Thursday, October 22, 2009

An inconceivable analysis

One of my favorite scenes in any movie is the Battle of Wits from The Princess Bride, in which Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) must decide which of two goblets Westley (Cary Elwes) has poisoned. Almost everyone finds the scene amusing and clever, but it has subtleties that are easy to miss. They concern the following questions: What in the name of mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwiches is Vizzini doing in this scene? How did he arrive at the choice he finally makes? And how come he's so confident in that choice when it's so spectacularly wrong?

Consider his opening argument, which makes more sense than anything else he says: a clever man would be tempted to put the poison in his own goblet, except that Westley would have anticipated Vizzini would think so, and therefore he'd put it in Vizzini's goblet instead. (Game theory deals with reasoning such as this, where you try to anticipate not only what your opponent will think, but how much he will anticipate your anticipations. Many games have this dynamic, where it's a race to determine who will do the most determining. Various webpages and books have examined the role of game theory in this scene.)

He eventually sticks with his initial conclusion (that the poison is in his own cup), but not before rambling for an entire minute about Australia and giants and Spaniards, going back and forth on which glass he thinks was poisoned. What he's trying to do, I suspect, is gauge Westley's reactions. Since Westley already knows the poison's location, he will (Vizzini assumes) fear for his life if he thinks Vizzini is guessing correctly. (That's why Vizzini secretly switches the goblets--he figures Westley will forfeit the game rather than voluntarily commit suicide if he realizes Vizzini has won.) Vizzini's strategy, therefore, is to keep changing his answer until Westley's body language betrays the correct one. As Westley observes, "You're trying to trick me into giving away something." In light of Vizzini's sureness when he finally makes his choice, we presume he does manage to detect something in Westley's behavior at crucial moments--nervousness maybe.

Westley indeed is nervous, but for a different reason than Vizzini assumes. He's worried Vizzini will stumble upon his actual secret, that he has poisoned both goblets. Vizzini almost seems to be approaching the truth as he rambles about how he "clearly" can't choose this glass and "clearly" can't choose the other one either. He even says at one point, "You could have put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you." His own rhetoric contains the solution to the puzzle, yet somehow he never notices. He's just bluffing (a recurring theme in The Princess Bride).

He possesses the classic fatal flaw of overconfidence, or hubris. He may in fact be smart enough to figure out what Westley is up to. Immunity-building was a practice known to the Ancient Greeks, whom Vizzini references earlier in the scene when he declares that Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates were "morons." The problem isn't so much that Vizzini is less smart than he imagines as that he discounts other people's intelligence. Truly wise people accept the wisdom of others. Thinking everyone in the world but oneself to be an idiot is folly, not wisdom.

Essential to any game is sizing up one's opponent, and Vizzini seriously underestimates Westley every time the word "Inconceivable!" escapes his lips. He never learns his lesson even as Westley continues to do everything he thought wasn't possible, including defeating a master swordsman and a giant. He reasons that a man who can defeat those "morons" still cannot hold a candle to his perfect mind. As he explains to Westley, "I can't compete with you physically, and you're no match for my brains." It doesn't seem to occur to him that Westley used brains, not brawn, to defeat Inigo and Fezzik. Since he maintains such a low opinion of Westley in spite of all available evidence, he fails to consider there might be a trick up the man's sleeve.

Ironically, his lack of appreciation for other people's minds deprives him of a powerful tool he could use against his enemies. What makes Westley so formidable an opponent is not just that he's versatile and quick-thinking, but that he uses people's natures against them. That's how he handles all his adversaries throughout the movie: he takes immediate advantage of Inigo's fairness, of Fezzik's sportsmanship, of Vizzini's pride, of the palace guards' credulity, and of Prince Humperdinck's cowardice. In contrast, Vizzini is all tactic and no psychology.

You might think I'm reading more into the film than is there, but in the novel it's pretty obvious that the author, William Goldman (who also wrote the screenplay), put considerable thought into the themes, the traditions, and the history this mock fairy tale draws upon. There are many interludes in which he speaks directly to the reader about various plot elements and their significance. Whether in movie or book form, The Princess Bride is not just clever and entertaining, but also well-conceived. It should not be underestimated.

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