Why “The Princess Bride” should not work as a movie: Part 1

October 2nd, 2012 by

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the premiere of The Princess Bride [released on September 25, 1987]. In a nice bit of synchronicity, last month in an online “Hero’s Journey” class I’m teaching with 15 really sharp middle-schoolers, we read William Goldman’s novel “The Princess Bride,” comparing it to the movie’s script. While I was at it, I watched the movie again. And after all that, I came to this inescapable conclusion:

The Princess Bride should not work as a movie… that is if you subscribe to the so-called “rules” of screenwriting.

For the next few days, I’d like to spotlight some narrative elements which should certainly mean that The Princess Bride fails as a movie.

Today: Too much of the action takes place off-screen.

Here is a list of events we don’t see on-screen in The Princess Bride, information only related through exposition:

* Westley taking off for America.

* Westley’s experiences with the Dread Pirate Roberts.

* Montoya’s father killed by the six-fingered man.

* Vizzini, Montoya and Fezzik kidnap Buttercup in order to start a war between Florin [Prince Humperdinck's country] and Guilder… a country we never see!

* Count Rugen’s fascination with studying pain and creating The Machine.

* Fezzik and an inebriated Montoya end up in the Thieves’ Forest.

* Miracle Max fired by Prince Humperdinck.

* Max gives Fezzik a holocaust cloak.

All of these happen off-screen, only communicated through exposition. This goes entirely against the age-old screenwriting adage: “Show it, don’t say it.” And yet The Princess Bride is one of the IMDB’s Top 250 movies in part because of wondrous bits of whimsy like this:

The simple fact is The Princess Bride works. Indeed it is an utterly delightful movie. And yet there are several reasons why it should not work.

What does that tell us about so-called screenwriting “rules”?

Tomorrow another reason why The Princess Bride should not work as a movie.

21 thoughts on “Why “The Princess Bride” should not work as a movie: Part 1

  1. Paul Quade says:

    “What does that tell us about so-called screenwriting “rules”?”

    That Goldman was right when he said, “Nobody knows anything.”

  2. Annika Wood says:

    But this is in complete keeping with the central conceit of this story — that it’s a fairy tale being read to someone. The frame of a story being read to the child even allows the reader (the grandpa) to skip over parts, repeat himself, and sum things up in a yadda yadda yadda kind of way. It’s a story that doesn’t try to hide or disguise the fact that it’s a story, not real life, which, in the film, takes place entirely in a child’s bedroom, and that takes The Princess Bride to the next level — a story in a story that’s making a comment about story telling and the whole institution of fairy tales (where a lot of things happen off stage or are glossed over — from Cinderella’s mother’s death and father’s remarriage to why Rumplestiltskin wants a kid so much in the first place and what the heck he’s going to do with it.)

  3. Daniel Hogan says:

    Actually, I think what you just said is EXACTLY why the Princess Bride works as a movie. If you think back to Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, it is the “off-screen” story that really propels the story forward and adds substance to the world and the characters. Attached is, in better words than I could put, a piece by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot, from the awesome hidden treasure of Wordplayer.com, the reason why it’s so important to have an off-screen story:

    “It’s worth repeating: the way to make a boring movie is to show everything.”

    http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp40.Off-Screen.Movie.html

  4. Adem H. says:

    I recently watched Unforgiven. It opens and ends with, not narration, but a story scroll, the main character is introduced very late, and major plot points (the capture and final moments of a main character) happen off-screen.

    I won’t say anything about Looper, other than I really enjoyed it, and that you could almost do a series on it too.

    It was liberating. Do whatever is best to get the story out there. There is no dishonor in using a RPG on Story Safari.

  5. camdeaver says:

    Point 1: What Annika said.
    Point 2: What Daniel said.

  6. Scott says:

    Okay, let’s posit this. I write a script where a central character, one who is referenced several times and in fact whose role plays a critical part in the plot during Act Three, NEVER appears.

    That is precisely what happens in TPB: Dread Pirate Roberts is a phantasm as far as actual screen time is concerned.

    Now I happen to love that and agree with Annika that it is very much in the spirit of what Goldman did with the book, write something akin to the old Fractured Fairy Tales from the Rocky & Bulwinkle Show. A sort of meta fairy tale, I guess you could say.

    But if TPB came along today and was forced to go through the current story development process that exists at major studios, I feel pretty confident a BIG NOTE at that first meeting would be, “Where is the Dread Pirate Robert? Either include him in the story or cut him because right now, the script has got a dozen references to him and uses the legend of DPR to break into the castle, but there is no DPR.”

    If it was your script, you would likely respond, “But that’s the whole point.”

    And they would likely respond, “I don’t get it.”

    Again I love TPB. The reason I thought of this series is to highlight narrow-minded thinking about what we can [or more often can not] do in a screenplay due to some supposed screenwriting ‘rules’.

    I have two more ‘critiques’ of TPB to follow tomorrow and Thursday. Hopefully what people will take away is this: Wherever your story NEEDS to go, follow it.

  7. Daniel Hogan says:

    But isn’t the Dead Pirate Roberts akin to Luke Skywalker’s father in Star Wars? Obi Wan tells Luke that he fought with Luke’s father, Anakin, in the Clone Wars. This mysterious father figure of Luke comes up again and again in his trials and tribulations, in his learning and accepting of how to be a Jedi, yet where as TPB waits till the end to make the Dead Pirate Roberts reveal, it’s not until the end of the SEQUEL that we find out that Darth Vader and Anakin are one in the same…you can have a character referenced the whole film if it’s used as a story device for a plot twist, revealing that character was actually one of our main characters the whole time…i’m sure there are other examples of this.

      1. Scott says:

        We SEE Keyser Söze!!! When the story gets recounted of how he kills his own family, we SEE him!!!

        1. We don’t see his face. It’s the idea of Keyser Söze that is communicated. It’s Verbal Kint building the myth of this mysterious figure.

          Harry Lime is another character that is not present and only talked about for the first half of the movie.

    1. Scott says:

      Daniel, that’s a fair point. But once this info about Luke’s father gets revealed, it really doesn’t come into play much, if at all, in SW:IV again. Dread Pirate Roberts comes back again and again and again in TPB.

  8. Annika Wood says:

    I totally agree that’s the kind of note you might get, but I would point out to said development execs that you DO see the Dread Pirate Roberts. All over the first half of the second act. Wesley IS the DPR. He’s been promoted into that position, which was given to him by an older DPR who, if I remember right, wasn’t even the original DPR. It’s the point of the whole DPR — that it’s a job that gets passed down from one to the next. Showing one of the older DPRs would just be a let down and isn’t instrumental in the plot. To show one of the older DPRs would take the focus off of Wesley as the DPR and make the story less about him and Buttercup and potentially introduce some new thematic elements. (Father/son vibes? The idea of saying no to a job? People who can’t let go of superiority roles? Now I’m starting to get an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade kinda feeling here. So, do you WANT to incorporate that into the Princess Bride… or steer clear?)

    Anyhow, that’s what I’d lay out for the development execs. Does it stand up as an argument — I sure hope so ’cause it’s dang true from a writer/story POV, but if it’s not something that makes sense to development folks, well… damn. We could be in a bigger mess than we might even know.

    1. Scott says:

      Yes, Westley takes over for the DPR who captured him. And that figure is not the first DPR. The book goes into a whole back history on this. Indeed one could argue that had not Westley been kidnapped, spent 5 years learning the ins and outs of being a pirate, he would not have been prepared to rescue Buttercup, that the kidnapping was part of his STORY DESTINY.

      But that makes it even MORE of an issue, I would think, for those who subscribe to supposed screenwriting ‘rules.’

      Okay, let’s take this discussion out of the studio office and move it into a writers group. And let’s say a majority of those writers were schooled in the ways of screenwriting gurus… take your pick who.

      They read this new script you’ve written called The Princess Bride. In it, you have Westley, Montoya and Fezzik breaking into the castle acting like Dread Pirate Roberts. You can’t tell me that many of those writers would tell you point blank, you can’t do that. “How can you have a story pivot at such an important point based on a character we have never seen?”

      You parry: “But Westley is actually Dread Pirate Roberts, he learned how to be a pirate for five years.”

      Them: “That all happens off screen. Dude, it’s one of the fundamental rules of screenwriting: Show it, don’t say it.”

      Again I’m not saying that position is RIGHT, in fact I’m saying from a creative standpoint it’s WRONG as the movie proves. But that still doesn’t mean the conventional wisdom of storytelling would end up squashing that narrative element, if not the entire project itself — all because of some ‘rules.’

  9. Annika Wood says:

    You know, I’ve heard it maybe four hundred times before — “Show it, don’t tell it” but there’s an issue about that piece of advice has never been so clear as at this moment.

    You’re writing a screenplay. You’re going to be showing something. It’s a necessity. It’s not simply showing, but WHAT you choose to show that matters. More than likely, you’re going to have backstory and things that happen off screen. What you choose to show is where you’re putting the weight of the story. In this case, the story isn’t about how Wesley became a pirate, but about how he reappeared years after disappearing, just in time to save Buttercup’s life — which may, if you read into that, may mean he was kinda sorta keeping tabs on her all along and headed back to Florin when he heard she was about to get hitched to Humperdink. You’re doing at least two things by not showing that 1. putting the focus on Wesley’s rescue of Buttercup, not his transition into pirate hood and 2. you’re creating this great sense of mystery that’s carried through the whole film. If you take it a little further and suppose its no accident Wesley shows up at this point in time, you can add a third thing — meaning. He’s been keeping tabs on her, never forgetting his old life and knowing he was going to return one day… only maybe he’s missed his shot.

    I know some folks in writers groups would stick by their guns, but it’s hard to get anything of value from people who slavish follow rules, except on the most obvious level. For anything deeper or more profound, you’re going to have to look at a script as an individual entity, see what it’s trying to be and how best to make that happen, not cram a triangular peg into a round hole.

    1. Scott says:

      Annika, I hope you understand, you and I are having an agreement. Your last paragraph here? I could have written that, only not as well!

      1. DJ Holloway says:

        Yes, details about this particular instance in The Princess Bride aside, the overall point being made I agree with completely.

        The Godfather, Fight Club, and The Shawshank Redemption are all movies that break many traditionally accepted screenwriting “rules.” I *think* they’re pretty effective movies. ;)

        …Interestingly, all these, including Princess Bride, are adapted from novels.

  10. DJ Holloway says:

    I agree there are plenty of “rules” that might be broken in the Princess Bride, but I don’t know if this is one of them. We DO see the DPR, both in literal action as he chases after Buttercup, and in the continual references to his legend, which is so pervasive that everyone knows the reputation of the man before he has to do anything. That’s showing, too, no? That’s part of why their trick on the castle works – we have to believe that people know DPR exists, and is scary, but not know the full details of who he is. He has to be a mystery for their ruse to work.

    With the reveal of Westley being DPR, it’s not unearned – we’ve seen how amazing DPR is a fighting, how interesting and charming he is, he’s clearly living up to the reputation people seem to have of him. (Except, perhaps, that he also seems to be good – not killing his adversaries.) When he is unmasked as Westley, something has to be explained, because the timeline doesn’t make sense, but clearly Westley IS the DPR, not just pretending to be him – we’ve already seen him in action.

    Also – I agree that at that point in the story, you could write Westley’s tale as a flashback instead of their conversation through the Fire Swamp. That, in itself, would push another “rule” anyway, so either way at that point you’re doing something less-than-perfect: exposition or flashback. But both are better, I’d argue, than losing the build up of DPR’s mystery through that whole first act and a half by showing DPR and Westley’s story in chronological order.

    I also would argue that the story is not really critically about Westley’s transformation to the DPR. If it was about him becoming the pirate, then of course, you would need to show those scenes. But the story is about Westley and Buttercup, and “death could not stop true love.” They definitely have to show that, ha ha. And the kissing. :)

  11. Annika Wood says:

    Oh, yeah — I totally got that we’re agreeing. Having been in a couple of writers’ groups and paid for coverage a few times, I’ve heard this kind of stuff so many times before, and it’s really just now becoming clear that there’s a way to respond to bad advice.

    You have to stand by your story — maybe not exactly the way it’s written, but what you intend. The advice you want is that which helps you put what you intended onto the page, not what other people want to see. It’s taken me a long, long time to get that, but after four years of screenwriting, I’m only just now starting to get exactly what I intend onto the page. When you do that, it makes it easier for you to stick by your choices. You know what you’re trying to say. If it’s not working, you fall back to “This is what I’m trying to do. Is that what you see?” as opposed to running after every spitball idea all willy-nilly. I’ve seen a number of other people’s scripts really messed up in writers’ groups and often the people who gave the “here’s a great idea” kind of advice one week wouldn’t remember that they were the ones who’d given it and would have something entirely different to say the following week. One guy was writing something animated that I thought had a lot of commercial potential, but, after a 10 week class, I doubt he’ll ever watch another animated movie again, let alone write one.

  12. DannFreeman says:

    Except for the equally important rule of “arrive late and leave early”. The film doesn’t lack action, nor does it drag on in exposition. The things that happen off screen don’t NEED to happen on screen. If they did, the movie WOULDN’T work. We get the basic ideas, and it’s common (almost required) for a hero such as Wesley and Montoya to have a ghost or horrific back story that fuels them.

  13. [...] que yo explica el tema de “mejor mostrar que contar” Scott Myers en su entrada de blog sobre por qué La Princesa Prometida no debería funcionar como película. Resumiendo: lo que es [...]

  14. […] Why “The Princess Bride” should not work as a movie: Part 1 […]

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