What "The Princess Bride" Taught Me About Life

Editor on November 19, 2018

Mike Kernish, head of Books at Amazon.com and an energetic reader, was inspired by William Goldman's works since he watched The Princess Bride at a young age. Here he pens a tribute to the impact Goldman had on himself and the generations who have learned so much from Goldman's comic yet complex novel.

When I heard the news on Friday that William Goldman died at age 87, I was moved.

It wasn’t just about losing another legendary talent. Goldman, novelist and Academy Award winning screenwriter, was famous for such movie classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President's Men (1976), Marathon Man (1976), and perhaps his most-loved work, The Princess Bride (1987).

It wasn’t even about losing another icon connected to my childhood. Sadly, there have been many such losses, including comic book legend Stan Lee earlier the same week.

What moved me about William Goldman’s passing was realizing just how much The Princess Bride has meant in my life.

When I saw The Princess Bride for the first time in 1987, I was 11 years old, the same age as the boy played by Fred Savage. My reaction to the story was similar: I loved the sword fighting and adventure, rooted for the good guys, and laughed at the silly humor. Like Savage, I could do without the “kissing parts.” Also like the boy, most of the time I would have rather been playing video games than reading a book. (For those born after 1987, this was after they invented video games.).

My friends and I re-enacted scenes from the movie. “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” We mimicked Wallace Shawn’s “Inconceivable” and chased each other yelling “Humperdinck! Humperdinck!” If you recognize these quotes, chances are you may have done the same. I wanted to be the Man in Black: skilled enough to defeat a master swordsman, strong enough to subdue a giant, and smart enough to outwit an evil genius.

The Princess Bride came back into my life in 2000, the year I met my wife. Dena owned a VHS copy. (This was after they invented DVDs, but we before we owned a DVD player.) Turns out, Dena also was a huge fan of Inigo Montoya. Or, more accurately, actor and musical theater legend Mandy Patinkin. (“Wait, Inigo Montoya is also Jewish?”) The Princess Bride was part of our falling in love – learning that we could like the same thing, initially for different reasons, and then sharing the experience to make it ours.

On the first anniversary of our dating, Dena gave me a handmade scrapbook. (This was after scrapbooks were invented, but before Shutterfly.) In it, she included a quote from The Princess Bride. For the sake of modesty, I won’t specify the quote, other than to say – Sorry, Westley and Buttercup, we left them all behind.

Part of the joy of becoming a parent has been introducing our children to the stories we love. Dena and I have always loved reading to our kids… and (let’s be honest) introducing them to classic '80s movies. We have watched The Princess Bride with them more times than I can remember.

Friday night, after we heard the news of Goldman’s passing, our family sat on the couch and watched the movie together. On Saturday, after an evening with friends at the mall, my 14-year-old son came home with an Inigo Montoya T-shirt. I suppose that means we have now successfully passed the The Princess Bride from generation to generation.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Thanks for the memories, Mike. But this is the Amazon Book Review. Why are you talking about a movie?” Fair point.

Well before The Princess Bride was a movie, it was a book. In 1973, William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love & High Adventure, published by Harcourt Brace. I have loved the book for years, and this year gave my wife a copy of the re-issued, beautifully illustrated hardcover deluxe edition for her birthday.

After watching the movie Friday night, I picked up the book and started reading it again. As I opened the first few pages, I had an eerie realization: Just as I was the same age as the boy when the movie came out, I am now the same age Goldman was when he wrote the book. (You do the math.)

As I re-read the book, I tried to reflect on Goldman’s lessons about life and, as he put it, the human condition. I recommend to all who love the movie that you read the book and draw your own conclusions. But for those in a hurry, here are the “good parts”:

1) The Princess Bride is all about True Love. Yes, we all know about Westley and Buttercup (although based on some of Westley’s behavior, I have my doubts). I believe Goldman meant more.

Where else do we find True Love? For starters, Inigo Montoya’s love for his father is obvious in his quest to honor and avenge him. As a parent, I also now recognize True Love in the way the Grandfather (played by Peter Falk in the movie) lovingly and patiently reads to his sick grandson. In the book, Goldman’s (fictional) father reads The Princess Bride to him.

In this latest reading, I recognized another example – in Fezzik, whom Goldman called his favorite character, played in the movie by Andre the Giant. Fezzik offers the True Love of a friend, something too often taken for granted. When Westley is paralyzed and feeling hopeless after being brought back to life, Fezzik gently points out, “You just shook your head… doesn’t that make you happy?” In tense moments, he lightens the mood with rhymes (“anybody want a peanut?”). More than anyone else, Fezzik holds the group together – literally and figuratively. The extent of Fezzik’s friendship becomes even clearer in Goldman’s sequel: Buttercup’s Baby, the first chapter of which is included in the latest edition of the book (go read it!).

2) Embrace reality and deal with it. This statement doesn’t come from The Princess Bride, but from a best-selling 2017 business book, Principles by Ray Dalio. Another bestseller, Good to Great (2001) by Jim Collins, similarly points out that successful leaders “confront the brutal facts.” Goldman made this point back in 1973.

In The Princess Bride, characters who deny reality pay the price. The genius thief Vizzini ignores the facts (“Inconceivable!”) until it costs him his life. Westley is attacked by a R.O.U.S. (Rodent of Unusual Size) right after saying he doesn’t think they exist. Count Rugen prematurely celebrates victory over Inigo Montoya, allowing Inigo to turn the tide.

Acknowledging reality, even when unpleasant, is key. “We are both men of action,” Westley says when he is captured. “Lies do not become us.” Earlier, Westley tells Buttercup, “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something” (in the book, it is Fezzik’s mother who says this). Perhaps Peter Falk’s Grandfather says it most succinctly: “Who says life is fair?” Think I’m over-interpreting? Read the last paragraph of Goldman’s ending.

3) But never give up hope. Even as we face hard truth, it is important to remember that miracles do happen – but only if we take a chance. When forced to escape through the Fire Swamp, Buttercup says, “We’ll never survive.” Westley replies, “Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.” They make it.

Later, in their desperate search for the Man in Black, Inigo calls upon his father’s sword to guide the way. Okay, it’s cheesy (and different in the book), but it works. And, most famously, Inigo and Fezzik call upon Miracle Max and his wife Valerie, played in the film by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, to bring Westley back to life. (Valerie: “Think it’ll work?” Max: “It would take a miracle.”)

4) Excellence is the result of hard work. “You are wonderful,” Inigo tells the Man in Black as they are sword fighting. “Thank you,” he replies. “I’ve worked hard to become so.” This line, almost a throwaway, always resonated with me. In the movie, both Westley and Inigo explain the lengths they went to become masters of their craft, Westley as the Dread Pirate Roberts and Inigo in his quest to avenge his father.

In the book, Inigo backs up his story with data, “I have spent the last ten years learning,” he tells his original fencing teacher. “Madness,” the teacher responds, “you have spent ten entire years just learning to fence?” Inigo then does the math: “Well,” he says, “ten years is what? About thirty-six hundred days. And that’s about eighty-six thousand hours.” After deducting time for sleep and other activities, Inigo concludes he spent 50,000 hours studying the sword.

Goldman taught us the importance of putting in hard work years before Malcolm Gladwell coined the “10,000 hour rule” in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, or Angela Duckworth explained how “effort counts twice” in her book Grit. Want to teach your kids the importance of hard work? Have them read The Princess Bride.

5) But excellence, power, and success cannot replace True Love. I think this is the ultimate message of the story.

In the movie, Buttercup has a nightmare in which she is publicly booed for agreeing to marry Prince Humperdinck. An old woman speaks out, “You had love in your hands, and you gave it up. True love saved her in the Fire Swamp, and she treated it like garbage.” In the book, Buttercup has two more nightmares in which she is accused of throwing away love.

Personally, I think this criticism of Buttercup is misplaced. The fault lies with Westley. In the story, Westley and Buttercup (Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in the film) are separated for five years after Westley leaves to “seek his fortune,” during which time Westley is presumed killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. In reality, Westley was alive as Roberts’ captive. After three years, Westley explains, he was promoted to become the new Dread Pirate Roberts and took over the ship.

By the time Westley returns five years later, triumphant and confident, Buttercup has reluctantly moved on with her life. Imagine how the story would have been different if Westley had come back once he was free, instead of marauding as the new Dread Pirate Roberts.

Goldman might not have agreed with my take on Westley/Buttercup. But there is one message that was explicit. When Inigo Montoya is fighting Count Rugen and corners him, Inigo says, “Offer me money. Power, too, promise me that. Offer me everything I ask for.” Rugen responds desperately, “Anything you want.”

Inigo’s answer, before he kills Rugen: “I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”

In his introduction to the 30th anniversary of The Princess Bride, Goldman writes, “—and when I wrote those words I realized what I wanted most on earth that I cannot have is my own father back.”

Reading William Goldman’s obituary and biography, I learned that Goldman lost his father when he was in high school. In the first pages of The Princess Bride, Goldman explains, “My whole life really began with my father reading me [this book] when I was ten.” The book truly was a love letter to his father.

This is my letter to William Goldman, of blessed memory, for writing a story that has meant so much in my life – as a child, husband, and parent. To quote Goldman, “Who can know when his world is going to change?” Certainly not the 11-year-old boy who watched The Princess Bride in 1987. That would have been absolutely, totally, and in all other ways… inconceivable.

Mike Kernish is the General Manager/Category Leader for Amazon.com Books. He is the co-author of Alex Montana at ESH Manufacturing Co., a Harvard Business School Case about work, life, family, and identifying your True Love.

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