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An Exploration of Elementary & The Princess Bride: The good bits

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I spend a lot of time consuming stories. Books, articles, movies, TV shows etc. I like to live inside a story or a set of stories and absorb it into how I think and what I do. I tend to consume stories in sets that follow an unconscious theme, and then find and dissect parallels between the stories. For example, the week before last I was watching the TV series Elementary and reading The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

Elementary is another modern take on the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s my favourite as I think it is the most well-executed in terms of character, plot and over-arching themes. (Fans of the other recent series adaptation Sherlock may crucify me, but I mean no disrespect to Bennyhumble Cucumberbum; I simply prefer this version). In Elementary Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson, an ex-surgeon who meets Sherlock and learns his investigative methods while working as his sober companion in New York city following his stint in rehab. When I started watching it I thought I’d resent the Americanisation of a classic English story, but it is executed wonderfully: Sherlock is English but has emigrated to New York to overcome his drug addiction following the death of a loved one. There are numerous moments when the British-American tension is acknowledged, not least of all that Mycroft Holmes refers to America as ‘the Colonies’, but my favourite had to be when Sherlock gives a measurement to an American detective in centimeters, then says ‘Or, in the interest of odious American exceptional-ism, 3.85 inches’, which, as an American-TV-watching-Australian, is hilarious.

The Princess Bride is a well-known movie in which a grandfather reads the story of The Princess Bride to his sick grandson who is captivated by the action, drama, true love and revenge that define this classic. The book is… well I don’t want to start anything here but the movie is better. I’m glad I read it, but the movie definitely outshines it in terms of enjoyment and memorability. The only thing the book has over the movie is that it tells the back story of Inigo and of Fezzik. The movie only mentions Inigo’s back story to explain his motivation for killing the Count, but Fezzik’s life before the kidnapping is never mentioned; the book fleshes out both of their stories and I am grateful to know more about them.

The parallel I drew between Elementary and The Princess Bride (the book) is that both stories are framed and reframed, told and retold across decades and mediums and this has somehow enhanced the story of the story, layering them over themselves so that knowing the events and characters of the original iteration is not enough; one can consume more than one version and understand the context in which the entire story came to be. For example:

Elementary is one of many adaptations based on The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, a book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1800s. The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes captured imaginations and has since been made into many different versions:

  • The 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock and Jude Law as Watson, and the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, released in 2011 and starring the same
  • The TV series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson started in 2010 and ongoing
  • The series, still ongoing from 2012, entitled Elementary and starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson
  • A Russian TV series I had never heard of also called Sherlock Holmes which started in 2013
  • A series based painstakingly on the books from the 1950s and another from the 1960s
  • And a 2015 movie starring Sir Ian McKellan as a retired and regret-filled Sherlock entitled Mr Holmes

Doyle’s The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes presents a set of characters and stories that other creators have wanted to expand on, to examine from different angles, times, genres, genders, and thus it lives on in its many recreations. Some people only know and enjoy one version, other people, such as myself, enjoy each new version both as a stand-alone story and as another part of the story as a whole. The Princess Bride, however, has found its immortality in a very different way.

The Princess Bride: the good bits version is a book by William Goldman in which he, William Goldman, was read a book by his father by S. Morgenstern called The Princess Bride. The book was read to him while he was sick with pneumonia and it had a profound impact on his worldview and growth as a person. When Goldman’s son reaches the age that he was when he first heard the story he found a copy of S. Morgenstern’s book and coaxed his son into reading it, but was disappointed that his son did not make it past the first chapter. However, when he picked up the book and tried to read it for himself he discovered that his father had not been reading him the whole book: chapter two was an exhaustive list of ancestors and lineage of one of the main characters and held no plot or interest to the average reader. Skipping forward Goldman realised that his father had abridged whole parts of the book in his reading, telling Goldman only ‘the good bits’: the action, revenge, kidnapping, romance etc. Goldman, an author himself, decided to abridge the work and re-release it with his introduction (explaining how he first heard the story and how the abridged version came to be), along with explanations of why he cut out passages and often whole chapters, often because they were unrelated to the rest of the plot and action.

So that’s how the framing goes: Goldman heard the story a certain way, discovered years later that the book was something completely different, so abridged it and released it as his own ‘good bits’ version. Except that none of it is true. S. Morgenstern did not exist, the original version of The Princess Bride does not exist, the story was not read to him as a child, there was no abridgment. I only discovered this thorough deception today and I feel cheated, but I cannot deny the effectiveness of the framing, the genius of the back story, and the resolution with which the author relates the tale of his version of the tale.

In all the layers of framing, abridging, cutting and context that Goldman puts around this story, and then the movie which is much more well-known and is still very enjoyed, he created a story within a story without a story, and the story of the stories that is this story is a story in itself, and that is why I love it. 

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