As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride—by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden and a foreword by Rob Reiner
This 2020 memoir by actor Cary Elwes might be the perfect gift for the Princess Bride fan in your life. Co-authored with Joe Layden, this “mini-memoir,” as Elwes has calls it, is an account of a young actor’s education as he embarks on an iconic role from a revered, idiosyncratic novel (written by William Goldman in 1973), and the making of a film that, while appearing effortless on the surface, required extraordinary cinematic worldbuilding in a time before CGI. It’s also a film that, thirty-five years later, remains an enduring classic, along with does William Goldman’s book—and what book wouldn’t, with lines like, “When I was your age, television was books!”
As Elwes reminds us, The Princess Bride is a story that entails:
Fencing . Fighting . Torture . Poison . True love . Hate . Revenge . Giants . Hunters . Bad men . Good men . Beautiful ladies . Snakes . Spiders . Pain . Death . Brave men . Cowardly men . Strongest men . Chases . Escapes . Lies . Truths . Passion . Miracles .
In its beginning stages, the project’s hybrid genre, as Elwes writes, “seemed destined to languish in what is commonly known in the business as ‘Development Hell,’” a project passed between studios unable to secure backing, or worse, meeting disinterest. As Goldman once put it, “Even François Truffaut couldn’t make this movie.”
Truffaut, along with Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, and others, did indeed attempt to adapt the book for film, but the idiosyncratic structure, meta references, and fairy tale irony proved difficult to capture—and sell. But made it was. Eventually, Norman Lear read the script and the movie found its backer. Lear worked closely with Rob Reiner on the screenplay, and Reiner would go on to direct the film.
Elwes, born and raised in London, read the book when he was thirteen, and would go on to briefly attend the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. Before Princess Bride, his film credits included a historical drama released in 1984, Another Country, with Rupert Everett and Colin Firth, and soon after, Trevor Nunn’s period drama, Lady Jane, based on Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen of England whose brief reign followed the death of King Edward VI. After seeing the film, Reiner avidly pursued Elwes for the role of Westley.
Elwes’ prose style is light, self-deprecating in places, and sincere in his admiration for the film, its creators, actors, and characters. There are chapters here dedicated to Meeting Fezzik (Elwes confesses to being a “lunatic” fan of André René Roussimoff, aka André the Giant); the intense, 40-week training required of him and fencing partner Mandy Patinkin for the famous swordplay scene (“Scripted fighting is very much like the choreography of a dance: two partners working with each other in an attempt to create something perfectly synchronized”); a chapter on The Castle, that would be Prince Humperdinck’s in Florin (parts of which dated back to the eleventh century); Vizzini and Miracle Max; and of course, Buttercup. There’s also a chapter on A Couple of Mishaps (you can find extras and outtakes on YouTube).
Inserted into the actor’s account are testimonies from cast members and crew, like this one from Carol Kane, on the hazards of an actor being too good-looking: “sometimes when a young man or young woman is that extraordinarily beautiful, they don’t rely much on their sense of humor, but I think that when you crack the nut open, that’s the delicious part,” or Billy Crystal recalling lunch breaks in the canteen: “So I’d order lunch in character as Max, and it was like, “How is the shepherd’s pie? Is it spicy? Will I regret it in the morning?”
There are also excellent behind-the-scenes stories—of screenwriter Buck Henry in his trademark baseball cap and glasses; an account of Westley’s battle with Fezzick: “…when you see Westley fall to the ground and pass out, that’s not acting. That’s an overzealous actor actually losing consciousness.” Elwes covers other unexpected injuries he incurred while making the film (“I woke up in the emergency room, still in costume, to the frightening sound of stitches being sewn into my skull“), and the painful reality, once the film was released, that this labor of love appeared not to capture the hearts of audiences. That, of course, would change.
Elwes reflects on how the film influenced his life, and how, as the years passed, its importance to audiences has lent perspective on what it’s meant to play fictional characters in film. And despite the outsized influence The Princess Bride has had on audiences, Elwes appears to have retained a modest outlook. When meeting Bill Clinton, the actor was genuinely impressed when the president confessed, “Chelsea and I are huge fans of The Princess Bride.”
Learn more about As You Wish here.