William Goldman Found Heart and Humor in a Fairy Tale

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Novelist, screenwriter, and memoirist William Goldman has died at the age of 87 after a brief illness and a long and truly extraordinary career as a writer.

Much of the mainstream coverage of his passing has focused, rightly so, on his Academy Award-winning screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, just two of the many critically acclaimed films he worked on as either a screenwriter or script doctor. It’s astonishing body of work: Marathon Man (adapted from his own novel), A Bridge Too Far, Magic (another self-adaptation), The Stepford Wives—even lesser-known films like the 1966 hard-boiled crime homage Harper won him awards. So many of these films are immortal, and any one of them would’ve defined a lesser writer’s career. His run of hits made him the rarest of rarities: a celebrity screenwriter in an industry in which writers tend to be at the bottom of the pecking order. There were flops in there too (Dreamcatcher; ouch), but they’re dwarfed by his successes.

But for many of us—those of us who love fantasy, love it enough to be readers of this blog—one particular work that stands above the rest.

The Princess Bride began with bedtime stories Goldman told to his young daughters (famously, when asked, one child requested a story about a princess, the other, a bride). That might go a long way to explaining the silly-but-sweet tone of the ensuing novel, published in 1973.

Presented as an abridgment (“the good parts”) of an earlier work by the fictional S. Morgenstern (a billing that confused the heck out of a young me, who immediately set about to finding the nonexistent unredacted version), it is the story of Buttercup,the most beautiful girl in the world (eventually), her rise to princess-dom, and her bantering romance with long-suffering farm hand Westley. It all takes place a lightly magical Renaissance world of pirates, princes, and Rodents of Unusual Size.

Goldman’s genius is in the blend of puckish humor, sarcasm, and occasional scenes of straight up parody, both of fairy tales and picaresque literature. Though it is shot through with irony, it is never once cynical; this is satire shot through with genuine sweetness. Even as we’re laughing at the ridiculous situations in which the many colorful characters find themselves, we’re cheering along the central romance. Goldman celebrate the same virtues he could just as easily mock; the humor lures you in to a story about true love in an era (one we’ve never quite left) where stories that try to balance the fantastical with scenes of genuine emotion are often seen as passé.

He was clearly having a ton of fun with it, though—and not just in the writing. I’m sure Goldman would have loved the idea of kid-me hunting around for a full-length version of the “original” text (readers were even invited to send in a letter in exchange for a deleted scene that was never delivered—the prize, instead, was an explanation of legal interference from the Morgenstern estate. A more recent edition even directed readers to a website where they could read a snippet of the much-rumored reunion scene. Naturally, the site included only the text of the fictional legal notices.

Goldman did occasionally promise to pen a sequel, perhaps even sincerely (it’s truly hard to tell), but the story we do have is so wonderful, asking for more seems greedy. As a consolation, there is a lesser-known follow-up in a similar vein: The Silent Gondoliers, also a work by “S. Morgenstern,” a silly novella about the once-singing gondoliers of Venice.

The Princess Bride, as a novel, took on a following, and remains a beloved classic. But, of course, the film version became something even bigger. In his 1983 memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman described feeling like a novelist first and a screenwriter second (he completed 16 novels), but in penning the screenplay for the 1986 Rob Reiner adaptation of his novel, he performed a different but no less enduring work of magic: he helped ensure that the movie is completely faithful to the book, and also it’s own thing, and that one of them is not better than the other. There will always be arguments about book vs. film, but this is a rare case where we might have to call it a tie. Is it the best book-to-film adaptation ever? Maybe. Misery is pretty good too. Guess who wrote the screenplay.

“Cynics,” Goldman famously wrote “Are simply thwarted romantics.” With that, one of our eras greatest writers summed up his own influence. We’re all of us cynics in 2018. It’s the default mode. But the continuing influence of Goldman’s work, especially The Princess Bride, reminds us to occasionally wake up and dust off the romantic hiding inside us all, and be alert for the moment when “As you wish” becomes “I love you.” He wrote that life isn’t fair, which is true, and that at least it is fairer than death, which is truer. But he also wrote that true love is the best thing in the world (except for cough drops), and that’s a truth universal. They’re both good lessons, wrapped in great stories.

William Goldman, 1931-2018

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