MOTW: "The Princess Bride:" Why Is It an Enduring Classic?

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The Princess Bride is a 1987 American romantic comedy adventure film directed and co-produced by Rob Reiner. It is based on the 1973 novel of the same name by William Goldman, an American novelist, playwright and screenwriter. The story is presented in the film as a book being read by a grandfather (Peter Falk) to his sick grandson (Fred Savage), thus effectively preserving the novel's narrative style.
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
November 18th, 2013

MOTW: "The Princess Bride:" Why Is It an Enduring Classic?

Released in 1987, "The Princess Bride" has remained a cult classic for more than twenty-five years. While it pulled in a profitable but modest $30 million at the box office, its subsequent media releases have sold well, and its legacy endures as nostalgic parents share it with their children. The exact reasons for its enduring legacy remain somewhat challenging to uncover, but fans of the film point to a few aspects in particular that explain its sustained popularity.

One of the strongest elements of "The Princess Bride" is its setup. The film doesn't cut straight to the action; instead, viewers are shown a grandchild, played by Fred Savage, interacting with his grandfather, played by Peter Falk. The grandson is reluctant to be read the story, which he believes to be juvenile and boring. With sufficient coaxing, he relents, and the movie features occasional reaction shots showing his growing interest in the story. Director Rob Reiner successfully uses this to pull in reluctant viewers who may have been coaxed by their friends into giving the film a shot.

Reiner's influence on the writing is clear throughout. Filled with sharp one-liners and other memorable bits of dialogue, the film remains one of the most quotable ever released. Its lines stick out to new viewers, who have likely heard them before seeing the film and are often thrilled to find their sources. The lines have also become even more popular thanks to the Internet and live on in the form of memes. The film's quotability makes it easy to remember, and new fans will need to exercise restraint to avoid overusing some of their new favorite lines.

The core of the popularity of "The Princess Bride" is likely due to its strong story, but classifying it is difficult. Some view it as a fairy tale, and many clear fairy-tale elements are evident throughout. Those who support this argument often point to the movie's title as strong evidence. Others, however, claim that the film is primarily an action and adventure flick, and their argument is buttressed by a number of memorable battles and harrowing journeys. By 1987, film genres were strongly segregated, and most filmgoers knew roughly what to expect when viewing a movie. In contrast to common trends of the time and even today, "The Princess Bride" works equally well as two different genres, which makes it a refreshing break from standard Hollywood releases.

The dual-genre nature of the release also explains a curious marketing decision; when it was released for home viewing, buyers could choose between two different covers, one marketed toward boys and the other toward girls. The content was the same on both releases, but marketers hoped to take advantage of the film's appeal to both boys and girls. Many have since claimed that this dual release only served to reinforce gender stereotypes, but it does demonstrate how successfully the film transcended two genres that are each traditionally targeted toward only one gender.

The film also succeeds as an example of effective pastiche. Despite its humorous lines and archetypical characters, the film remains respectful of the genres it is both relying on and subverting. Instead of relying on coy jokes about outdated classic works with one-dimensional heroes and villains, the film instead focusing on building fleshed-out yet still classic characters with timeless appeal. Again, the film's setup helps reinforce the power of the classic tales the movie pays homage to; while the grandson finds the old-fashioned nature of the story to be outdated and, even worse, boring, his growing enthusiasm for the elements he previously derided encourages reluctant viewers to follow in his path.

Shot on a meager budget of $15 million, "The Princess Bride" lacked the whiz-bang special effects that were beginning to dominate the film industry in the late 1980s. Despite this, the summit of the Cliffs of Insanity is both harrowing and riveting, and the battle atop it remains one of the most unforgettable scenes in the film. The Rodents of Unusual Size are both whimsical and intimidating, which helps reinforce the strong fantasy elements of the film. The dialogue stands strong today, and the costuming is just as effective as it was upon release. Even though formerly state-of-the-art special effects have quickly became dated with the advent of CGI, "The Princess Bride" holds up well, and viewers today enjoy the earnest fantasy elements that give the film much of its appeal.

Many films have developed strong cult followings, but few have fanbases as vocal about their favorite film as "The Princess Bride." Those who love the film relish in reliving their favorite scenes over and over, and those who have managed to avoid watching the film despite constant prodding from their friends are in for a treat once they finally relent.