered with delightful hyperbole, making them comical but applicable as analogies for real life. By both mocking and celebrating classical romance, The Princess Bride offers a new vision for relationships and gender norms.
The Princess Bride is far from formulaic but still draws from traditional fairy tale romances. For example, the protagonist is a woman so beautiful that a local prince seeks her for his wife. However, she falls in love with a farm boy: invoking the theme of true love vs. A false love based only on social status. The theme is not novel by any means; some classic fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast also portray a female protagonist who falls in love with a man with low social status. In other fairy tales, the female protagonist is the character who is from a lower class than the male. Cinderella, for example, must appeal to the prince based on her earnestness and her physical attractiveness. In The Princess Bride, Buttercup falls in love with a farmboy-turned-pirate. Thus, the appeal of the pirate fantasy also weaves its way into the film. Themes like romance and adventure help to shape and reflect gender norms. Although The Princess Bride upholds traditional gender norms in the sense that the male becomes the pirate and helps to rescue the princess from demise, the film cleverly subverts those norms at the same time because of its tongue-in-cheek tone. Elements like the Rodents of Unusual Size and Humperdink's death machine remind the viewer that The Princess Bride is being ironic; it is a postmodern fairy tale "that challenges and affirms the conventions of a genre," ("The Princess Bride," 1987).
The Princess Bride also mocks the presumed polarity of good and evil by exaggerating their manifestation. In traditional fairy tales, good and evil are absolutes, leaving no room for moral ambiguity. Reiner understands the need to convey the clear-cut binaries of good and evil in an ironic way. Good is so very good; and evil so very evil, that The Princess Bride starts to mock the very premises upon which the story is based. In The Princess Bride, Buttercup (Robin Wright) embodies absolute good. Westley (Cary Elwes), her beau, does too, as do the characters of Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). On the other hand, Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon) and Count Tyrone (Christopher Guest) represent pure evil as they seek to destroy, kill, and thwart true love. The royals are conniving and manipulative, as is Vizzini (Wallace Shawn). Vizzini is only interested in his own personal gain; he is not so much evil as he is simply self-centered. Fezzik and Inigo Montoya only participate in the life of crime because they have no other choice in the highly socially stratified world in which they live. The creation of moral polarities is central to the thematic development of The Princess Bride.
The story-within-a-story format is also crucial to Reiner's production. Ecroyd (1991) points out how The Princess Bride refers to the power of storytelling and bedside reading as a cultural tradition. The grandfather (Peter Falk) emphasizes the fact that his own grandfather had read H.S. Morgenstern's book The Princess Bride to him when he was a boy; and that he had also read it to his son: the boy's father. Storytelling is portrayed as the means by which cultural norms are disseminated from generation to generation. In Reiner's cinema production of The Princess Bride, the prepubescent cringes at the love scenes at first and then comes to appreciate the story as a whole, for what it is. Therefore, the filmmaker shows how storytelling reflects the growth and change of human beings. Film critic Roger Ebert (1987) notes that Falk's voice serves the ultimate purpose of solidifying the cynical tone of the film: it "seems to contain a measure of cynicism about fairy stories, a certain awareness that there are a lot more things on heaven and Earth than have been dreamed of by the Brothers Grimm."
In terms of sets, costumes, and settings, The Princess Bride capitalizes on fantasy, romantic, and medieval symbolism. Fencing is still an art; people still ride on horseback; and magic spells are as real as princes and princesses. Castles, pirates, and monsters complete the picture. Buttercup wears simple flowing robes; Westley wears a patch over one eye. Fezzik is a genuine gentle giant. Reiner then accomplishes something remarkable by switching from the medieval fantasy realm to the modern world with the grandfather and the grandson. Not only does the audience feel the full force of the contrast, the juxtaposition also reminds the audience of layers of reality. Fairy tales are fantasy; they are inaccurate reflections of reality and should not take the place of realistic relationships.
Cinematography, mis-en-scene, and photography in The Princess Bride achieves the director's core goals in the production. In the storyboard, the filmmakers compose shots such as the trumpeters with purposeful construction. The trumpeters are aligned on diagonal, drawing the eye over the screen in a naturalistic fashion. Similar visual symmetry makes it way throughout The Princess Bride. Shots and mis-en-scene occasionally remind the viewer that it is a story-within-a-story: as when the director cuts to and from the scene with the electric eels and the grandfather telling about this scene to his grandson. The director cuts three different times, solidifying the notion that The Princess Bride is a story-within-a-story.
Using frivolous humor, some slapstick, and ample satire, the filmmakers mock and mirror traditional fairy tale romance. Henry & Rossen-Knill (1998) state, "screenwriter William Goldman and director Rob Reiner use parody to simultaneously reject and reaffirm the values of fairy tale True Love," (p. 43). The primary comedic foils in the film are Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Inugo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (Andre the Giant), all of whom add ample comic relief to what would otherwise be a sappy love story. Adding comic relief does not in itself suggest a mockery of traditional fairy tales. After all, Disney frequently inserts comic relief characters into its formulaic films. The Princess Bride, however, uses more sophisticated types of comic relief that permeate the film; making the comedy not so much a relief as an integral part of the storytelling method. Satire, irony, and sarcasm are all integral to The Princess Bride, which has a postmodern feel that transcends trite stereotypes. More sophisticated forms of humor like parody serve to subvert traditional fairy tale structures. The humor still allows the emotionally uplifting and warm familiarity of fairy tales to flourish. Vizzini and Fezzik are like fairy tale caricatures, as are Buttercup and Westley. The Princess Bride is a cult classic because it tugs the heartstrings of viewers, without drowning the viewer in sap.
Mocking fairy tales serves a distinct social and political function. After all, fairy tales are used to perpetuate patriarchal gender norms and social roles. These roles subjugate women to roles of domestic servitude. The Princess Bride milks the traditional fairy tale formula of love and romance, but it simultaneously mocks the very grounds upon which it is built. This complex character makes sense,…