Do We Really Need Happy Endings?

imageHave you ever read a book or watched a movie that was utterly destroyed by its ending?  You follow the characters passionately from beginning to end only to have the floor ripped out from under you in the last five minutes.  As avid consumers of media, we have been raised with an understanding of the tropes of specific genres.  Authors whisper promises to us between the lines, and we feel betrayed when those promises are broken.

We are well trained.

One of our common expectations, in Western literature at least, is to have a happy ending–or at the very least–and ending that is clear cut and lacks ambiguity.  That is not to say that there aren’t plenty of examples of pieces that rally against this and readers/viewers (myself included) that take great pleasure in endings that leave us in a grey zone–a questioning, confused, you’re-on-your-own-Jack zone.  It is up to the reader/viewer to try and answer those questions, and in doing so, ask even bigger ones.

It is the nerdiest and best kind of fun to get inside a piece of art(books/movies) and see how it ticks.  I love finding art that comments on art itself as well as the process of creating it, and best of all, I love finding art that comments on the viewer–that finds a way to take that viewer’s thinking apart as the viewer is taking the art apart.

This is exactly what I found in The Bag Man.  This movie got bad reviews, but I watched it anyway because–hey–I’m obsessed with John Cusak.  As I watched it, I thought I understood why it failed.  The movie was written to comment on scripts–on plot conventions and tropes of the fiction crystallized beautifully in De Niro’s monologue in Room 14 toward the end of the film (which I won’t ruin–just watch it!).  There was also a nifty supernatural layer that made the viewer question whether they were dealing with angels and devils–if only for a brief time.  I surmised the reason most viewers couldn’t connect with this movie was because they couldn’t grasp those layers–that it was a movie more for critics and weirdos like me than for general audiences.

But then I reached the true horror of this film–its ending.

The last five minutes seemed rushed and out of place.  This “happy” ending gave undue closure to what was otherwise a grotesque/beautiful pool of ambiguity that led the viewer to ask questions about our dark hero and how “good” he really is.  THEY SHOULD HAVE LEFT IT!!

I am neither for nor against happy endings.  I love all kinds of endings as long as they fit.  When something is forced in because it is expected…it’s pretty sad.  We remember endings and beginnings best (brain science, baby), so make them count!

Michelle Joyce Bond

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13 thoughts on “Do We Really Need Happy Endings?

  1. Although I prefer a reasonably happy ending, I can be okay with one that’s not, as long as it’s done well and leaves me more pensive than angry. Though Gone Girl ranks as one of my favorite books, it’s ending just left me angry. And from what I’ve heard, I’m not alone. 🙂

  2. I would prefer a decent resolution to everything that happened in a story. It doesn’t always have to be a happy ending (see Blade Runner or Brazil for cinematic examples where tacked on happy endings failed).

  3. Really what I’m looking for is a satisfying read. For me that means that a mystery needs to be solved and a romance needs the HEA. SciFi/Fantasy/UF – well, it’s more fluid.

  4. I’m with a previous commenter – I want all the story threads tied up – whether than ends up happy or not depends on what the storyteller has led me to believe is a reasonable expectation. Great post.

  5. Consider a gunslinger who follows the money where he can, itinerant, lonely, who finally finds a cause he cares about, a cause worth dying for…and does. Is that a happy ending? I could argue it either way.

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