How does The Princess Bride use its framing story to influence the tone of its embedded story?
The Princess Bride's goal above all is to keep its audience from taking it too seriously. This is a difficult task given the sometimes depressing or scary moments present in such an epic tale. To counter any over-investment on the viewer's part, the film frequently takes us out of the moment through an interruption by the grandson of the grandfather in the framing story as a way of paralleling their experience with our own. When Buttercup is about to be eaten by a giant eel, when she dreams that she actually did marry Prince Humperdinck, or when we're about to get the sweet, satisfying final kiss from her and Westley, we are suddenly torn back into 1987, a reminder that this is a story and nothing more, and that treating it as importantly as real life is fool-hardy and missing the point of an entertaining fictional tale.
The Princess Bride derives much of its comedy from characters underwhelmed by dramatically tense situations. Identify 2-3 of these moments and describe the role that understatement plays in them.
There are several examples of understatement that aid in the film's hilarity. One moment comes when Prince Humperdinck is hunting down Buttercup's kidnappers and remarks rather casually that if he finds her dead, he'll be "very put-out." The joke, of course, is that one would expect him to be significantly more grief-stricken were he to discover his love murdered. The irony, however, is that he himself arranged for her to be killed, so while his concern is, on the surface, underwhelming and therefore funny, in reality it's consistent with his malicious intentions. Other examples of understatement come through the many overly polite conversations that Westley shares with various opponents, including when he and Inigo exchange casual greetings as he dangles off a cliff, as well as when he says to Fezzik, "Frankly, I think the odds are slightly in your favor at hand fighting," which of course we know to be more than true given Fezzik's staggering size.
Identify and describe 2-3 examples of parallelism in The Princess Bride and how they affect the story.
The Princess Bride is rife with parallelism. One example comes from the fact that there are two stories going on simultaneously: the story of the princess bride herself, and the framing story in which the grandfather reads the book to his son. The two stories take place in parallel as we hear and sometimes see the man and boy interrupting the epic tale to engage in humorous banter. This is intentionally employed to break the tension of scary or sad moments, as when Buttercup is about to be eaten by a giant eel and the grandfather snaps us back to the 1980s to calm down his grandson (and, in parallel, us).
Another poignant example of parallelism would be the film's climax, in which two plot lines are concluded almost simultaneously. First, Inigo succeeds in striking down Count Rugen, the man he's pursued for 20 years for killing his father, providing perhaps the most genuine and serious moment in the movie. Just after, Westley immediately intimidates Humperdinck into surrendering so that he and Buttercup can escape and be together. Wrapping these plot lines up at the same time can be thought of as parallel climaxes and therefore a form of double-closure for the viewers.
Like parallelism and understatement, The Princess Bride is filled with situational irony. Identify at least 1 example of situational irony in the film and discuss its role in the story and how it relates to the plot.
The fact that Westley knocks both Inigo and Fezzik unconscious only for them later to aid in his revival is ironic on many levels. Firstly, it provides a turnaround by which enemies unexpectedly become friends. After all, despite their initial role as antagonists, Inigo and Fezzik are shown to be compassionate, working under the iron fist of Vizzini, and this paves the way for the audience to root for them, such that when they get their shot to play for the good guys in the latter half of the film, the audience is completely on board for them to take it (had Vizzini or Humperdinck had such a change of heart, we might've been harder-pressed to forgive them). Secondly, there is irony in the direct parallel of the two men whom Westley knocked unconscious now waking him from a similar state. Their roles are reversed and Westley is now the unconscious one. Finally, Westley's choice to show mercy upon the men by not killing either when he had the chance allows for karma to be on his side as they subsequently show mercy on him. Had he successfully killed them, he would've died as well, as there would've been no one to bring him to Miracle Max and save his life.
Explore Buttercup's role as a damsel-in-distress, how it influences the plot, and where, if anywhere, she strays from the characteristics of that stereotype.
Buttercup is, by all accounts, a standard damsel-in-distress for the majority of the story. She is consistently pushed around, told what to do, and alternately endangered and rescued by others. This is perhaps best exemplified in the Fire Swamp, when all three of the swamp's dangerous trials befall her in rapid succession. First, the fire plumes light her skirt up, and she screams as Westley puts it out. Subsequently, he has to lift her out of harm's way of other plumes. Next, she falls straight into a patch of lightning sand from which there would've been no return if Westley hadn't thought on his feet to save her. Finally, when Westley is attacked by the ROUS's, she does little to help. However, at one point, she does pick up a stick to hit the rodent with, and this is actually one of the only times we see her try to take matters into her own hands, suggesting that perhaps underneath her helpless character trope is a bit of bravery.
This courage is further exemplified by her resilience in the face of Humperdinck's imprisonment. Though she falls victim to his deception and then realizes her mistake in trusting him, Buttercup never loses faith in Westley’s promise that he will always come for her. This is one of the areas in which she is truly heroic and likable. Had Humperdinck chosen another girl to marry, that girl may not have put up such a fight, but Buttercup displays her stubbornness and determination right in Humperdinck’s face, making her the only person who causes him to lose his cool and grow genuinely, unfunnily angry.
Explore the theme of storytelling in the film, as well as the various layers of the plot's stories within stories.
Most obviously, the entire film The Princess Bride is a story within a story: the tale featuring Westley, Buttercup, et al. takes place as a book being read to a modern-day boy by his grandfather. Many aspects of this framing story influence how we are told the inner tale, particularly the instances where we're removed from the latter and returned to the present as the boy and his grandfather mull over what's happening, remove themselves from the tension, or clarify a plot point. However, there are also many instances of a story within the story within the story. For example, in the Fire Swamp, Westley tells Buttercup about his time aboard the Dread Pirate Roberts’ ship, providing us an additional tale within the two we're already experiencing. Not only that, but Inigo’s story about his father also plays a big role in the set up of the tale’s secondary plot line in which he seeks revenge on his father’s killer. Without these stories within the story, much of the meat of the film would be lost or unexplained.
Describe Humperdinck's role as a villain and how he uses manipulation and deceit to portray himself as a victim.
Until Buttercup and Westley encounter Humperdinck and his cavalry after the Fire Swamp, we aren’t even clued in to the fact that he's actually an antagonist. Indeed, as he plays the part of the forlorn lover missing his fiancée to his men, so too does he play it to us. Only when we hear his aside to Count Rugen that Westley is to be taken to the Pit of Despair do we see him acting maliciously and deceptively, and for the rest of the film, we understand that he’s the source of the primary plot’s problems.
That is not to say, however, that Humperdinck becomes outright evil past this point; one of his defining features is his ability to manipulate by playing a part. This is particularly apparent when Buttercup confronts him and threatens to kill herself. Rather than grow angry and show his villainous colors, he deescalates the situation by calmly lying to her, and even displays sadness for which she (and perhaps the audience) might be tricked into being sympathetic. For a brief time, we wonder if he’s not as bad as we might think. Of course, we soon realize he’s all that and more; it's just that he carries out his antagonism with a calculated, misleading facade.
Consider how the boy's frustrations with certain elements of the story reflect a larger lesson about life, and explore his role in helping the audience learn that lesson.
The boy’s interruption when the grandfather narrates that Buttercup did indeed marry Humperdinck (although only in her dream, we later learn) is one of two instances where he shows disbelief and frustration at how the story is unfolding—the other being when Westley appears to be dead. This brings about a key lesson from the film that not all stories will cater to one’s desires and wind up being “fair.” Indeed, though The Princess Bride by and large ends up giving us the happy ending we want, there are moments that one could argue are very unfair and don’t give the audience proper closure, the most notable of which is that Humperdinck survives the story despite his crimes. We the audience (along with the boy) might wish him dead to satisfy our desires, but we must learn that stories are not always written to tell us exactly what we want to hear, but rather to reflect unfair realities: sometimes, bad guys get away with their misdeeds. As with many other places in the film, we find ourselves learning and experiencing this lesson in parallel with the boy.
At what point does it become apparent that The Princess Bride is a parody film that strays from conventional adventure-romance models? How do you know? Give a few examples.
The introduction of Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo Montoya is our first indication that this story is not intended to be a run-of-the-mill adventure romance, but in fact a subtle parody of one. Up until this point, Buttercup and Westley have experienced a more or less textbook love story wherein a beautiful girl and handsome man fall madly in love and swear to always care for one another. Once Buttercup is kidnapped by these so-called circus performers, however, and their antics begins to take the spotlight, we understand that the cookie-cutter premise was set up intentionally to be torn down. Sure, Buttercup is still a damsel-in-distress, but under conditions and surrounded by events that will soon stray from the typical path these stories usually take.
The amusingly polite conversation between Inigo and the masked Westley as the latter dangles from the cliff face is another example of how this film isn't meant to take itself so seriously. This time, it introduces a recurring motif in which opponents engage in atypically cordial chitchat during tense moments. These instances again remind us that this is a parody, not a standard swash-buckling adventure, and that most of its serious moments are best viewed from a lighthearted perspective. After all, as we are continually reminded by the interrupting grandfather and grandson, it’s only a story, and the fun comes from enjoying it without taking it too seriously.
Discuss the scene where Inigo finally faces Count Rugen. Why is this scene so impactful? Where does it sit in the rise and fall of the plot's tension? How does comedy (or the lack of it) play a part in it?
Inigo’s vengeance scene against Count Rugen marks perhaps the most serious and impactful moment in the film. This is the part where the jokes and parody elements step back and reveal the serious core of the film underneath them: silly antics and constant wit have made us more invested in these characters and their story than any dramatic build up could’ve allowed for. And we feel Inigo’s redemption as he does, redemption illustrated by the parallel wounds that he inflicts on Rugen that Rugen inflicted on him: two slashes on the cheeks, two blows to the shoulders, and finally the strike through the stomach. As Rugen made him suffer, he now makes Rugen undergo the same, but brings it one step further with a fatal blow for which we cheer. One could even argue that this is the true climax of the film, more so than when Westley bluffs his way into getting Humperdinck to surrender, because it brings us to the peak of our emotional investment in the story, even if it’s technically tying up the film’s secondary plot line.