The Princess Bride might just be the first thing approaching a romantic movie that I ever really enjoyed. It came out just after my 17th birthday, and in those latter days of high school and early days of college, “As you wish” was kind of dorkspeak for “I like you, but I have no idea how to ask you out, so I’m just going to quote this movie in the hopes that you know what I’m talking about and maybe quote something equally geeky back at me before this any more awkward than it already is.” Well, it was for me, anyway.
This is a movie whose simple charms are easy to fall for. It’s about a kid who is sick in bed, and his grandpa comes over to read him a story, whether the kid likes it or not. The story is a postmodern homage to classic fairy tales, and involves a handsome farmhand named Westley and a beautiful farmgirl named Buttercup who fall in love, but their life together is ruined when Westley must go on a long journey and disappears. Years later, Buttercup is taken by the evil prince Humperdink to be his bride. And as she tries to avoid having to marry him, she kicks off a grand adventure that involves brute squads, swordfights, dread pirates, magicians, shrieking eels, bad guys with more fingers than they need, and rodents of unusual size as we wonder if love, true love, will save the day.
This was one of the first movies of the home video era that wasn’t a big hit at the box office, but became such a cult classic in people’s private collections that even today, if you quote lines like “I do not think it means what you think it means,” “Inconceivable!” or “I’ll most likely kill you in the morning,” you’re likely to find somebody who knows exactly what you’re quoting. Even now, it endures as a relevant riff on classic fairy tales—despite its demonstrably low production values and often ham-fisted delivery—because there is an underlying earnestness and sweetness to this thing that makes its deconstructions of romantic and fantasy tropes endearing rather than snarky.
Most of the Princess Bride’s humor and high points land with a kind of nod to the audience; we all know how cheesy these conventions of old-time stories can be, and yet, we still yearn for them to work, and somehow, the movie gets us to play along. So when we see, for example, a swordfight scene inspired by Errol Flynn movies, we know it’s not as good as the real thing, but we appreciate the fact that somebody bothered to write such a cinematic love letter to it. When we see Westley and Buttercup gush over each other, we smile at it more than we wrinkle our nose. And when the bad guys snarl and plot and bedevil our heroes, it really matters to us that they get their just desserts, even though we know that in a movie like this, how could they possibly avoid justice? In the end, we really do want all of those simple payoffs that fairy tales are designed to provide—even if we have already told ourselves at some previous point that we are too old, too grown-up, or simply too cool for such things any longer.
That is what makes this movie work so well. We see it best in its varying interludes, which cut back to the kid and the grandpa, and we see the kid getting pulled deeper and deeper into this story, despite his every effort to resist it. By the end of the movie, we get a terrific moment of truth, when the story is finally over, the grandpa gets up to leave, and his grandson asks if he might come back the following day and read it to him again. The grandpa’s answer is one of my favorite lines in any movie, anywhere, because it’s not so much to his grandson. It’s to the audience. Deep down, we are all like that sick kid in bed. No matter how cynical or jaded we might become, no matter how much we think we know better than the storytellers trying to reach us, we all live to hear a great storybook story. And maybe, if we’re lucky, get to read one aloud ourselves to somebody who will love it just as much as we ever did.