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Watch: The Vox Book Club tackles The Princess Bride in a critics roundtable

Soraya Nadia McDonald and Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz join Constance Grady to explain why Humperdinck is a lost Trump brother.

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Last week, the Vox Book Club sat down to hammer out our feelings on the most fun book no one’s ever read, and the source material for everyone’s favorite movie: The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, am an avowed fan of both book and movie, as I’ve repeated throughout our June coverage of The Princess Bride. But I wanted to get some new perspectives into the mix. So I asked Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz, a senior writer at Vox’s sister site The Cut, to join me, along with Soraya Nadia McDonald, the culture critic for The Undefeated and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Soraya is a big fan of the Princess Bride movie but had never read the book; Sangeeta was brand new to the book and hadn’t seen the movie in more than 20 years. Together, we hashed out our feelings on the book’s frame narrative, its gender norms, and the deep and pure love between Fezzik and Inigo Montoya. Plus, we came up with the correct and definitive dream casting for a Princess Bride prestige limited TV series. Netflix, call us.

Highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, are below. Once you finish up here, you can get ready for our July coverage of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, the book that imagines that Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton. And to make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up for our newsletter.

How William Goldman trolled us all

Constance Grady

So to start off, I want to know a little bit about your Princess Bride backstories. What is your relationship with the movie? Have you ever read the book before this month? How did the book change your understanding of the movie? Sangeeta, why don’t you start?

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

I remember seeing the movie once when I was 7 at a friend’s house. And I remember being totally enchanted by it. But it was the VCR era, so watching it again would have been a whole thing, and I did not watch it ever again. That was, like, almost 20 years ago.

I wasn’t familiar at all with the book, but because I saw it when I was really, really young, I had this idea that it was an extremely old movie based on an extremely old book. And this is why I picked up the book last week, and I kept thinking, “Wow, this is really funny for an old book.” And I kept checking to see if I had the right version because it was much funnier than I expected. I thought it was going to be a slog, and it was the exact opposite.

Constance Grady

It’s this very fizzy reading experience, I find, where you’re just bouncing along very happily from moment to moment. Soraya, how about you?

Soraya Nadia McDonald

I also was familiar with the movie before the book. I think the first time I saw it was actually when I was at summer camp. My parents used to send me to this camp in Durham, North Carolina, called Duke Young Writers camp. And my friends, they’re like, “We already love, love, love The Princess Bride.” And I was like, “What’s that?” And they were like, “Oh, we have to correct this immediately.”

And then I fell in love with it, too. To the point that by the time I graduated from college and moved out and had my first job, I went and picked up a little kitty from an animal shelter in Kansas City, and I named her Princess Buttercup.

But the book I hadn’t read, also like Sangeeta, until last week. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” There’s so much stuff that is cut. Which makes sense for the adaptation, in order for that movie to work as smoothly as it does. But I do like that Princess Buttercup — the cat definitely lives up to her namesake in the book. She’s a lot more demanding, dare I say bitchier, than Robin Wright’s iteration.

Constance Grady

Robin Wright, god bless her, I think she brings so much to that part, but her character is definitely the most underwritten character in the movie, and it really shows in places.

Like both of you, I saw the movie long before I read the book. I had an older sister who watched it incessantly with her friends, and I was, like, hanging out in the corner, longing for Buttercup’s dresses and wanting her hair.

I picked up the book for the first time in a used bookstore when I was about 13. And I read it in such a state of resentment, because I completely bought into the frame narrative. I believed that there was an unabridged Princess Bride out there and I was like, “Are you keeping it from me? I’m fully capable of reading this! I want to know the boring parts, because I’m a nerd.” It wasn’t until I was maybe a third of the way through that it started to dawn on me that, “Oh, he’s trolling me. There is not an unabridged Princess Bride out there.”

So I want to talk a little about the frame story. How did you react to it, and did William Goldman also get you a little bit?

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

He got me a lot! Up until one day ago, I totally fell for the abridgment. I sped through the book because I had [this event coming up], and I was like, “It’s fine. There’s a long version out there. I’m going to get it right after this. I’m going to take my time and savor the whole thing.” And then I started reading “Buttercup’s Baby,” and I was like, “Okay, I kind of feel like I haven’t heard of Florin before.” So I started looking that up, and then I’m outing myself as an idiot right now.

Constance Grady

So many people have had this exact experience, I promise.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

This guy really fully pulled this trick on me. I guess that’s what he wanted. And I think it really added to the story, to the experience of reading it.

Constance Grady

Soraya, how about you?

Soraya Nadia McDonald

So I have to admit, I cheated. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. But I was like, “Oh, I’ll just look it up to give myself some background before I start reading.” And then I was like, “Oh, this man just created this whole meta world!” There’s references to what, a department of Florinese studies at Columbia?

Constance Grady

And then it turns out that Stephen King is a descendant of Florinese writers and he’s their proudest son.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

And I kind of regret not having that experience of being taken in in that way. The movie came out in, what, 1987, and he wrote this in 1973. Man, if I had just read this before [it became] my default mode to just turn to the internet for everything before I start anything, I too could have been taken.

Constance Grady

He did keep up this pretense into the internet era. Depending on what edition you read, there’s a section where he tells you to write in to his publishers to get his version of the Buttercup and Westley reunion scene. And once they developed a Princess Bride website, he told you to just enter your email address into that site and you would get it that way. But instead of getting the actual reunion scene, you get a series of letters from William Goldman explaining that it’s all being held up by copyright laws, and he really apologizes. He just committed on so many levels.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

It reminds me a little bit of the magic that I felt like the first time I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Like wanting to go to the museum and follow the map and do all the things that these children did and hide. The way that he’s managed to create this enormous frame for this fantasy story is really admirable.

Constance Grady

And an enormous part of the pleasure of the book is watching this little kid just get his socks knocked off by how fun pure story is, which is what it’s a celebration of. And which is why I think that adaptation choice to have Fred Savage represent young William Goldman is so sweet and works so well.

But there’s also the slight sourness, I think, of the frame story. Adult William Goldman is kind of an asshole. He’s sort of casting-couching the slightly complicit supermodel, and he’s terrible to his wife. There’s this sort of sourness that you put against the heightened fantasy and true love-iness of the main story that makes it feel all the more intense.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

It cuts through the saccharine-ness that characterizes the movie so much.

Constance Grady

It’s the equivalent of Fred Savage being like, “Is this a kissing book?”

Why Inigo Montoya might be The Princess Bride’s true main character

Constance Grady

So, going into the main story a little bit, let’s hit Fezzik and Inigo. They get much more elaborate backstories in the book than they do in the movie. There are whole chapters where we learn about Fezzik being a sad Turkish wrestling child star, and the full lore of the six-fingered sword. So how did those revelations play out for you?

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Oh, my gosh, I love them. I love their backstories. When Westley died the first time, I was sad; it was very touching. But I thought about it for a while and I was like, “At least it’s not Inigo, because he really has something that he needs to do.” He had such purity of character, whereas Westley — we can get into this — was a little bit flawed in certain ways. But I’m sad to hear, and I will rewatch the movie after this, that that didn’t come through in the movie at all.

Constance Grady

Oh, I think it came through in the movie, personally. There might be a counter take on this, but I feel like there’s a reason that the final duel between Inigo and the count is the most quoted scene in the movie. I think you’re absolutely right that Inigo’s clarity of purpose really pushes the narrative momentum forward and is arguably more compelling than Westley and Buttercup’s quest to be reunited. Which I feel like no one ever fully buys into; it’s just there as trapping.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

And if we’re talking about relationships in the movie, I would say the relationship between Fezzik and Inigo is more compelling to me than that of Buttercup and Westley. Their love for each other is so pure.

Constance Grady

When they play their rhyming game? It’s the purest of true love. Soraya, did it work for you?

Soraya Nadia McDonald

I have always had this well of love for Inigo. That sense of having something that you’ve been carrying with you from childhood very much comes through in the film. But in terms of the way the relationships are developed in the book, they’re much more complex and spun out and really sweet.

Normally I would say, “Leave the Princess Bride film adaptation alone. This is the definitive one. We don’t need another one. This is it.” But after reading the book, I kind of want The Princess Bride for grown-ups next.

Constance Grady

A fun fact is the original tagline for the book was “A hot fairy tale for adults.” They kind of made it sound like a sex parody fairy tale.

Debating the Westley and Buttercup problem

Constance Grady

Princess Buttercup gets a little bit flattened out in the movie. And I think she’s still arguably kind of underwritten in the book compared to the other characters. But there’s a lot of specificity to the way she thinks in the book that you don’t necessarily get in the movie. She names her horse Horse, which is just such a choice. How does she read for you?

Soraya Nadia McDonald

I love that she’s more defiant, even if she’s also more unpleasant. When we’re talking about the gender roles: There’s this expectation that she smells good. Her dad’s like, “You need to take a bath because you’ve been riding all day and you smell like horse.” And she’s like, “Well, I’m fine with that.” Whereas I think in the movie, she’s just very pretty and sweet. Especially the fire swamp scene, where I’m like, “Girl, pick up a rock. Hit the rat of unusual size. Like what are you doing? Why are you letting this man do all the work? He needs help.”

Constance Grady

He’s also a little bit of a dick to her in places. Like in the final culminating scene against Humperdinck, when it climaxes in him yelling, “Woman, you’re the property of the Dread Pirate Roberts.”

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

And he slaps her right at the beginning! This was before I knew who he was. And he strikes her, refers to her as “Woman,” and I’m like, “Yeah, this is probably Westley, but fuck him if it is because that’s really not okay.”

I like that she pushed him. I like that she, at every crossroads, chose the thing that was best for her. I think in an academic sense, she’s kind of dumb, which is really funny. But she also prioritizes herself and respects herself and emotionally I think is quite mature. After she had this scarring romance as a young person, she moved forward and said, “This isn’t going to work for me.” Which is what a lot of people don’t do and end up in a bunch of crappy relationships. So that’s my very extrapolated reading of Buttercup as a character.

Constance Grady

I think that’s so fun. And also going back to what Soraya was pointing out earlier, there is a lot in this book about the labor that goes into beauty. There’s that beauty-as-sports-stats kind of montage where she’s climbing up the ranks, and all of it is done not through anything she’s innately born with, but through the work that she’s putting into it. Which is kind of unusual, I think, even in contemporary writing about gender.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Yeah, that’s really fascinating. She’s sort of traditionally Eurocentrically beautiful, but Goldman really goes into the effort that comes with that. He treats beauty as a privilege in an interesting way that, as you said, doesn’t really happen in contemporary work. He acknowledges that a lot of what she gets access to is because of the way she looks.

Constance Grady

But then the flip side of that is all of the characters in this book have this one thing that they’re superlatively great at, right? Fezzik’s the strongest, Inigo’s the greatest fencer, Westley’s the smartest. And then Buttercup: She’s the prettiest. She did put in the work to get there, but it is a much more passive skill set than anyone else gets. And I think Goldman was a little less interested in her than anyone else.

The saddest of The Princess Bride’s good parts

Constance Grady

We’ve talked a little about how this book is very frothy and fun. But I find that part of what makes the tone so interesting is that it’s a fun satire of adventure stories, but it also really works as an adventure story. And parts of it are always kind of harrowing for me. So what were some moments that stood out for you that really got you in the feels?

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

It was actually one of the asides with little baby Goldman, which initially irritated me because, again, I was unfamiliar with the book. I was like, “Why do you keep interrupting the story?” And then they became really tender.

It was the aside where he started crying because the dad didn’t want to tell him that Westley had died, and then he learned that Westley had died. The whole spiel and the quote where he says, “Some of the wrong people die” — I won’t forget that part. In terms of storytelling, that’s a really powerful tool. Even though he kind of cheated and brought Westley back to life.

Constance Grady

I always think of that, “Jesus, what’d you read me this book for?” It’s so good. It’s like that despair you feel as a kid when, I don’t know, you’re reading Harry Potter and Sirius Black dies, and it’s like, “What?”

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Yeah, you relive that in a way. Which is not something we really get as often with serious literature as an older reader.

Constance Grady

Because that’s sort of the deal you’ve made with the author, that they’re going to make you feel kind of shitty and you’ll just accept that. But when you’re a kid, there’s this joyfulness built into the pact. So when the author changes their mind on that, it’s like, “Oh, my god.”

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

“How dare you?”

Soraya Nadia McDonald

“I’ve been manipulated. How could you?”

Constance Grady

Soraya, did you have any moments like that, that got you?

Soraya Nadia McDonald

You know, it’s easy for me when I watch the film to let Buttercup’s parents fade out. We just don’t worry about them. They’re irrelevant. And yet Goldman has taken so much care and attention to establishing them and building them out. And so one of the things where I was just like, “Really?” was when he’s describing Buttercup’s mother. I actually want to read this paragraph out loud if I can:

Buttercup’s mother was a gnarled shrimp of a woman, thorny and worrying, who had always dreamed of somehow just once being popular, like the Countess was said to be. She was a terrible cook, an even more limited housekeeper. How Buttercup slid from her womb was, of course, beyond her. But she had been there when it happened; that was enough for her.

She’s like, “I don’t know how I made this child. But here we are.”

Constance Grady

Goldman is very tender, even to these minor characters. They all have their own little tragedies that are very funny, but also have just a little kernel of melancholy in the middle.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

And the relationship between her parents is really funny. They have however many dozens of arguments a day, but the dad says something like, “I would die,” and the mom is like, “No, I would never be able to live if you die.” Ostensibly they hate each other.

Constance Grady

But they mean so much to each other, right?

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Which sort of ends up getting translated into the relationship between Miracle Max and his wife. “I’m not a witch, I’m your wife!” They have that sort of contentious relationship. But somehow they’ve been together for eons.

Constance Grady

That’s sort of William Goldman’s thesis on relationships: You will hate each other, but you will also be essential to one another. Which is not exactly an ideal fairy-tale romance but I think comes across in all the portraits of relationships we see here. Except arguably Westley and Buttercup.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

They’re the least developed, I think, of all the romantic couples in the story, if we’re laying them all side by side.

Constance Grady

Buttercup’s parents have a fully developed relationship and they’re barely in it. But, again, Westley and Buttercup are more like archetypes that anything else.

Is Humperdinck the lost Trump brother?

Soraya Nadia McDonald

I will say, Humperdinck comes off as an even bigger jerk, because you really get the sense of loss — loss isn’t the right word. But the fact that Buttercup is heartbroken and now she’s like, “Okay, fine, I’ll marry this guy. Don’t love you. I’m not attracted to you.” At least Humperdinck in the movie is, I mean, he’s a jerk, but he’s fairly conventionally attractive. And here, it’s really like, “Oh, gosh.”

It sort of reminds me of Fiddler on the Roof, when one of the daughters is supposed to be getting married to the butcher, Lazar Wolf. And he’s old, and there is not anything that sparks any sort of excitement in anybody’s minds about Lazar Wolf. And Humperdinck is the same way. You’re just like, “Oh, girl, we got to get you out of here.”

Constance Grady

There’s that description of him looking like a barrel.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Yes. Oh, my gosh, that was such a good description and you can picture it perfectly. Like a Gaston type of character.

Constance Grady

He is a Gaston archetype, but a little less concerned with outward appearances.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Yeah, he’s very concerned with violence, it seems.

Constance Grady

He’s kind of a Trump archetype, right? Like, you think about the brothers and their safari pictures, with the elephant. And they would also be very offended if someone were to set them up with a bald woman.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Again it comes back to that idea that Princess Buttercup’s job is to be pretty, and that’s kind of it. “She is ornamental. And I go in and do the job of wielding power and walking like a crab.”

Constance Grady

It’s like these two gender extremes: Her job is to be feminine and ornamental. And his job is to be masculine and dangerous. And that is the ideal that he’s reaching for all time.

Is it okay to love Westley?

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Speaking of men, can we talk about Westley?

Constance Grady

Of course, of course. Do you think he’s too perfectly good at everything?

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

I liked that about him, but I hated that I liked that about him.

Constance Grady

He’s very compelling in ways that I’m kind of mad at myself for being compelled by. But I think also, many of us fell in love with Cary Elwes in the movie as children, and it’s really hard to fight against that.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

He’s so cute. He’s cute in spite of that ridiculous mini ponytail.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

The little mustache.

Constance Grady

They really captured him at the height of his angelic youthful beauty.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

There’s that tension of, like, “Oh, god, he’s perfect, but I kind of hate that I love that he’s perfect.” It’s striking at something in terms of this fairy-tale archetype of what a perfect guy is supposed to be like. And he’s it: He’s actually dashing, he can actually sweep you off your feet. How many generations of American women have been raised so that this is what you fantasize about when you’re a little girl, right? That is the entire Disney Princess canon. And even when you’re aware of all of those things, you still kind of find yourself falling for it anyway.

Constance Grady

It’s programmed into you so deeply that it’s very hard to extricate yourself.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

At the beginning, when Buttercup is like, “Maybe he’s stupid. He’s just dumb as a rock,” I was like, “Oh, thank god, I won’t have a crush on this character, because he’s going to be dumb.” And then he ends up being a genius on top of everything else. He’s just perfect. He’s what you said: [everything] that we have been taught to aspire to, aesthetically and in a lot of other ways.

Constance Grady

I like that Buttercup’s inner monologue in that section ends at her deciding that the only reason people like him is that he has good teeth. Studies have shown that teeth and good grammar are the things people say they are looking for when asked. And Westley has both of those skills.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

We still don’t know if he has a good personality, though. And evidence sort of proves that maybe it’s not that great.

Constance Grady

Yeah, that is the problem with this hero archetype. We really left the personality part out.

Scientifically determining the best quote in The Princess Bride

Constance Grady

I have one last question for you guys. Since this book is the source for one of the most quotable movies ever made, and a lot of the quotes made it into the movie: You only get to have one Princess Bride quote for the rest of your life to use in various internet discussions. What’s it going to be?

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Oh, I need a minute.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

I think I have one. It’s when they’re kidnapping Buttercup. And someone keeps saying, “Inconceivable.”

Constance Grady

Vizzini.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Okay, yeah. And then someone else says, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

It’s so classic. It happens every day to people in your regular life. It’s never going to die; that will forever be relevant. People are constantly doing that.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

That was mine too.

Constance Grady

That was also what I was going to pick! So I think this conversation has settled that that is the most impactful and iconic quote.

Actually, Wallace Shawn, who played Vizzini, who keeps saying, “Inconceivable,” he found out that the role was apparently originally going to go to Danny DeVito. So Wallace Shawn decided that his choice as an actor would be to play every scene and every line the exact opposite way that he imagined Danny DeVito would play it.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Oh, my gosh, that’s so funny. And that’s such a good way to approach it.

Constance Grady

So there’s a shadow Princess Bride somewhere.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Oh, my gosh, the DeVito cut. Wow. Now I’m trying to envision Wallace Shawn as the Wormwood father from Matilda and Danny DeVito as Vizzini.

Constance Grady

It is a fascinating alternate reality. And it’s so hard to hear anyone else’s voice in your head if you’ve seen the movie a bunch of times because the deliveries are so specific.

Deconstructing The Princess Bride

Constance Grady

Okay, now let’s go ahead to the audience Q&A. Nathaniel says, “To me, this book is the only successful deconstructionist novel, which makes it very, very different than the film. What do you think about all the book’s messages regarding the relationship between the reader and author and about the movie’s lack of exploration of this theme?”

I kind of want to talk to Nathaniel about what he means by deconstructionist novel because I feel like he means something very specific, and I think that term can be taken in a lot of different ways. But I would argue that the relationship between the author and reader is still there in the movie, only the figure of the author is replaced by the figure of the paternal grandfather reading through the text to the kid, and sort of dictating his responses.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Yeah, I’m in agreement with that. As I was searching around for what other smart people had said, I came across Marissa Martinelli’s article for Slate, where what she rightfully points out is there’s a sense of humility in the way that Goldman adapts the story for the screen and pulls back on a lot of those impulses. As opposed to fighting to keep them and fold them in.

Constance Grady

Getting rid of the Zoo of Death is such a “kill your darlings” moment. Because it would clutter the movie up, but he does clearly just love it, and he built up to it with so much affection.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Which, again, is why I think there’s a good argument for making another version, even maybe a limited series TV adaptation instead of a film. So you have that extra time to just really build everything out. I would just love to see, like, this dude and his psychologist wife fighting.

Constance Grady

And their poor, poor son, who I hope is also getting therapy about his dad’s fatphobia.

Dream-casting the inevitable remake

Constance Grady

This actually leads us to another reader question: Who would you cast in a remake?

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Oh, that’s easy. I was thinking of Cary Elwes and perfect men. I would cast Dev Patel as Westley.

Constance Grady

Oh, yes. He has been really killing it in terms of playing period heroes.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

And he’s excellent at it. So that’s my vote for Westley. I’ll think about Buttercup.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

I’m not saying this should happen, but in the sort of universe of things that Hollywood would do, I could very easily seeing a co-producer being like, “We should get Timothée Chalamet.”

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Totally inappropriate.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

It’s not what I would want, but I’m like, “Somebody is going to be like, ‘You know what? That guy.’”

Constance Grady

He could play a part in our our hypothetical Princess Bride revival. He could be kind of a fun casting-against-type with Humperdinck. I feel like he wants to play a villain.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

He could go a kind of Johnny Depp-ish route but without the abuse.

Constance Grady

That’s what we hope for. I think Florence Pugh could be a fun Buttercup. And maybe she could do for Buttercup what she did for Amy in Little Women.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

She’s very good at portraying young women who actually have a point of view and a direction and a sense of what they want and where they’re going, and have this sort of authority that feels very natural in all of her characters. I think she would give Buttercup the attitude that she deserves. She would be able to imbue that character with it.

Constance Grady

Jonathan in the comments is suggesting Zendaya would also be good.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

That’s excellent. Zendaya and Dev Patel for the remake.

Constance Grady

I thought that there didn’t need to be a remake, but this is kind of winning me over.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

I like the idea of giving it room to breathe in sort of a serious format. I think something like this could thrive on that.

Constance Grady

The prestige cable format. I think that would be fun.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

HBO, if there are any producers watching this ...

Constance Grady

Yeah, Netflix. Call us.

Analyzing the book’s deep cuts

Constance Grady

Denise says, “The change of the Zoo of Death to the Pit of Despair is one of the things I dislike the most. I love the Zoo of Death. What is one of the things you miss most in the conversion of the book to the movie?”

I think Fezzik’s backstory. I don’t necessarily think it should have gone into the movie. I obviously love André the Giant, but he’s not an actor, and I don’t think that burden should have been placed on him. But it’s so endearing, once you find out that Fezzik’s greatest fear is to be left all alone by himself forever, and that his parents basically stage-mommed him into this life of wrestling that he never wanted. So I really miss that part, I think it adds a lot to the character. It makes him even more lovable.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

It would be a nice little flashback scene.

Constance Grady

In our hypothetical Netflix series, we could give each of the core four characters a central episode that had a flashback to their origin stories.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

That’s such a good idea. Again, I don’t remember the movie all that well after watching it 20 years ago. But does the Pit of Despair involve any animals?

Constance Grady

It does not! It has the Machine, which I have to say: onscreen, very kinky in ways I don’t think I’m fully qualified to analyze.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

I hadn’t unpacked that, but yeah. It’s kind of a sex dungeon.

Constance Grady

Just people half-naked, strapped down, with those weird little cups in all the orifices.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

Quick question — departing from the sex dungeon route, I’m sorry — but when he writes about sucking the life out of someone, what do you think that means?

Constance Grady

I think that is purposefully ambiguous. It’s there to illustrate that what’s happening to Westley is the worst thing you can imagine and will really hurt him, but it’s not in any way gory or unpleasant for a kid to read. Really bad, but in a vague way.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

When I picture that in my mind’s eye now, I think of the Dementors from Harry Potter. Which is funny, because before I became acquainted with Harry Potter and that universe, when I saw them onscreen for the first time, I was like, “Oh, those are the Echthroi from Madeleine L’Engle.” That is what I imagine when I think of them.

Constance Grady

That’s interesting that that’s an archetype in children’s literature: this bad guy who is bad by making you cease to exist, but in a way that’s not so specific that it would freak you out to think about it too hard.

Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz

And not necessarily physical, either. At first I thought, “Is this his memories being taken away? Is it life experience?” I go very literal with those things. But I think you’re right that it’s up for interpretation for a reason.

Constance Grady

But it’s definitely one of those things where you read it and you’re like, “Okay. I can picture basically nothing here, and that’s okay.”

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