The Princess Bride as a radio drama? Inconceivable!
Tristram Fane Saunders
Ah, yes, The Princess Bride (Radio 4, Christmas Day). We know what to expect. Good old-fashioned family-friendly romance and adventure, with a bit of humour and swashbuckling action. Just the kind of straightforward fare that goes down nicely after a glass of port. Or is it?
Buckles are certainly swashed in BBC Scotland’s terrific new adaptation. (Who’d have thought sword fights would work on the wireless?) It’s also genuinely funny, thanks to a cast who wisely underplay the wittiest lines. Lorn Macdonald, as the farmboy turned adventurer Westley, is a delight. But there’s more to it than that.
Listening to it, I soon realised I had somehow convinced myself I knew William Goldman’s book, when in fact all I had was a dim childhood memory of a retelling that simplified the original (the 1987 film). This is, rather neatly, the plot of the book itself, which turns out to be a wily piece of Nabokovian meta-fiction, complete with digs at Seventies Hollywood and the state of the publishing industry.
“The Princess Bride is my favourite book in all the world, even though I never read it,” begins screenwriter Goldman (Grant O’Rourke). He has fond memories of “The Princess Bride by S Morgenstern”, an obscure novel translated from “Florinese”, which his father once read to him. So he buys a copy for his own son, who finds it dull.
It transpires that Goldman’s father didn’t read him the whole thing, only “the good parts”. The book was actually “a satiric history of [Morgenstern’s] country and the decline of the monarchy in Western civilisation”, with lengthy digressions on European politics. So, Goldman abandons his film work and sets about abridging it for his son into “The Good Parts Adaptation” (“I expect every Florinese scholar alive will slaughter me”).
The movie ditched this framing device, but the radio version embraces it, and all manner of fourth-wall breaking. At one point, Goldman interrupts the producers to demand sound effects, then complains that they’re too loud. One chapter consists entirely of an apology for the fact that nothing happens in that chapter; another is censored by Morgenstern’s estate (“they are quite litigious”).
The drama’s two one-hour episodes are billed as “The Best Bits of the Good Parts Version”. They stand alone, but Goldman’s narration repeatedly nudges the listener towards the Bitesize Backstories, a series of 15-minute audio footnotes to the main tale, stripped throughout this week on Radio 4. It’s gimmicky, but perfectly fitted to the meta-fictional fun.
The first of these backstories begins with Goldman in a Beverly Hills swimming pool, disillusioned with his lot. O’Rourke’s wonderfully wry narration walks a tightrope between irony and sincerity. There’s a vulnerable quaver in his voice; Goldman knows The Princess Bride is a load of old hokum, but at the same time it’s something that matters deeply to him, the story that introduced him to the pleasure of stories, the one that set him on the path to becoming a writer. It’s a way of connecting with his son, and with his own lost innocence. “True love and high adventure,” he sighs. “I believed in that once.”
Radio choice, by Gabriel Tate
The Princess Bride
Radio 4, 3.15pm
One of the 1980s’ most beloved family adventures, based on William Goldman’s splendid novel, The Princess Bride is adeptly filleted by Stephen Keyworth for this irrepressibly enjoyable two-parter, with Goldman’s wry meta-commentaries retooled for an audio version, some extra backstory for some familiar characters, and the swashbuckling sequences handled surely. For the uninitiated, it’s a love story between Princess Buttercup (Ruby Barker) and farm boy Westley (Lorn Macdonald), chucking in pirates, bandits, giants and derring-do galore. To miss it would be, well, inconceivable. Five of Goldman’s entertaining digressions begin at 12.04pm on Monday.