Though I saw The Princess Bride for the first time when I was a kid, I only recently got around to reading the book. The film is one of the rare movies from my childhood that stands up to repeated viewings on the basis of more than just nostalgia; I was curious how the experience of reading the book would compare.
The Princess Bride is a magical, wonderfully quirky novel, and the movie adaptation stays very true to the text in terms of plot, character, and tone. The differences between the two are subtle, but each version has its own unique strengths.
What the book does better:
1) Character backstories. In the movie, all we truly know about Fezzik, Inigo, and Vizzini is that they’re a band of roving miscreants; nothing is explained about how they come together, and though we know Inigo’s father was slain by the six-fingered man, we know very little about why or when.
The book fills in all those details for you. You get to see Inigo’s life, starting in his childhood, get a filled out origin story for Fezzik, and know more about how this rag-tag trio came together. The book also gives more space to Fezzik and Inigo after Vizzini’s death. Each of them is used at times as a viewpoint character, allowing insight into their thoughts and emotions that makes them more fully realized. This same expansion happens with other major players: Count Rugen and Miracle Max don’t receive their full due in the movie, but are fabulous and detailed characters in the book.
2) The world is richer. One of the most heartbreaking cuts for the movie is the elimination of the Zoo of Death. It’s an absence you never notice until you read the book; I understand why it was cut, because the story still makes sense without it and the novel had to be condensed into a couple hours of film. Still, it would have been cool to see all of Prince Humperdinck’s dangerous critters portrayed on the screen, and its inclusion in the book helps to shape Humperdinck’s character, showing his pride in his hunting prowess in a way the movie can’t convey.
The book has a generally richer world beyond the Zoo of Death, as well. It gives the details of the political interplay between Guilder and Florin, providing more context for Princess Buttercup’s abduction. These world details push The Princess Bride a few notches closer to a true fantasy tale and out of the kid’s book fairy tale type territory.
What the movie does better:
1) The frame device. There’s a whole long (fictional) explanation in the beginning of the novel about William Goldman’s connection to The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern: how the book is actually this long treatise on Florinese history, and the story Goldman loved as a child was really a condensed version his dad had created by reading him “just the good parts.” This frame is continued throughout with parenthetical asides where Goldman comments on or elides Morgenstern’s “original manuscript” which are clever but ultimately overplayed (IMHO).
The simpler frame device used in the movie (a grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson) captures the quirky spirit from the book without taking it to unnecessary levels. The interjections are well-timed, pulling you from the story in a story at just the right moments, uncluttered by unnecessary details.
2) The humor. The delivery of the dialogue gives the humorous moments an extra pop, whether it’s Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Miracle Max or Vizzini’s speech when he’s figuring out which goblet Westley poisoned. The physical humor is another thing that doesn’t come across as clearly on the page as on the screen. The success of this element in the film is largely thanks to the movie’s impeccable casting. You’ll find no truer Vizzini than Wallace Shawn, and I can imagine no one else except Andre the Giant as Fezzik—and both of their attitudes and delivery are key in building the mood.
Watch or read first:
Watch. The aspects of the plot that are cut from the book version to fit the movie’s time constraints aren’t especially major points, and missing them won’t hinder your enjoyment in the least. The casting for the film was so incredibly spot on that having those actors in your mind while you’re reading is in no way distracting or contradictory. In a very meta way, the streamlined version of the story for the movie is analogous to the way fictionalized William Goldman cuts the “original” Morgenstern book down to its essential parts, keeping the excitement and slicing out the lengthy details. If you like the movie, going back and reading the book gives you enough extra stuff to enjoy that it won’t feel repetitive, and nothing happens that’s so surprising it can be spoiled by knowing the outcome when you go in.