There's a reason for this, trust me. But first the story to get to it. It's long-ish, but don't think it's a bad tale at that.
About 30 years ago or so, I was a whippersnapper assistant production executive at Universal Pictures, working directly for then-president Bob Rehme. At one point in my tenure, I had an idea for a project based on a novel I'd read a few years before and was curious if there had been a screenplay written for it. There was, I had it tracked down and called the novelist who'd also written the screenplay.
The book was The Princess Bride, and the author was William Goldman.
I'd wanted to talk to Goldman for a long while -- the great screenwriter of such things as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, Marathon Man and so much more. Besides which we'd gone to the same summer camp, albeit at different times -- Camp Nebagamon in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, on which he'd loosely based his book, Boys and Girls Together -- and my parents were friends with his parents, back in the suburbs of Chicago, and I'd even met his mother. In fact, she gave me "Billy's" address, and I wrote him after I finished grad school at UCLA and had gotten my Masters degree in Screenwriting. He wrote me back an incredible letter (which I still have and cherish) that's basically a one-page version of his later, renowned book, Adventures in the Screen Trade. I'm serious -- it even includes his line, not yet published in book form, that is still being quoted as gospel in Hollywood, "No one knows anything." I recall one line near the end, "It's a mean, nasty, brutish business, but no one made you go into it." Though my favorite line was when he made the suggestion, "Use any contact you have. (Like my mother.)"
Anyway, I finally got William Goldman on the phone and we talked about The Princess Bride, and the possibility of making it into a movie.
The call didn't go well, though it ended fine, thanks to a bit of divine intervention.
The reason the call didn't go well was because I knew I wasn't crazy about that version of the screenplay. Not that it wasn't well-written -- it was terrific -- but it didn't have what I loved so much about his book it's based on, and that's the third level.
(The movie is told on two levels: the grandfather reading the story to his grandson, and the story itself. Actually, in the book, it's the boy's father reading the story, which I find more emotional, as we see the little kid draw closer to his father and it's the book that bonds them. I find that more meaningful that a boy bonding with his grandfather. That aside, the novel has a third level -- the author William Goldman interrupting periodically to discuss with the reader decisions he made in editing the original tale by S. Morgenstern. The joke about this, that makes it so hilarious, is that there is no "S. Morgenstern," it's all Goldman, and his criticisms of the original novel are simply about his own work.)
There point here is that I missed that third level, and I wasn't sure how it could exist in a screenplay. But I thought perhaps it could exist in another medium, if it was adapted for the stage perhaps, where there's more a tradition of a narrator stepping into the action and talking directly to the audience.
I asked Goldman about this, something about wondering whether he'd ever thought about adapting it another way, like for the stage -- I don't remember exactly how I phrased in, in large part perhaps because I've blocked it from my memory since I had phrased it so horribly that it really pissed him off, and he started to get pretty snarky.
That's when the hand of God stepped in.
We lost the phone connection. The line simply went dead in mid-snark. As I dialed back -- very sloooowly dialed back, my mind whirring and thinking hard -- I tried to think of what to say, how to talk my way out of that deep hole I'd dug. To be clear, I did think it would make a great stageplay -- maybe even better than a movie, though I certainly knew it could be a wonderful movie. But that wasn't the conversation to have. We were talking about making it as a movie, and I'd screwed that up. So, I was thinking as fast as I possibly could. And by the time we re-connected, I'd thought of something, and immediately jumped in, not giving him the chance to speak first, and started to explain what I meant but had phrased so poorly. I said what I meant was that I loved the book so much and loved the three levels so much, that I was wondering what had gone into his writing process about adapting it and not being able to use the third level and wondering if he thought there was any way of getting that third level in because it was so wonderful.
Happily, it placated him. And the rest of the conversation went well.
Unfortunately, for any number of reasons that I don't remember, Universal didn't go ahead with the project. It may have been that I didn't push it any farther, since as far as I know, I was the only one at the studio pursuing it in the first place. Or maybe I wrote something about it, and it just didn't catch anyone else's curiosity. No idea. I just know it didn't get made at Universal.
But in 1987, it did finally get made, by Disney. How close it is to the draft of the script I'd read, I don't know. But it was terrific. I still miss the third level, and still miss that it's not the father, but the grandfather. And miss the great last line of the novel that's buried in the middle of the movie where it's not as effective. It's a very good movie that was hugely successful.
I mention all this, though, not just to tell a tale from the past, but for another reason entirely.
I saw the following first paragraph in an announcement here on Playbill.com
"Disney Theatrical Productions has announced plans to develop a new stage production based on William Goldman's acclaimed adventure tale 'The Princess Bride.'"
And just think -- it only took 30 years or so for someone to realize the same thing I did. And I'm guessing that whoever made the call to William Goldman to discuss the idea did it in a far better way than I did, and didn't get their ear chewed off. But then, they also lucked out and had the good fortune to have had the movie version long-since already made.
But still, I feel good reading about that it's finally going on the stage.
I'll bet they don't use the third level -- but who knows? Maybe they'll figure out a way...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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