Herewith a special Reader's Guide Interview with THE PRINCESS BRIDE characters by Paul Witcover (with thanks to the copyright holder, Ballantine Books).
1. THE REMORA
lN CONSIDERING THE RELATIONSHIP between the freelance writer and a great publishing house, it may be helpful to think of the lowly remora. This cute little fish survives by glomming onto a shark and sucking its blood. Sharks are not the most discriminating of diners, but remoras aren’t too finicky, either. They can’t afford to be. And so it is with freelancers like myself.
Yet occasionally an assignment comes along that feeds the soul as well as the body, and although no freelancer will publicly admit it (we don’t even like to admit we have souls, much less worry about feeding them), the truth of the matter is that there exists for every freelancer a job that he or she will do, well, for free.
This is mine.
Let me explain. I’ve been a fan of The Princess Bride since I was a teenager. I own a copy of the movie and watch it two or three times a year. I read the book at least once a year. I foist it upon friends and girlfriends; in college, I once broke up with a girl over the question of whether or not Westley was really in love with Buttercup or just the idea of Buttercup. You might think, then, that I know a lot about The Princess Bride. I certainly thought so.
I was wrong.
Just how wrong wasn’t clear until the Monday I got a call from Ballantine Books asking if I’d be interested in conducting an interview for the 30th Anniversary Edition of The Princess Bride. Would I? Dear reader, I would have paid for the privilege. Heck, I would have killed for it. I told Ballantine I would check my schedule and get back to them. (Freelancer Rule No. 1: Always play hard to get.) The first question I asked when I called back five minutes later (Freelancer Rule No. 2: But not too hard!) was: when will I be interviewing Mr. Gold? I didn’t actually say “Mr. Gold”; that was just as far as I got before the beautiful Denise cut in. (Denise works in Editorial. Even though I live in New York City, I’ve never actually met her, but I figure that anyone with such a beautiful voice has got to be beautiful all over.)
“Oh,” said the beautiful Denise, “you won’t be interviewing him. We want you to interview the characters about true love.”
“I see,” I said, although I didn’t.
“We need it by Friday,” she added, beautifully. “Bye, Remora!” Okay, she didn’t actually say “Remora”–I just felt like a sucker. The beautiful Denise? Oh, she was beautiful, all right. Beautiful like a shark.
* * *
2. THE PROFESSOR
INTERVIEW THE CHARACTERS. It was a tough job, no question. But did I panic? Did I despair? Are you kidding? We freelance writers enjoy a good challenge. I spent the next four days researching The Princess Bride. Then I panicked. My deadline was less than twenty-four hours away, and I was no closer to my goal than when I’d started.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Why not make something up? But I refused to consider it. How could I? The Princess Bride is based on a famous episode in Florinese history, and it’s wrong to take liberties with history. Goldman didn’t do it. Morgenstern didn’t do it. And by God, I wasn’t going to do it, either.
So what did I do? I did what any self-respecting freelancer would do under the circumstances: made a beeline for the nearest bar. I sat down, ordered a shot of cheap whiskey, and toasted my reflection in the fly-spotted mirror: “To Denise, who wrecked my freelance career . . . beautifully.”
After the coughing had subsided, I ordered another and again prepared to toast my reflection: “To the beautiful Denise, who . . .”
I trailed off. Sitting beside me, studying me intently, was a white-haired old geezer sipping a glass of wine.
“She broke your heart, this Denise,” he said in a surprisingly gentle voice.
“In a manner of speaking,” I said. “Although I’ve never met her. Actually, I’ve only heard her voice over the phone. But it’s a remarkably beautiful voice.”
“I understand,” he said.
Strangely enough, I believed him. “Who are you anyway?”
He handed me a card. It read:
K. Bongiorno, Ph.D.,
M.M.A. Chairman, Department of Florinese Literature
I looked up from the card into a kindly, weathered face framed by a wild mane of white hair. “Not Professor Bongiorno, the preeminent authority on Morgenstern?”
He inclined his leonine head with grave modesty, as if to say that he did not claim such a distinction for himself but would not dream of insulting me by disputing it.
“But this is fantastic,” I exclaimed. “You’re the one man who can help me!”
“I shall be glad to try. But in matters of the heart, I am only so-so.”
“This isn’t about Denise,” I told him. “It’s not about love at all. It’s about The Princess Bride!”
“Young man,” he said sternly, “The Princess Bride is about nothing if not love.”
“What about adventure?”
“Love–true love–is the biggest adventure of all. Now, tell me your troubles.”
So I did. The professor listened without interrupting. When I finished, he raised his snowy eyebrows. “A piece of cake.” He dipped his fingers into the breast pocket of his jacket and produced a pair of battered bifocals, which he set down on the stained surface of the bar. “Go ahead,” he said. “Pick up the sodding bifocals.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“S.O.D.–Suspension of Disbelief. Haven’t you ever heard literary critics telling each other to sod off? Well, this is what they’re talking about.”
I picked up the glasses; they looked like they were already antiques when Ben Franklin invented bifocals.
“Look through the top half of the lenses, and whatever you’re reading is perfectly normal,” Bongiorno explained. “But peek through the bottom half, and the action becomes suspended, frozen, and you, the reader, enter the story. You can talk to the characters . . . though only one at a time. When you’re done, the story will resume, and the characters will forget they ever saw you.”
Seeing my skepticism, the professor continued: “It will be just as real as the two of us talking at this bar, I assure you.”
“But if this were true, it would have to be some kind of miracle . . .”
He rolled his eyes. “Of course it’s a miracle! Look on the card! What do you think M.M.A. stands for: Medieval Marching Association? Merry Men Amalgamated? No! It’s Master of Miraculous Arts.”
I gasped. “You’re a miracle man . . . like Miracle Max!”
“Max was the greatest ever. I’m nothing compared to him.” Bongiorno lifted his wine glass. “To true love and high adventure!”
I raised my shot glass and drank the toast. After the coughing had subsided, I noticed that the professor was gone, and the bartender was glaring at me.
“Sod off,” he growled.
And that’s exactly what I did.
* * *
3 . T H E T U R K
RUSHING BACK TO my East Village apartment, I threw myself onto my futon, slipped the bifocals on, picked up my copy of The Princess Bride, and began reading. As always, the story swept me away. It wasn’t until chapter five, when I had to scratch my nose, that I remembered the bifocals. Without thinking, I glanced down.
I was in midair. A zillion miles below me was a sparkling blue bay and a boat the size of a toothpick. I screamed and grabbed on to the nearest object, a redwood tree that happened to be growing perpendicular to a sheer cliff face.
“Who are you?” asked the tree.
The tree, of course, was Fezzik, who was climbing a rope up the all-too-aptly named Cliffs of Insanity. Vizzini, Inigo, and the kidnapped Buttercup were hanging like Christmas ornaments from his huge torso. Glancing down again, I saw the man in black. He was close: only about a million miles away. Who knew that high adventure was so, well, high?
“Who are you?” repeated Fezzik.
I introduced myself and explained about the sodding bifocals.
“What should I do, Vizzini?” Fezzik asked anxiously. “Inigo, what should I do?” But neither the Sicilian nor the Spaniard replied; like everything and everyone else, they were frozen. I was impressed: Bongiorno knew his stuff.
I couldn’t get over how big Fezzik was.
“I can’t get over how big you are,” I said. “You make Andre the Giant look like Danny DeVito.”
“I do not know this giant Andre.”
“He plays you in the movie.”
“What is a movie?”
I had forgotten that this was before movies. I decided to get on with the interview. “So, Fezzik,” I said as calmly as I could while holding on for dear life, “What is true love?”
He shifted nervously. “Can you give me a hint? I’m scared I’ll get it wrong. Vizzini hates when I get things wrong!”
“There’s no right or wrong,” I said. “I just want your opinion.”
“When Vizzini wants my opinion, he tells me what it is.”
“I’m not Vizzini. Come on, Fezzik. You must love something.”
He thought. “I love having friends . . .”
“Vizzini isn’t your friend,” I protested. “He’s evil and mean!”
“He rescued me from Greenland–which, by the way, is not green.”
“He’s going to take that big knife of his and kill Princess Buttercup!”
“Maybe he won’t really cut her up.”
“He will, and you know it. Doesn’t loyalty have limits?”
“Not to dimwits.”
“You’re not a–” My ear finally caught on. Fezzik was doing what he always did when he felt lonely or scared: rhyming.
“Hey, let me try; I’m good at rhymes!”
“But bad at climbs.”
Professor Bongiorno, it turned out, had neglected to mention one detail. When I sodded off into the story, all the characters were frozen . . . except the one I was talking to. Taking one massive hand from the rope, Fezzik flicked me off his shoulders like you or I might flick a bug. The interview was over. And so, it seemed, was I.
* * *
4 . T H E S I C I L I A N
BUT INSTEAD OF smashing onto the rocks, I found myself back on my futon. Man, I thought, these sodding bifocals are better than wireless Internet! I wondered if they worked on other forms of reading material. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue beckoned from the coffee table. But then I remembered Freelancer Rule No. 6: Never miss a deadline. If I blew this, there would be no more assignments from Ballantine. And no more phone calls from the beautiful Denise, either. I paged further ahead in chapter five and glanced down.
“Welcome,” said Vizzini, leaping to his feet.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” I said, taking a step back (he was holding a knife: a very long, very sharp knife). I had interrupted the picnic of death. The two wine goblets sat filled with wine and the deadly poison iocane. The man in black sat frozen before one of them. Buttercup, also frozen, lay bound and gagged to one side.
The Sicilian made a mocking bow. “Very little surprises a man of my intellect. You, for example, are from the future. You’ve traveled back in time by means of an advanced technology in order to meet the greatest criminal genius of the age: me.”
I was flabbergasted. “How could you possibly–”
“A chain of logical deductions quite beyond your ability to grasp, I’m afraid. No offense.”
He sidled nearer. “It’s plain that you chose to appear in this particular place and time because of my impending victory over the man in black. It further goes without saying that you know which of the goblets holds the iocane. I considered forcing that information from you, but then I realized it wasn’t necessary. Since you’ve come from the future to witness my triumph in the ultimate battle of wits, it follows that my choice of goblet is bound to be the correct one. Why?” He cackled. “Because from your perspective, I’ve already made it. The future is fixed; to change it would be inconceivable!”
“Amazing,” I said.
“Still, I wonder if I could kill the man in black while he’s frozen? An interesting experiment, don’t you think?”
I hadn’t considered the possibility. Could Vizzini change the plot of The Princess Bride by stabbing poor Westley now? I wished that Professor Bongiorno had been a little more forthcoming with his instructions. At least he could have provided a sodding manual!
Vizzini, meanwhile, gave an evil laugh and stepped quickly to my side. “Don’t worry, I won’t kill him; I want to see the look on his face when he realizes I’ve outsmarted him. You, on the other hand . . .”
I felt the prick of his knife against my ribs. “Me?” I squeaked.
“I am, as you know, a thief. What could be more valuable to a thief than a time-travel device?”
“But it’s not a time-travel device!”
“Don’t insult my intelligence,” he sneered. “Any last words?”
“Well, I did want to ask about true love . . .”
He cackled delightedly. “It doesn’t exist! Or if it does, it’s a sickness that robs men of reason and turns them into fools. The heart, my temporary temporal friend, is the weakest organ . . . as you are about to discover.”
And before I could say a word, I learned what it felt like to be stabbed through the heart by a very long, very sharp knife.
Not surprisingly, it hurt.
* * *
5 . T H E S P A N I A R D
BUT NOT FOR long. Once again, I found myself back on my futon. I dropped the book and grabbed my side, but there was no blood, no wound. I was glad to be alive and unharmed, but otherwise I wasn’t having a lot of sodding luck. I wondered who to interview next. Prince Humperdinck? Count Rugen, the six- fingered man? The former a sadist and murderer, the latter an even-worse sadist and murderer.
The one with his fearsome Zoo of Death, the other with his pain-inflicting Machine. The hell with them both, I decided suddenly. They were evil men, like Vizzini. They, too, would try to kill me. And for all I knew, they might succeed. I picked up The Princess Bride, skipped ahead to chapter 8, and glanced down.
“Hello, my name is Inig– oof!”
I went down hard, my arms and legs all tangled up with the arms and legs of Inigo Montoya. The swordsman was the first to recover.
He sprang to his feet, adopting the Fitzer Defense. Then, seeing I was helpless and unarmed, he extended his hand to me (the one not gripping that exquisite sword, the greatest since Excalibur) and pulled me up.
“Sorry about that,” I said, adjusting the sodding bifocals on my face.
“The fault was mine,” said Inigo. He would have been strikingly handsome if not for the twin scars disfiguring his face, one down each cheek. Yet those scars didn’t make him ugly, either, because you could tell, just from his expression, that they were badges of honor. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a man to kill.”
That man–the six-fingered man–stood across the room, his back to a billiard table. He was, of course, frozen.
“That man is frozen,” Inigo observed.
I explained about the bifocals.
“Are you by any chance a friend of Miracle Max?” asked Inigo.
“Never mind about that,” I said. Count Rugen stood like a statue, one hand thrust out as if gesturing Inigo to a halt, the other concealed behind his back. I knew, as the Spaniard did not, what was in that hidden hand. Another piece of treachery from the man who had murdered Inigo’s father and then contemptuously scarred him all those years ago. It was too much. Instead of asking about true love, I blurted out, “He’s got a dagger!”
“As soon as I go back to my apartment and you forget all this, he’s going to throw that dagger, and you–”
“Stop!” shouted Inigo, his eyes flashing passionately. “Not one word more! I understand that you mean well, my friend. You would spare me some calamity, perhaps even save my life. If I listened to you, I could disarm the Count or kill him now, and thus avoid my fate. And all it would cost me is my honor.”
“Did he show any honor when he killed your father? When he marked your face? Why show him any now?”
“Not for his sake,” Inigo said. “I feel only hate for Count Rugen. But hate is nothing. It wasn’t hate that led me to become the greatest–or perhaps the second greatest–swordsman in the world. It wasn’t hate that kept me searching for my father’s killer all these years. It wasn’t even hate that made me join Vizzini.” He placed a hand over his heart. “You see, I loved my father. And I will honor his memory now by fighting as he would have wanted me to fight.” He gave me the saddest, and also the bravest, smile I have ever seen. “No, my friend. For what you have tried to do, I thank you. But the son of Domingo Montoya will meet his fate like a man. I will avenge my father with his sword and my own hard-won skill. If they are not enough . . . Well, God never promised us that life was fair, did He?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” I said softly, and took off the sodding bifocals.
* * *
6 . T H E M A N I N B L A C K
BACK ON MY futon, I knew it was time to talk to the man who had out-wrestled Fezzik, out-thought Vizzini, and out-fenced Inigo. But where to meet him? The choice was obvious, though it filled me with dread. I paged back to chapter 6 and glanced down.
The Machine, like a shark, was a beautiful thing supremely fashioned for a single deadly purpose. Attached to it by a number of soft-rimmed cups of various sizes that clung to his skin like the mouths of a hundred remoras was the man in black. Of course, he wasn’t in black anymore. He wasn’t in anything at all.
Except pain. He was in a heck of a lot of that.
And the Machine hadn’t even been turned on yet. At least, not today. But every cell in Westley’s body was still screaming silently from the last time. That much was obvious just from looking at him.
“I don’t suppose you’ve come to rescue me,” he said when he saw me. There was only the barest hint of discomfort in his voice.
“I’m afraid not,” I said.
“I didn’t think so.” He sighed. “Who are you, and why is everyone else frozen?”
Everyone else was Count Rugen and Prince Humperdinck. The latter was frozen in the act of reaching for the pain dial of the Machine, but his furious expression left no doubt that he was going to crank it up as high as it could go the second he was unfrozen.
“You know what’s funny?” asked Westley after I’d explained about the bifocals.
“No, what?” I didn’t see anything particularly funny; in fact, I was feeling kind of sick to my stomach.
“Humperdinck is about to crank this obscene device up as high as it can go. I know it, you know it. The albino frozen back there in the shadows knows it. And you don’t need the mind of a Vizzini to figure out what the result of that is likely to be.” At this point, he actually chuckled, and I began to understand that it wasn’t only the name Dread Pirate Roberts that had commanded the loyalty of his pirate crew. “After all,” he said, “I didn’t do so hot even when the Machine was at its lowest setting.”
“And that’s funny?” I asked, wondering if the torture had driven him insane.
“No, not that. This: Just before you arrived, Humperdinck told me that Buttercup still loves me. He said it to torture me, to add to my pain in the seconds before he kills me. As if love, true love, can ever be a cause of pain. As if I could be so selfish as to mourn my own death rather than rejoice that my Buttercup lives. If he had said nothing, or had told me that they were married, or that she no longer loved me, or never had, then, even if I didn’t believe him, it would have hurt. Then he would have succeeded in adding to my pain. But now? Now, whatever the pain, it won’t be enough to extinguish my love. And though I die, and he lives, his pain, his loss, will be worse, I think. That’s what I find funny.”
“But you’ll still be dead,” I pointed out.
“I haven’t come this far to let death stop me.”
I was astonished. “Do you think you can defeat death like you did Fezzik or Inigo?”
“I’m not crazy. I know I can’t beat death. But love can. It does it all the time. Don’t you know that?”
He looked at me then, and I felt his eyes pierce me as only the eyes of a man about to die can.
“Why, you’ve never been in love, have you?”
There was no use lying. “I don’t know.”
“Believe me, you’d know.”
“I’m kind of between relationships . . .”
“I wouldn’t,” said Westley, giving me a pitying look, “change places with you for the world.”
* * *
7 . T H E P R I N C E S S B R I D E
IT WAS NEARLY morning. I was exhausted. And I still had one more interview to go. I had a feeling it was going to be the toughest of all. I flipped to the end of the book and glanced down.
I stood in the front rank of Humperdinck’s Brute Squad. Dead ahead, frozen in the act of galloping out of the castle gate on four snow-white horses, were Inigo, Fezzik, Westley, and the loveliest woman I have ever laid eyes on. How lovely? Trust me, Shakespeare would have broken his quill in despair, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m no Shakespeare. But here’s something you can try at home. Type the words “beautiful,” “sexy,” “perfection,” “goddess,” and “schwing” into your Internet search engine. Now hit the RETURN key. See the picture that pops up? Buttercup beats it cold. I would have stood there hypnotized forever if she hadn’t spoken.
“Who are you? And why is everyone frozen?”
Her voice was as incomparably beautiful as the rest of her. “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded. “Can’t you talk?”
“I-it’s just that you’re more beautiful than I imagined,” I croaked. “More beautiful even than Robin Wright.”
“Who’s Robin Wright?”
“She plays you in the . . .” Right. Before movies, remember?
“What I mean is, great beauty can be intimidating.”
“Ha! It didn’t intimidate Humperdinck.”
I gathered my wits and gave her the sodding explanation.
“I don’t understand a word of it,” she said with a toss of her golden hair. “Are you sure you haven’t come to kidnap me again, like that horrid Vizzini? He didn’t find my beauty too intimidating, either.”
“I’ve come to interview you.”
She groaned. Beautifully. “Worse than a kidnapper: a reporter. Well, make it fast. Westley and I have a lot of happily ever aftering to get to.”
“What is it with you and Westley anyway?” I asked. “I mean, for someone who claims to love you so much, he’s sure got a strange way of showing it.”
“There’s nothing strange about it!” she exclaimed indignantly and proceeded to tick off on the fingers of one hand: “He saved me from Vizzini. He saved me from the Snow Sand. He saved me from the R.O.U.S.s. And just now, he saved me from Humperdinck.”
“I admit he did all those things. But he questioned your love for him repeatedly while doing them. He let you go on believing that he was dead. He insulted and belittled you at every turn. And he wasn’t just verbally abusive–he was physically abusive, too. He struck you! I know this is before feminism and everything, but you’ve got to admit, he hasn’t exactly been Prince Charming.”
“Well, that’s the thing about love,” she said. “It’s not always pretty. It’s not always polite and noble and selfless. Sometimes it’s ugly and jealous and resentful. Sometimes it’s scary and hurtful. Nobody’s perfect, you know. I’m certainly not, despite all this great beauty that I never asked for and which has all kinds of unpredictable and by no means always pleasant effects on the men I meet . . . and a lot of the women, too.”
“I’m not finished,” Buttercup interrupted imperiously; she’d obviously been paying attention in princess school. “I don’t love Westley because he loves me. There are times I’ve wanted more than anything not to love him. But you see, it was never my choice. Love is like that. At least, true love is. And when you come right down to it, what’s the point of any other kind?” “What’s true love?” She didn’t even hesitate. “True love is when you not only love the other person for who they are, with all their flaws and imperfections, and all their virtues, too, but for who they can be at their absolute best, and you’re willing to do everything, even die, to help them reach that absolute best. True love means taking the biggest risk of all . . . opening your heart to a fellow human being, a creature as fallible as you know yourself to be, knowing that there are no promises in life, no guarantees, and that the future will bring great sorrows as well as great joys.”
“Wow,” I said. “But how do you know it’s really true love?”
“You know,” she said. “Something tells you. With me, it was the way I felt when Countess Rugen looked at Westley. Maybe for you it will be the way you feel when a certain someone looks at you in a certain way. Or something in the sound of her voice. It could be anything. That’s not important. What matters is what you do when it happens. Do you accept it and act on it, or do you ignore it, or try to deny it? Because true love isn’t always convenient. Almost never, in fact. It comes at a bad time. Or with the wrong person. That’s when you’ve got to find the courage to follow your heart, no matter what. Because the alternative is death. Living death, which is the worst kind. I know, because after I thought Westley had died, I tried to murder my own heart. And I very nearly succeeded.” She paused. “Why, you’re crying . . .”
“Just something in my eye,” I said, and took off the sodding biofocals.
* * *
8. THE BEAUTIFUL DENISE
IT WAS EARLY morning. I got off the futon and typed up what you’re reading now. Normally, I e-mail my assignments to Denise. But not this time. All I could think about was her voice. Not Buttercup’s. Denise’s. How beautiful it was. And how I’d always known somehow that I loved her but had always found reasons not to take the risk. She was younger than me. And lived in Brooklyn, far from my Lower East Side haunts. Most of all, there was Freelancer Rule No. 11: Never date the source of reliable work. But you know what? Buttercup was right. And Westley. And Bongiorno, that sly old fox. So I’m on my way to the offices of Ballantine Books to drop the interview off in person. When I get there, I’m going to ask Denise out for coffee. And tell her how I feel. Wish me luck. Better yet, wish me adventure–the biggest adventure of all: true love.