Spoilers follow for The Princess Bride. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this post and go find some legal way to watch it, right now. The post will be here when you’re done, and you will have given yourself one of the great cinematic experiences of all time.
I’ve been thinking about the shrieking eels scene in The Princess Bride a lot lately. Refresh your memory:
If you’ve seen The Princess Bride, you know what comes next:
Grandpa: She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.
Grandpa: The eel doesn’t get her. I’m explaining to you because you look nervous.
I’m pretty sure this is one of the most famous spoilers of all time, along with “The boat sinks” and “The butler did it”. It is certainly one of the most famous spoilers to occur within the thing that it is spoiling.
I love this scene, and I love the spoiler most of all. I’m honestly disappointed that I can’t find a video of that exchange because I don’t think the scene is complete without it. The video above could be from any humorous, moderately self-aware fantasy movie. But when you’re sitting there with your heart pounding wondering just how Buttercup is going to escape the eels–and I won’t lie, it makes my heart pound every time–and then Peter Falk’s warm, rumbling voice suddenly reassures you that she doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time, deliberately throwing you out of the story, and Fred Savage blinks and gasps “W-what?” and you realize you have been thrown out of the story and into the framing device, which is aware that it’s a framing device and actually rather annoyed by it, and meanwhile your heart is still pounding and you still want to know how Buttercup gets away from the eels… you could not be watching any other movie. Absolutely masterful.
Have I just run afoul of some great conspiracy among Princess Bride fans to keep the movie spoiler-free, even though the spoiler is itself a part of the movie? Welp, sorry, conspirators. The news is out. She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.
At this time. As though Grandpa is helpfully leaving room for Grandson to wonder whether maybe later there’s an eel/princess rematch where the princess doesn’t do so well. “Sorry about the abrupt loss of tension! Have some new tension to replace it.” Grandpa doesn’t want Grandson to be too nervous, because he loves him and we don’t like it when people we love are scared–but Grandpa also understands narrative tension. He wants Grandson to be just nervous enough.
What makes this work: not only is Grandson a stand-in for the viewer, but Grandpa is a stand-in for William Goldman, the writer. This is Goldman’s way of saying, “Here is what kind of movie this is. I’m explaining to you because you look nervous.” It’s a spoiler for the movie having spoilers in it. He’s making sure we’re paying attention–and in an affectionately obnoxious way, he’s saying that he cares and we can trust him to take us on a wild ride and get us home safe at the end. We, too, will not be eaten by eels at this time. And as annoying as it is to have that tension abruptly broken, it’s also a relief to know we’re in good hands.