Nearly everyone who grew up during the 1980’s has a special fondness for the movie The Princess Bride. Adults who would have been in their teens when the movie was first released understand the special meaning of the phrase “As You Wish”, are perhaps just a little suspicious of anyone with six fingers, and know that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia.
In honor of the movie’s twenty-seventh anniversary, Cary Elwes, best known as Westley, has released a behind the scenes retrospective.
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride recalls Elwes’ memories of landing the role (a Bill Cosby impression is involved) and working with director Rob Reiner and writer Bill Goldman. Elwes also discusses working with actors such as Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Billy Crystal, all of whom he interviewed for the book. In addition, Elwes recounts the various challenges and setbacks that went into getting the film to the screen. Since the book’s publication in 1973, a number of big names from Robert Redford to Francis Truffaut had toyed with trying their hand at a film. The issue was that no one quite knew what to do with a sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and sometimes satirical swashbuckling romance. Finally, Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of Stand By Me was offered a carte blanche choice by Columbia Studios. By that point, The Princess Bride had earned a reputation as unfilmable and did in fact meet with a mediocre response at best upon opening. Thanks to the advent of the VCR, however, The Princess Bride found it’s way into the homes of millions and became a sleeper hit.
Elwes’ writes as if he and the reader are two chums recalling old times while sitting in front of a fire. Each knows all the stories of the other but still can’t resist repeating them just one more time. His narrative style is casual with a few previously unknown bits of trivia thrown in for good measure. As a reader, I found myself wanting just a little more, while as an avid fan of the movie I found myself enjoying the sidebar bits from others involved in the movie.
Casual fans of the movie or those looking for a sensationalistic soap opera will be disappointed. Hard core fans who can recite every line on a whim, will find enjoyment.
Interesting bits of trivia include Elwes detailing the intense training he and Patinkin endured in order to pull off “the sword fight to end all sword fights”, Billy Crystal’s ad-lib “have fun storming the castle”, and Shawn’s constant fear that he would be replaced by Danny DeVito. One is left with the feeling that perhaps Elwes is holding back even as his praise of his co-stars is ebullient. Overall, As You Wish makes a nice book for the more earnest of fans, but will fail to impress casual readers.
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe does exactly what the title says. Munroe, a former roboticist for NASA, is best known for his webcomic xkcd. Drawn primarily using basic stick figure characters, xkcd address issues from love and life to scientific or mathematical in-jokes. Occasionally the strip features intricate landscapes or mathematical patterns. In July 2012, Munroe launched a secondary website entitled What If? in which he answered reader submitted questions. This book is compiled from those questions.
Though a math and science book at it’s core, What If? presents its subject matter in a light hearted, easily accessible manner. Questions range from the reasonably serious “How dangerous is it, really, to be in a pool during a thunderstorm?” (Answer: Pretty dangerous) to the more silly such as “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?” (Answer: you can’t really.) Interspersed among the explanations, Munroe has inserted xkcd-style illustrations which create a better understanding for the reader.
Sprinkled throughout the book are twelve questions that Munroe decided not to answer or gave very abbreviated answers. Labeled “weird and worrying questions from the inbox”, these include questions such as “Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?” or “What if I swallow a tick that has Lyme disease? Would I get Lyme disease from the inside out?” In some respects I found these more entertaining than the rest of the book, in that they are of a more personal nature.
Non scientific or mathematically inclined readers should not be put off by the subject matter. Although some of the explanations involve equations and scientific premises with which I was unfamiliar, they are presented in an easily understandable and accessible manner. In addition, the book presents some interesting real life application to the science fiction or fantasy world. For example, the Death Star in Star Wars essentially created a 15 magnitude earthquake on Alderaan. (This segues into an explanation of what it would be like if earthquakes with a negative magnitude hit your house.)
Readers familiar with Munroe’s work will find the same dry humor in longer form. With more room in which to create his explanations, Munroe is able to stretch the humor and create a better set up for the sketches.
Newcomers or casual acquaintances will find themselves hooked from the disclaimer gracing the first page. Even the book itself maintains the xkcd style in that the inside cover is actually a full-size infographic of what the Earth would look like if the oceans were drained from the bottom of the Marianas trench. Instead of the normal praise from other authors, the back of the book is a collection of things the reader might want to know before making their purchase. For example, “Humans can’t digest the cellulose in paper, but if we could, eating this book would give you about 2,300 calories.”
What If? is a highly entertaining book which will make the reader laugh at least as much as it makes them think.