In high school I never thought about Story for the sake of Story, but I thought a lot about love. I didn’t read much, but I loved adventure movies and despised romance (odd for how many crushes I had). But the first time I watched The Princess Bride, I fell in love.
The layers of surprising adventure, its wittiness, and its simple core premise hooked me. Equally captivating was a couple who found true love and were determined to be together despite loss, hardship, and pain. Even at that young age I was aware that medieval-esque adventure and romance were cliché, but it wasn’t until now that I could put my sixth finger on why The Princess Bride is almost perfect. Great storytelling satisfies a life-sustaining appetite in all of us and targets the true love we all need. Wanna know more? As you wish!
Marauding for 20 Years: Surprised at Life’s Little Quirks
Many books contain secret formulas for writing good stories, often citing elements like conflict, relatable characters, captivating plot, and so on. I agree with those, but I believe more ambiguous components — like surprisingness in adventure, witty dialogue and/or narration, and a simple premise — are crucial to our enjoyment.
Screenwriter William Goldman and director Rob Reiner took a strong foundation built on fairy tales and cranked it up to eleven by relating to the audience’s subconscious psychological drives and emotions. As the film opens, the sick grandson objects to a book (those are what television used to be called) until adventure is mentioned. And once the romance starts, the kid again protests, to which the grandfather replies, “Someday, you may not mind so much.”
Humans don’t relate to formulaic conflict or plot; rather, many of our psychological needs are met when we hear great storytelling because the need is built into our souls. The Bible being 43 percent narrative isn’t a coincidence; God tells us the story of our past, present, and future.
So when authors like William Goldman create adventure, it satisfies a deep need inside each of us. Part of what it means that humanity is made in the image of God is that we are sub-creators. When we ideate or imagine what someone else has creatively built we can be delightfully surprised by the adventure. Sometimes the exploit is a mythic quest or slaying a dragon; sometimes it’s becoming a pirate and then fighting across land and sea to rescue your twue wuv. And often the audience finds adventure in, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “surprisingness.”
Lewis says we’re not looking for a surprising event in a story, we’re interested in “the quality of the unexpectedness.” For example, the vast majority of Westley’s screen time is spent getting out of impossible situations. If Lewis was recognizing this need decades before The Princess Bride was written, it’s no wonder Goldman struck gold in weaving in a timeless element like surprisingness. This deep desire for great storytelling acts as an invisible rope binding us to the edge of our seat like Prince Humperdink confined to his chair. Adventure is what enthralls the grandson, but I think it’s cleverness that pulls an adult audience back, time after time.
A Clever Man’s Immunity
Art is elevated when humbly clever. This is where masterful sub-creator storytelling really shines. Like outsmarting Vizzini, Reiner and Goldman wink and nod at the symbolism, drama, and comedy, without being arrogant about their cleverness.
Clever storytelling references back to something established in the story’s universe or something well-known by the audience. Plays on words (MLT sandwich), limericks (“You have a great gift for rhyme”), ironic or, conversely, straightforward phrases (Cliffs of Insanity, Rodents of Unusual Size), and unexpected happenings (the grandson both interrupting and speaking for the audience, and Westley becoming the Dread Pirate Roberts) are ways The Princess Bride outwits us (although we enjoy it more than Vizzini does).
In fact, we may not recognize it at first but the clever “battle of wits” between Westley and Vizzini is integral to the story. The payoff is twofold: The audience enjoys the quick paced parlay of dialogue and the story is thrice moved forward. We enjoy Vizzini’s lines but they have layers too. For example, when he says, “Australia is entirely peopled with criminals,” it’s a reference to the continent’s criminal colonization. Or the famous, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” is a reference to actual military strategy. But Westley also has confident and sarcastic responses, and in the end, triumphs over Vizzini. And that triumph leads us to how the story is cleverly moved forward three times.
The first is obvious – if Vizzini is dead, Westley can confront Buttercup and journey toward the Fire Swamp. The second is when Humperdink smugly admits, “When I hired Vizzini to have her murdered on our engagement day, I thought that was clever.” Goldman skillfully informs the audience of Vizzini’s motivation for kidnapping Buttercup, but also signals that Humperdink’s pride will be his undoing. And the third time is the antithesis of Humperdink’s arrogance in Iñigo’s humility. Recognizing that Westley outsmarted his boss (the smartest man he knew), Iñigo decides that Westley’s smarts can help track down the six-fingered man.
So why do we love being clever? Because God is clever, and we yearn after our Creator (like it or not). At its core the gospel is simple. And yet, it’s vastly complex and clever. The Bible uses inside jokes, plays on words, has unexpected happenings, and is self-referential. When we’re in on it, we have a finer appreciation, but if we miss an innuendo or reference, we can still enjoy all the other good stuff. If it was a deal-breaker for me to pick up on every clever clue God gave me, I’d be lost. But that’s the genius of God building on a simple foundation.
A Trifle Simple: Parables for Ears to Hear
Goldman wrote this script using core feelings and fairy-tale tropes, but the metaphors aren’t belabored. Although the film turns thirty-five this year, Director Rob Reiner and Goldman created a timeless story, keeping it from being cliché and allowing it to transcend tropes. People connect to The Princess Bride on many levels.
Every time the film comes up in conversation, it seems people tell a related story or yell a quote. At my day job, my boss asked what I was writing, and I summarized, “The Princess Bride turning thirty-five.” He exclaimed the film was so good he couldn’t believe it was that old. After I blurted out, “Timeless!” he said that, across our 75,000-employee company, brutely handling a problem is known as “Fezzik’s rock throwing.” That’s more of a miracle than Max can offer! Across generations, across continents and cultures, a great story becomes part of our story.
It’s that need that draws us to the stories of Jesus. When he started his ministry, Jesus gave illustrations using common items like salt and sheep. But once most people had heard him, Jesus switched to parables and soon only explained them to his followers. More than fulfilling Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus’s heart was to reward his followers’ faith and seeking, while leaving opportunities for anyone to become a follower.
Stories about Jesus and his parable-stories were given to us by God through the person of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit continues to explain Jesus’s parables depending on our gradations of maturity. God created us with a need to hear his messages even in “secular” tales. While I don’t think every story has a message from God, I do believe great stories strike a chord because they reflect, or highlight the absence of, the character and attributes of God.
And because one of God’s attributes is perfect love, our core need to love and be loved in return draws us to stories of true love. Any time I hear the phrase “true love,” I think of the “Mawage” speech, where the clergyman with a speech impediment claims that, “Wuv, twue wuv, will faw-whoa you fowevah.” As a culture, we love love. Sure, sometimes the topic is pizza or puppy love or lust1 or real love, but everyone agrees that “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Right?
Yes and no. The problem is twofold: Not everyone defines love the same way (or for that matter, correctly), and the acting out of those definitions are convoluted, and sometimes selfish and abusive. But sometimes pain in love is good, and sometimes it’s evil. How do we discern?
Luke 15 has three parables, each characterizing the love of a different person of the Trinity. Verses 4–7 show Jesus as a shepherd who would sacrifice himself for even one sheep in danger. And this idea of pain and cost and suffering in love is outlined in The Princess Bride in a morbidly beautiful way, with real-life applications.
Life is Pain, Highness
While not specifically speaking on love, Hannah Anderson’s book Humble Roots explains arrogance in emotions.
Authenticity, as we’ve come to understand it, celebrates “telling it like it is” and encourages you to “be true to yourself.” But today, being true to yourself doesn’t mean making an honest evaluation of yourself; it means embracing your emotional experience of the world as truth.
Prioritizing the “authenticity” of our emotional experience may actually cause our enslavement to, and chaos in, love and other emotions. Anderson explains that authenticity demands we prioritize a loss of romantic connection above fighting for our marriage. Then we convince ourselves that our kids would be polluted by the hypocrisy of staying together, so everyone is better off if we find something new.
Because the storytelling is so good, we’re wrapped up in the moment where Westley (as Roberts) rescues Buttercup, so we can miss a very dark and bitter scene. The scene where Westley (as Roberts) rescues Buttercup is entrancing because the storytelling is so good. But watching the sequence repeatedly out of context, I realized how dark and bitter it truly is. Still deeply wounded, Buttercup angrily rebukes Roberts, yelling, “You mock my pain!” Roberts retorts, “Life is pain, Highness,” and partially offsetting the tension, hilariously quips, “Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Roberts, possibly recounting Westley’s actual words, tells Buttercup that Westley asked to be spared for “true love.” Then Roberts really hammers on Buttercup’s supposed “enduring faithfulness.”
Having watched this scene out of context repeatedly for this article, trust me, it’s alarmingly raw and bitter. Buttercup’s despondent wail, “I died that day,” demonstrates the depths of despair delivered by love. Because of misunderstanding, the couple are harsh and accusatory and even a little petty on whose heart broke more. I despise high school drama (melodrama, not theater… although I reserve the right to feel that way about teenage actors also), and yet The Princess Bride gives an accurate picture of how we react when deceived. But that’s just the point: untethered emotion will never allow us to behave in healthy ways.
To the Pain: Healthy Costs of Love
So what are healthy ways of love? Sacrifice and commitment. That may sound worse than shrieking eels, and it’s no mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, but something Jesus said may help. In his aforementioned shepherd parable, Jesus repeatedly talks about the joy he has in loving and saving the sheep. There is joy after, and sometimes in the midst of, sacrifice. So, not all emotions are bad; God created and uses our emotions (after all, joy is an emotion). But we have to balance feelings with truth.
Once Buttercup and Westley knew the truth (that Westley was alive and Buttercup was faithful), their emotions flipped, and they were head over heels for each other (noting my cleverness here would be unprofessional). So when God repeatedly commands us to love against the grain of our personalities, of our sense of fairness, or of what seems rational to us, He’s redefining “love” as commitment to truth. Instead of “true love,” we might say “truth love.” But it’s absolute truth, as God defines it, and often there is pain in loving this way.
My favorite worship band, Phinehas, perfectly portrays how sacrifice and commitment coalesce in us to model God’s love:
You have a choice to make
Love is what is left over
When being in love fades away
This is your price to pay
Faith is more than just leaving
When every second is spent in pain
You have a choice
Love can be a sacrifice of time, resources, and money. But we can also sacrifice pride and promiscuity in favor of apologies and commitment. Westley’s heart didn’t break because of love, it ached because he had sacrificed and stayed committed, while it appeared Buttercup was unfaithful.
Insist on Everyone Being Healthy…
The thought of betrayal is devastating. My love for my wife is continual and committed. Sure, when times get tough, when there are irreconcilable differences, I may be frustrated, I may want to leave, but I don’t. Because when I said, “I do,” it meant forever. And that love translates over to others, whether strangers or my family of faith. It is a different type of love, a phileo love, but the working out is the same.
Love isn’t just for those in romantic relationships: it’s for the single person, for the divorcée, for the child, and the elderly. Love is for everyone. Real love isn’t in a one night stand, the newest entertainment, a paycheck, or any other good thing that could be tainted or corrupted under sin. True love is in commitment and continuance. I’ve learned that no matter what, God’s love and grace is there all the time; it continues, and he is committed to me.
Great stories like those in 1 and 2 Kings show how non-romantic love can play out. Reverend Dr. Karl Bahr wrote that prophets and prophetesses struggled with “want and distress,” but that didn’t stop them from sharing community. “Where unity of spirit and true love call people together to a common meal, there is no need of great preparations and expensive dishes… (Proverbs 15:17, 17:1)” [emphasis mine]. Most people prefer us authentically hanging out with them as opposed to lavish pageantry. The hag booing in Buttercup’s dream, Fezzik and Iñigo’s loyalty rescuing mostly-dead Westley, and the grandson’s eventual appreciation of his grandfather, are scenes showcasing this truth.
Above I gave lyrics to Phinehas’s “Defining Moments,” but the chorus is even more thought-provoking: “Don’t fear death / Fear death not knowing true love.” Inconceivable! Without sounding too Sunday school, we don’t fear death because we’re going to heaven, but while on Earth we should be vulnerable and offer others the true love Jesus offers us. And in that there is joy.
Turn to Face the Bride
Initially the grandfather has to sell his grandson on listening to The Princess Bride. By the end, the kid is hooked. What changed the grandson’s mind? The storytelling speaks for itself, but when romance comes up the grandson admits, “I don’t mind so much.” I don’t think the kid suddenly matured or magically liked romance.
I believe he had learned to accept his feelings that maybe romance wasn’t so bad. The ability to value being honest with himself and others was one outcome of something bigger. When the film started, he was disappointed that his grandpa had arrived to waste his time. But by the end he asked his feisty grandpa to come back and read the book again.
It’s cyclical. A great story keeps us coming back for more, and love is intoxicating. The greatest story ever told is about a timeless love unlike anything in the universe. Christians become the Bride of Christ because of His story of pursuit and love for us. But we’re also called to stand at the altar united and loving the rest of the Bride. As Buttercup says, “[We] are joined by the bonds of love”!
1. From a clarity in speech and print standpoint, this is a severe disadvantage to English. For example, when Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him (John 21:15-17), in English we only see the word “love” repeated. But in Greek the entire conversation’s subtext is found in the use of different words for love.