Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Princess Bride - An Open Apology To Buttercup

Buttercup might not have had to swordfight a Spaniard, wrestle a giant, go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line, kill an R.O.U.S., or have to storm a castle as practically a quadripalegic.... but she has the most real struggle of anyone in The Princess Bride

I've given Buttercup crap my whole adult life, because I didn't understand what was really going on, until I taught a lesson about storytelling to my kids at school, using 'The Princess Bride' as my text. 

First, I showed my students this clip.

I teared up at that last bit, because I am so much softer than I used to be.

"Right here," I told them, "This is where the theme of the movie is set up. 'True love conquers all' is our theme. It's the great question. It's the whole point of this movie - to test this idea out against everything the story will throw at it."

Clearly, Buttercup is silly, and spoiled. But Westley loves her.

Westley makes a promise, that he will ALWAYS come for her, and there is nothing to protect that promise but this thing called true love. He leaves Buttercup with nothing but his word.

And then... what happens to Westley?

This is from the original script, courtesy of the IMSDB. 

                  (off-screen reading)
             Westley didn't reach his
             destination. His ship was attacked
             by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who
             never left captives alive. When
             Buttercup got the news that
             Westley was murdered --

                         THE KID
                  (off-screen, perking
                  up a little)
             -- murdered by pirates is good --

Of course, my students immediately remind me that Westley wasn't really dead. 

"Sure," I said. "You know that. You've seen the movie. But does Buttercup?"

Buttercup doesn't know that. 

Imagine what that is like, for a minute. To have such a promise made. And then to think it is all gone, just like that.

I showed them another clip. It was only 9 seconds, but this line is absolutely crucial to the story.

"Remember this," I said. "Because this is going to come up again later, and it will matter."

It is worth remembering, also, that this is a human reaction to terrible pain. I know a little bit about this sort of pain, and it is easy to want to protect yourself, to hold yourself back from ever being hurt again.

"Pretend," I asked them, "That you haven't seen this story a million times. Does she know Westley is coming back? No. The idea is being tested now. And she's failing the test. And, knowing what I know now, I don't blame her, because we all fail the test. It's the hardest test. Believing that true love conquers all? That's pretty impossible sometimes."

We talked more about the Hero's Journey. The Three Act Structure.

And then we came to the next clip (at least, the next that is relevant to this blog post.)

Pay attention. What did she say before? 'I will never love again.'

What does she say now, that echoes it?

"I will never doubt again."

Buttercup isn't just saying what she's thinking. She's making a solemn promise in both of those scenes. The first one she's hurting so much that she's promising never to love again, never to hurt that much again because it was so awful. But in the second version 'I will never doubt again', she's promising something much, much harder to do -- that she will trust in the power of love to conquer everything. Even death.

Pretty heavy stuff. And it gets heavier, because she fails the promise.


So I've been mad at Buttercup about this before. And maybe you have too.

But as for me, I think I was just mad at myself. Because this is the promise that we fail all the time, isn't it? That theme, that idea, 'True Love Conquers All', it is powerful for a reason. And the reason I think it is so powerful is because it strikes at the heart of something that we know is true without always knowing why - that true love, love without condition, is the most powerful thing in the world. 

But sometimes we get afraid, or angry, or we try to protect ourselves from further pain, and whenever we do that, we're betraying true love.

I mean, yeah. Buttercup straight up betrays her promise. And I think the reason we don't like it is because we've all done that, on some level, usually for much pettier reasons than Buttercup's reasons.

The weight of that mistake weighs on her.

This is easily the scariest scene in the movie. I was WAY more scared of this than of the shrieking eels or the R.O.U.Ses when I was a kid. 

So she goes to try to fix what she has done. To try to make things right. She goes to Humperdinck, and begs for him to send for Westley. 

Only... well... you know what Humperdinck is like. Kind of a tool, putting it gently. And he doesn't send for Westley. He lies to her that he does, but he doesn't.

And then, this scene.

It's powerful.

Why is it so powerful?

Because Buttercup is finally beginning to realize what is real, to correct her mistakes, to trust in true love. With, ah, mixed results. Westley gets... well, killed. Mostly killed. 

Buttercup struggles the entire film to bring herself in line with the theme. FAILING REPEATEDLY.  But you only get to fail repeatedly if you try repeatedly, and Buttercup is willing to try repeatedly, even after realizing how absolutely wretchedly she does at trusting in love. She knows she isn't good at it, and by the end of the movie, she STILL hasn't perfected it.

But man, she tries.

The whole movie, Buttercup is the only uncertain one.

Everyone else knows exactly what they want, and will stop at nothing to get it. Prince Humperdinck wants a war with Guildar. Westley wants Buttercup. Inigo Montoya wants revenge. THEY ALL KNOW EXACTLY WHO THEY ARE.

Buttercup wants only to be loved, and that's the most terrifying thing to want, for most people, because it means being vulnerable to being hurt. Remember, she's surrounded almost the entire movie by people who are utterly incapable of love - Westley being the lone exception among them. Even the sweet and powerless old king doesn't love her. In a moment of vulnerability, she tells him she is planning to die rather than betray Westley in Humperdinck's bed.

And how does he answer?
'Oh that's nice... SHE KISSED ME.'

Call it senility if you want. But no matter what the reason, that isn't true love showing itself right there.

In such an environment, with all that facing me, could I hope to do any better than Buttercup?

Maybe. But maybe not. I don't know.

Buttercup's struggle is the hardest because it's against herself. I will likely never have to storm a castle to save a true love, or stab an enormous rat, go up against a Sicilian, etc. etc. But I struggle against myself every day. And I fail. And then I try again.

In the end, she still hasn't perfected it. And... this time around, it's kind of beautiful to me that she hasn't. Because even though she still isn't perfect, Westley does come back for her, as he promised at the beginning. Even an imperfect trust in true love can still be enough, sometimes. 

I found it... reassuring.

"But that's just silly romantic attachment!" someone might say. To this person, I present the final line of the movie. 

Skip to 1:51.


This story, about Buttercup? The TITLE CHARACTER of the movie? The ideas apply even to old men and their bedsick grandsons. The idea applies to a guy that works at a junior high and the kids he teaches. It applies in every relationship where you're trying to love somebody else imperfectly.

Not just about romantic attachment.

It's about every sort of true love ever. 

"By the way," I told my students, in a quiet but firm voice, after all was said and done. "True love always wins. True love conquers all. It isn't just a fairy tale saying. True love will hold out even when everything else has to wither and die. Believe it, guys. It's the only thing that matters in the end. And I'm going to keep coming back to it, again and again, even when I get scared like Buttercup, because I believe in that idea no matter what."

Just keep coming back to it, friends. Trying again, even when you screw it up. It'll be all right. True love conquers all, in the end, most especially in the struggle against ourselves.