Back when I was a theater kid, we used to watch The Princess Bride in class all the time. We all knew the film, and we all knew we all knew the film. So I have this tendency to assume that everyone has seen The Princess Bride.
A couple of days ago I invited my friend Ty to watch it with me, and it turned out that he hadn’t seen it. Well, you learn something new every day.
To anyone who’s not aware, The Princess Bride is a cult comedy set in a pseudo-medieval landscape. It features, in the words of the old man reading the book to his son (yes, it’s that sort of a movie), “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles…” A while back someone suggested that I use The Princess Bride as the subject for an Oh Say Can You Scene, and I thought that was a pretty good idea. So I got Netflix to hook me up and I revisited my childhood.
The scene I want to discuss is the one where Wesley, the hero, engages in a battle of wits “to the death” with Vizzini to determine the fate of his true love, Buttercup. The setup should be familiar to anyone who has watched the pilot episode of Sherlock–so much so that I burst out laughing at an inappropriate time during said pilot because I was thinking about The Princess Bride. Wesley introduces a poison called “iocane,” then takes away the two wine goblets on the table for a moment before replacing them, one in front of himself and one in front of Vizzini.
Wesley: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.
Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you, are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s?
“They’re both poisoned,” Ty guessed. I ignored him.
Vizzini: Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
Wesley: You’ve made your decision, then?
Vizzini: Not remotely!
Vizzini continues in this vein for a while, pointing out all the different reasons that he can “clearly not choose the wine in front of you” and “clearly not choose the wine in front of me.” But because of the sort of movie this is, the outcome is practically predetermined: Vizzini drinks, and, foiled by his own self-confidence, dies. This is where it gets interesting. Wesley unties Buttercup, who does not recognize him because of his mask.
Buttercup: Who are you?
Wesley: I’m no one to be trifled with. That is all you ever need know.
Buttercup: And to think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.
Wesley: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.
Yes; my friend Ty, who had never seen The Princess Bride, guessed that both cups were poisoned. He would have won the battle of wits.
I’m not ashamed to say that I wouldn’t have. I have an extremely distant memory of watching this film for the first time and wondering which cup was poisoned. Of course, even then, I would have known that the scene was going to end with a dead Vizzini. But within that expected fantasy trope, The Princess Bride finds a way to surprise us.
Of course, there’s rarely a right or wrong way to do things in storytelling, but certain dramatic conventions just beg to be followed. Good always wins in fantasy, at least one person survives in horror, the hip young person who doesn’t believe in love gets proven wrong, that sort of thing. But as The Princess Bride shows us, you can reward your audience by meeting their dramatic expectations and still give them a dose of the unexpected.
(Oh, and Camp NaNoWriMo started today. I hope everyone’s writing is going well!)