The Princess Bride: Book vs. Movie

Though I saw The Princess Bride for the first time when I was a kid, I only recently got around to reading the book. The film is one of the rare movies from my childhood that stands up to repeated viewings on the basis of more than just nostalgia; I was curious how the experience of reading the book would compare.

The Princess Bride is a magical, wonderfully quirky novel, and the movie adaptation stays very true to the text in terms of plot, character, and tone. The differences between the two are subtle, but each version has its own unique strengths.

What the book does better:
1) Character backstories. In the movie, all we truly know about Fezzik, Inigo, and Vizzini is that they’re a band of roving miscreants; nothing is explained about how they come together, and though we know Inigo’s father was slain by the six-fingered man, we know very little about why or when.

The book fills in all those details for you. You get to see Inigo’s life, starting in his childhood, get a filled out origin story for Fezzik, and know more about how this rag-tag trio came together. The book also gives more space to Fezzik and Inigo after Vizzini’s death. Each of them is used at times as a viewpoint character, allowing insight into their thoughts and emotions that makes them more fully realized. This same expansion happens with other major players: Count Rugen and Miracle Max don’t receive their full due in the movie, but are fabulous and detailed characters in the book.

2) The world is richer. One of the most heartbreaking cuts for the movie is the elimination of the Zoo of Death. It’s an absence you never notice until you read the book; I understand why it was cut, because the story still makes sense without it and the novel had to be condensed into a couple hours of film. Still, it would have been cool to see all of Prince Humperdinck’s dangerous critters portrayed on the screen, and its inclusion in the book helps to shape Humperdinck’s character, showing his pride in his hunting prowess in a way the movie can’t convey.

The book has a generally richer world beyond the Zoo of Death, as well. It gives the details of the political interplay between Guilder and Florin, providing more context for Princess Buttercup’s abduction. These world details push The Princess Bride a few notches closer to a true fantasy tale and out of the kid’s book fairy tale type territory.

What the movie does better:
1) The frame device. There’s a whole long (fictional) explanation in the beginning of the novel about William Goldman’s connection to The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern: how the book is actually this long treatise on Florinese history, and the story Goldman loved as a child was really a condensed version his dad had created by reading him “just the good parts.” This frame is continued throughout with parenthetical asides where Goldman comments on or elides Morgenstern’s “original manuscript” which are clever but ultimately overplayed (IMHO).

The simpler frame device used in the movie (a grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson) captures the quirky spirit from the book without taking it to unnecessary levels. The interjections are well-timed, pulling you from the story in a story at just the right moments, uncluttered by unnecessary details.

2) The humor. The delivery of the dialogue gives the humorous moments an extra pop, whether it’s Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Miracle Max or Vizzini’s speech when he’s figuring out which goblet Westley poisoned. The physical humor is another thing that doesn’t come across as clearly on the page as on the screen. The success of this element in the film is largely thanks to the movie’s impeccable casting. You’ll find no truer Vizzini than Wallace Shawn, and I can imagine no one else except Andre the Giant as Fezzik—and both of their attitudes and delivery are key in building the mood.

Watch or read first:
Watch. The aspects of the plot that are cut from the book version to fit the movie’s time constraints aren’t especially major points, and missing them won’t hinder your enjoyment in the least. The casting for the film was so incredibly spot on that having those actors in your mind while you’re reading is in no way distracting or contradictory. In a very meta way, the streamlined version of the story for the movie is analogous to the way fictionalized William Goldman cuts the “original” Morgenstern book down to its essential parts, keeping the excitement and slicing out the lengthy details. If you like the movie, going back and reading the book gives you enough extra stuff to enjoy that it won’t feel repetitive, and nothing happens that’s so surprising it can be spoiled by knowing the outcome when you go in.


The Epic of Gilgamesh: A World-building analysis

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I read The Epic of Gilgamesh for the first time only about a month ago. It’s not long; about half of the 125-page book I borrowed is scholarly background and analysis. The actual myth is around 60 pages—and it casts a massive shadow for such a small text. It’s the earliest surviving epic, believed to date from around 2,100 BC. For context, The Odyssey was written in the 8th century BC, and theologians believe the earliest Bible books were written between 1,500 and 1,000 BC.

Whether you realize it or not, a lot of the Western cultural myths that endure today owe their origin to Gilgamesh, either directly through plot points (e.g. the Bible’s story of the Flood) or indirectly thanks to the idea of the heroic epic. If you’re a genre writer, especially, Gilgamesh should be required reading at some point in your life. I’ve broken down what I found to be some of the most unique aspects of the world and tale below.

Gilgamesh and the Raglan scale
The Raglan scale (also called the Rank-Raglan scale, after the name of its two developers) is a list of traits common to the stories of most heroes and epic figures, including ancient ones like Buddha and Odysseus, as well as modern heroes like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. It covers strange convergences in the origin stories of a variety of heroic and legendary figures (here’s a link if you want to see the specifics of the 22 points).

It’s a bit tricky to determine Gilgamesh’s score on the Raglan scale, only because nothing of his life before becoming king is included in the epic (which is, itself, one point on the scale). But he scores at least an 11, possibly up to an 18, depending on who you ask. For comparison, this puts him in the same range as such epic heroes as Perseus (18) and Hercules (17), and religious figures like Jesus (18) and Buddha (15).

Why does this matter? The simple answer is that this pattern is a part of our sub-conscious understanding of heroes. They have a mysterious origin, often with a godly (or otherwise supernatural) parent; their rise to power is almost always balanced by a fall and mysterious death. That it applies to Gilgamesh—widely acknowledged as the oldest known hero—demonstrates that this pattern of the hero’s journey has indeed been a part of the human consciousness since the earliest instances of literature.

The oral tradition
Many of the ancient epics were composed originally as poetry as opposed to prose, in keeping with the fact that they largely originated from an oral rather than a written tradition. These epics were then put to paper (or stone tablet, as the case may be) many years after the story’s initial creation. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of these stories.

There is a unique cadence to epic poetry, the emulation of which gives stories the mythological feel familiar from religious texts. Repetition was the device that most stuck out to me in creating this feel. I noticed this most in the fourth section, “The Search for Everlasting Life,” in which the description of Gilgamesh’s face as looking like one who has made a long journey, “burned from heat and cold,” is repeated twice with each new figure he meets. His great deeds are also listed in full with each new person he encounters—again, a repetition that makes more sense in an out-loud recitation than a from the page reading.

Emulating this style is one way to give modern works—especially fantasy or science fiction epics—that same mythological feel. A notable example of this is the recitation of titles after characters are introduced on Game of Thrones (Danaerys Stormborn, Queen of the Andals, Mother of Dragons, the Unburnt, etc. etc.). It’s a device that can get tedious rather quickly, so one to use sparingly, but it’s a more subtle way to infuse that feel into the works than the Ye Olde English used by some fantasy writers trying to accomplish the same thing.

While Gilgamesh is a similar king/hero to others found in countless epics (as the Raglan scale exploration above demonstrates), the character of Enkidu is a far more unique figure and—to me, at least—infinitely more interesting.

Enkidu is created by the gods as a companion to Gilgamesh to stop him from raping and pillaging his way across his own country (no really, here’s a direct quote from section 1, “The Coming of Enkidu”: “No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all…His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble”). The goddess of creation, Aruru, made an image in her mind and created Enkidu out of clay. His description marks him as a beastly creature, with a hair-covered body and long hair on his head; he also knew nothing of cultivation or culture, “ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes.” Enkidu is sent to a harlot who teaches him “the woman’s art” and civilizes him enough to take him to Gilgamesh. The two men wrestle and subsequently become besties until Enkidu’s untimely death.

That origin story is interesting enough in and of itself, but it’s Enkidu’s role in the narrative that really caught my eye. Enkidu helps Gilgamesh to kill the Humbaba that guards the Cedar forest, then later also assists him in killing the Bull of Heaven; these two acts earn him the ire of the gods, who give Enkidu the sickness that kills him in retribution. Which is fucked up, if you think about it, since it was because of Gilgamesh Enkidu did these things in the first place. Gilgamesh recognizes the fucked-uppedness of the situation and is overcome first with grief and then with the realization of his own mortality, traveling to the underworld to search for everlasting life.

It is interesting that to tame Gilgamesh’s wild side the gods give him an even more wild companion. In Enkidu, Gilgamesh finds a warrior who is his equal. Enkidu becomes his closest friend because he is able to provide a challenge that was missing in all the other warriors of the land. In this, I see a message of recognizing and confronting one’s duality to achieve the level of self-awareness and competence that makes one worthy of ruling. Also interesting is the fact that it is sleeping with a woman that instructs Enkidu in the ways of civilization enough that he can be presented to Gilgamesh at all. Though mortal female figures are as notably lacking in The Epic of Gilgamesh (as they are in many ancient epics) this recognition of the role of the feminine in shaping masculine identity is a window into the Sumerian beliefs on gender roles, otherwise absent from the male-dominated narrative.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh had the original bromance. Like many of the Greek heroes, their bond of mutual respect and admiration is depicted as stronger and more pure than most romantic relationships—in fact, no attention is given in the epic to either man’s love life beyond their early sexual conquests, while on Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh grieves for him as he would for a lover. This emphasis on the friendship-love bond as opposed to the romantic-love bond is refreshing for a modern reader, since there is almost always some kind of love interest for the hero in more recent epics. It’s proof that such storylines are in fact not necessary to create an emotionally charged story.

Gods and monsters
The mythological figures in The Epic of Gilgamesh were not nearly as familiar to me before reading as those of other cultures, like the Greeks and Romans—or I should say, I didn’t realize where the figures had been drawn from, because they are equally prevalent as references in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. There are many of these figures (obviously) but I’ll point out the two I found most recognizable on my reading.

If you watch Ancient Aliens, you’ve heard of the Anunnaki, who are the offspring of the god Anu (the Sumerian/Babylonian god of the sky, and rough Zeus equivalent as father of the gods). They have only a brief appearance in Gilgamesh during the Flood narrative, portrayed as the seven judges of hell who light the land on fire as a preface to the arrival of the storm.

The Humbaba is a familiar name to players of RPGs, notably Final Fantasy; a monster by this name appears in III, VI, VIII, XII, and XIII. In Final Fantasy it is almost always a Behemonth-type enemy, strong and difficult to kill. In the epic, the Humbaba has the face of a lion, the claws of a vulture, and the horns of a bull. He also breathes fire and has a snake’s head at the end of his penis, because when the Sumerians set about to create terrifying beasties, they didn’t fuck around. (Enkidu and Gilgamesh also make prominent appearances in many of the Final Fantasy games, where Gilgamesh is a great swordsman, and Enkidu his faithful dog).

The relationship between gods and mortals in the Sumerian/Babylonian mythology is similar to the relationship in Greek mythology. The gods are mostly removed from mortal concerns, but can be appealed to in times of need; whether or not they intervene is, of course, up to the gods, and they are equally as likely to punish those who annoy or insult them as they are to help the loyal believer. The Sumerian gods are capricious and fallible. In “The Story of the Flood,” Enlil (the god of the earth) orders all humanity to be killed because—and I quote—“The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” Basically the equivalent of having noisy neighbors and deciding to burn their house down instead of just asking them to shut up. After the flood passes, though, many of the gods are pretty salty with Enlil for his over-reaction, and Enlil himself feels some remorse for his actions, giving Utnapishtim (essentially Sumerian Noah) eternal life as a reward for having survived the catastrophe.

The Sumerian pantheon is not explored in depth in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The way it’s sprinkled in assumes some pre-knowledge of these figures, which of course makes sense, given that the target audience was probably other Babylonians that knew damn well who Anu was, meaning he needed no introduction. This in and of itself is a lesson to world-builders. It never bothered me that I didn’t know the gods’ backstories. I looked them up later (because I’m that kind of gal) but the lack of explanation doesn’t impede understanding—whereas a break for explanation would have destroyed the flow. You need to know all the details of your world, but your reader doesn’t (necessarily). Sparing details, name-drops, and hints can do as much to shape a vast history and culture as pages of description—and are way easier to read.

Let’s Talk Rejection

It’s been a pretty amazing summer for me, publication-wise. It started with Novella-T publishing McBurglar and the Man O’War, officially the longest thing I’ve gotten in print. A couple weeks after that came out, I got an acceptance from Wraparound South for my short story, “Lucky Devil.”

Both of those were very exciting—don’t get me wrong—but neither one of them had been on the market for very long. McBurglar never even got a rejection (partially because there’s only so many places you can send novellas) and “Lucky Devil” was rejected only 4 times before ultimately finding its forever home.

This is not true of my latest two short story acceptances, “Game Misconduct” (forthcoming from Rind) and “Shards” (just released in the Summer 2016 issue of Menda City Review). Both of these stories started as part of my Master’s thesis, though they’ve been edited so much since then they’re hardly recognizable. Both stories started out with different titles (“The Back-Up” and “Knowledge is Power,” respectively).

And both stories got rejected. A lot. Between the first time I submitted it in August 2011 and its acceptance in August 2016, “Shards” was rejected a whopping 35 times. “Game Misconduct” has better numbers (22 rejections between April 2011 and July 2016) but only because I had slightly less faith in it as an entity (it’s a hockey story, if the title didn’t give it away) and as a result submitted it less.

Many of these rejections came from journals I have no business submitting to but continue to submit to anyway: GlimmerTrain, Tin HouseCarve, Mid-American Review, all the usual suspects. Others came from journals with higher acceptance percentages for whom the stories weren’t a good fit for one reason or another. Almost certainly, a good 50% of those rejections happened because I sent the stories out too soon, before they were really ready. I’m more grateful than you’d probably believe for those rejections, because it gave me a chance to edit both stories into forms I’m proud to have in print.

In the 5-ish years I’ve been sending out work, I’ve received 190 rejections and 14 acceptances. Included in this was a publication dry spell that lasted almost 2 years (November 2013 to October 2015). As I understand it, these are not unusual statistics. Not that my normalcy was any consolation for those 23 months I spent wondering if my writing had become unpublishable.

Rejection is a part of a working writer’s life. It’s so much a part of our lives that we get excited when we get a particularly nice rejection. A friend of mine recently received a personal rejection from One Story and was thrilled, as she should have been, because personal rejections from elite journals are worth as many self-confidence points as some acceptances.

Submitting work is a numbers game. I think of it like playing poker: you won’t get far without skill, but you won’t win without an equal share of luck. The more you submit, the greater your statistical chances of acceptance. Whether your story has 10 rejections or 20 or 200, keep editing and sending, and never give up. Eventually it’ll find the eyes of an editor who has just as much faith in that story as you do. When that acceptance comes, it’ll taste ten times as sweet for every time someone told it “no.”

The Power of Suggestion

I think my favorite thing about season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones was the villain Kilgrave. And yes, partially that’s because he’s played by David Tennant (oh Doctor my Doctor), but his mind control superpower also makes him one of the most nefarious villains in the Marvel universe. Kilgrave robs his victims of their free will. When he tells you to do something—like cut your own arm off, or shoot your parents—you do it, and it doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to.

Another recent comic adaptation I’m fully obsessed with is AMC’s Preacher. The titular Preacher, Jesse Custer, gains a mind control ability very similar to Kilgrave’s after being possessed by a cosmic being known as Genesis. This “Word of God” forces others to obey his commands. The details of the two abilities are different. Kilgrave’s is caused by a virus, meaning it’s possible to become immune, as Jessica Jones is in the series; Jesse’s power is so far undefendable, even working on vampires and angels. Jesse can choose when to use his power, while Kilgrave’s is on all the time; Kilgrave’s commands expire, while Jesse’s seem permanent. At the basic level, though, the two abilities are the same. They speak, you obey.

There’s a point in the Jessica Jones plotline where she wonders what could happen if Kilgrave’s powers were used for good. She experiments briefly with being his moral compass, ultimately finding that he’s too far gone. This is a failing on Kilgrave’s part as an individual, not necessarily of the powers. In Jessica Jones, the question remains: what could happen if mind control abilities were given to the good guys?

Preacher answers that question. Well, sort of. In theory, there’d be no more moral figure to imbue with the Word of God than a preacher. In practice, Jesse Custer is not your typical holy man, but he’s a generally good guy who means well most of the time. Since no well-rounded character is ever fully-good or fully-evil, we’ll call him an apt foil to Kilgrave, if on no other basis than his role in the narrative (he’s our hero, and Kilgrave was the villain).

The first thing that happens when Jesse uses God Voice: he tells one of his parishioners to “open his heart” to his mother, and the parishioner goes to her nursing home and cuts his heart out. So unintended consequences—that’s one inherent down-side to mind control, but we can write that off morally to Jesse’s inexperience with his new ability. He was trying to help; he just didn’t get the words right.

A more troubling example is what happens to Eugene. Jesse at one point uses his powers on Eugene’s behalf. When Eugene protests this, calling it “cheating,” Jesse is offended. They argue, Jesse gets angry, and in an emotional moment he tells Eugene to “Go to Hell”—with God Voice. Eugene vanishes.

This is a grayer area of unintended consequences. Jesse knows about his God Voice, now; he knows what will happen when he uses it, even if he instantly regrets it. Like Kilgrave complains about at several points in Jessica Jones, having mind control means constantly keeping a tight rein on emotion, being conscious of every word you speak (and largely eliminating metaphoric speech, especially things like “go fuck yourself”). With the possible exception of Buddhist monks and Vulcans, no mortal could be expected to maintain that kind of control all the time.

Beyond that, even, is the source of Eugene’s initial protest. Jesse didn’t ask Eugene if he wanted divine intervention. Jesse used his own moral standards to make a decision that affected other people at a deeply personal level: he forced one human to forgive another. Forgiveness that isn’t earned is cheapened, and inherently unsettling. The possession of free will is, for many, one of the basic aspects of sentience, an important facet of humanity. Taking away a person’s free will robs them of their autonomy. It’s one thing when Jesse uses his power in self-defense—in terms of basic human needs, survival trumps free will by most people’s accounts. But when he uses it to impose cognitive states, like forgiveness and faith, it’s harder to justify his intrusion.

It’s probably for the best Jessica Jones couldn’t reform Kilgrave, as much as I loved his character and would’ve geeked the fuck out watching that partnership. I trust Jesse Custer with God voice slightly more. His in-born morals are strong enough to avoid the most blatant abuses, and he’s got Cassidy for an external moral compass (because what else are vampires good for?), but he’s at best chaotic neutral when he uses his power, however much he tries to be good. Even the best of men couldn’t be trusted with the ability to change how people feel and think—or perhaps I should say, by using it, they’d no longer be the best of men.