William Goldman (left) and James Caan (photo: Wiki­media Commons)

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says dif­fer­ently is selling some­thing.”
A harsh message for 400 eager grad­uates — but maybe the one we need the most.
It’s a line from The Princess Bride, a movie that my gen­er­ation grew up watching and rewatching. It was my favorite movie as a child. Nothing else quite catches that sappy-sar­castic tone, that romantic cyn­icism that somehow both mocks and cham­pions the fairy-tale genre.
I wonder how many people know the man behind movie: not the director or the actors, but William Goldman, the man who wrote the story.
Bill Goldman’s most popular story may have been a fairy tale, but his early life was any­thing but. His mother was deaf, and his father was an alco­holic who com­mitted suicide when Goldman was still in high school. In college, he failed cre­ative-writing classes, teachers thought he was stupid, and editors rejected his work.
And then he became one of the most suc­cessful writers in the history of Hol­lywood. Aside from cre­ating a cult classic (hello, The Princess Bride), he wrote the screen­plays for Butch Cassidy and the Sun­dance Kid, All The President’s Men, and Marathon Man, among many others. He fell into screen­writing almost by accident; he set out to write novels and found that he was good at writing stories, regardless of the medium. He’s written novels, children’s books, screen­plays, stage plays, memoirs. Pro­lific, popular, finan­cially suc­cessful — Goldman has lived every writer’s dream.
In his second memoir, Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “Someone pointed out to me that the most sym­pa­thetic char­acters in my books always died mis­erably. I didn’t con­sciously know I was doing that … I think I have a way with pain. When I come to that kind of sequence I have a certain con­fi­dence that I can make it play. Because I come from such a dark corner.”
In other words, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says dif­fer­ently is selling some­thing.”
A note for the unini­tiated: The Princess Bride is a spoof of a classic fairy-tale. It’s the story of the beau­tiful But­tercup, her true love Westley, and their struggle against evil and death and the con­niving Prince Humperdinck. As the nar­rator asserts at the beginning of the movie, the story has it all: “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, mon­sters, chases, escapes, true love, mir­acles…”
It’s remarkable, really, that The Princess Bride came out of Goldman’s “dark corner.” I think the story per­plexes Goldman himself. The writing process was unlike any­thing he had ever done; appar­ently the story opened itself up to him, just like that. He wept when he wrote the scene about Wesley’s death. Looking back on his work, he said that The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sun­dance Kid are the only things he ever wrote that he looks back on without humil­i­ation.
How did he do it?
It’s a secret, I think, hidden behind hard edges and gritty realism. It’s a secret tucked away in a storyteller’s soul. It’s a paradox — the paradox of life and death, good and evil, light and darkness. The best sto­ry­tellers don’t resolve the paradox; they lean into it. Life may be pain, but there is more than pain in life; in the words of Miracle Max, “true love is the greatest thing in the whole world.”
We don’t need someone to tell us that we’re special or that we’re going to change the world. We don’t need someone to elab­orate on Aris­totle or the Con­sti­tution. What we need now is a sto­ry­teller. This is what Goldman has to offer us.
Because life may be pain — but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a happy ending.

Ellen Sweet is a senior studying English.