My kids picked up a summer cold. I’m sure there are gloomier events that can occur in life, but on a gloominess scale between 1 and 10, the summer cold is probably about a 7. Therefore, I popped in The Princess Bride to alleviate the gray mood. What’s better than sword fights and daring rescue narratives at clearing the air?
Being that I’ve already seen the movie dozens of times since it first came out in the 80s, I found it impossible to sit with my kids and lose myself in the story. Instead, I found myself examining it. It’s a popular movie–a cult classic, even–and there’s a reason for that. It’s got everything: action, adventure, high stakes, comedy, loony characters, likeable but not perfect protagonists, and last but not least, true love.
But when I consider why The Princess Bride works, I can’t leave out its framing story in my examination. The external story elements of “everything” take place in the interior story rather than exterior one, which sounds like a paradox at first glance. That’s the way frame stories work, though. They set up a thematic outer structure for the action of the inner story (or stories) to hang on. In other words, the theme informs the story, rather than the other way around.
Frame stories are hardly new in the art of storytelling. They are, in fact, an ancient form of storytelling. From Canterbury Tales to Wuthering Heights to Worlds End (from Gaiman’s The Sandman series), frame stories have come to be accepted as a valid literary form. Some writers, past and present, are so enamored with frame stories that they complicate them by creating a matryoshka-like structure of stories within stories within stories. In Frankenstein, Walton’s letters give frame to Dr. Frankenstein’s stories, which give frame to the creature’s stories, which in turn relate the story of a family the creature lived with.
If you’re confused by now, I don’t blame you. In one short blog post, I’ve set out to create an entire historical framework for this interior story I’m telling you about The Princess Bride (which I also framed with the story of my sick kids).
Rob Reiner, who directed The Princess Bride, had this to say about the frame story*:
The most important thing for me in the script is the story of the little boy who is reluctant to see his grandfather and is brought closer to him by the end of the film as a result of having had this story read to him. I love the story of the princess bride, but had it not had this other element, I don’t think I would have been as interested in it.
But why did the outer story make the other more interesting, and how did it inform the movie theme? There is much I could say about theme, such as the older generation teaching the younger about what true love means; it becomes something less frothy and more real when the grandfather is sitting by the sick child’s bed telling him about love in story form. There truly is something worth fighting for, something outside video games, which we see the boy playing as the film opens.
For a story like The Princess Bride, though, there is something even more fundamental going on. The interior story is fantastic. It’s unbelievable. The characters contend with death and live. They live because they have something to live for. In that sense, the story frame acts as a grounding element to a sentimental story we might otherwise roll our eyes at in disbelief. Through the grandfather’s narration, we’re better able to accept that the characters just happen to find four white horses in the stables for the four protagonists to ride off on. It sounds right in the grandfather’s voice.
And that happens to be the end. The movie is over, as this post should have been 150 words ago. The gloom has definitely lifted, as the kids are now laughing and making up their own stories and characters.
*quote pulled from the Special Edition DVD booklet