Sunday, March 3, 2013

Happy Endings and the Nonsense of Realism, Revisited

Prepare to have many endings spoiled for you.

Sometime in adolescence we learn disdain for the things we like. We still want to watch cartoons, play with action figures and hear stories at bedtime, but these are inappropriate desires for “grown ups.” Children grow to feign disgust for the things they actually desire, preparing them for adulthoods of denial. Often those adulthoods are spent desperately seeking childhood freedom, such as the necessary irrationality they can now only get through alcohol or pot. I blame that same anti-rational kickback for why so many people will watch a third awful Transformers movie.

Especially if you aim for an intellectual life, one of the things you learn to disdain is the happy ending. They’re unrealistic and trite. They don’t happen. When they do, it’s still more important to the cynical intellectual to write about when they don’t. Ours is a culture that disdains naïvety but cherishes cynicism, despite those being the same thing. They are bald-faced, oversimplisitic ideologies that prejudge people and the world, glomming onto any supporting evidence while blithely ignoring or making excuses for the exceptions. To be cynical is merely to be naïve in the negative direction. Like the sweetly naive, the cynics claim they know the real world and demand their realism.

Never mind that all fiction is inherently unrealistic – no matter how bleak, it’s just words on a page. Denis Johnson is one hundred percent as make-believe as J.K. Rowling. Not one word of it wasn’t made up at a keyboard. Many in my crowd are suckers for unhappy stories, leading them to universally rebuff me for thinking JT LeRoy was a fraud. That one had a happy ending, I guess.

True tragedy and moments of profound melancholy possess inarguable power. No distaste with darkness robs Of Mice and Men of its closure. posted an editorial positing that 1984 is a classic because it’s depressing. I’ll freely admit that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, one of my favorite reads in recent years, ended about as bitterly as he could make it.

Despite my fondness for Of Mice and Men and Brave New World, the worst of the unhappy endings is killing your main character. It’s typically a cop-out. Death, even in sacrifice or redemption, bails the character out from having to face future consequences. You’re at least fifty years too late to play the “but those consequences were so bad” card. It’s not deep; it’s the sick-note for Gym Class of fiction tropes.

One of the greatest offenders is the post-Burton killing of villains in superhero movies. Villains in particular should have to stick around in franchises and see what they’ve wrought or develop as characters. How nice would it be to have Doc Ock mentor Peter in Spider-Man 3? Or have Harvey Dent come to his senses after his rampage in Dark Knight? I grasp the desire to kill Osama Bin Laden, but it’s a far better story to have that man meet every widow he’s made.

Danny Boyle is making a career partially on subverting the crumby ending. In India, in a secluded canyon, and in the zombie apocalypse, he puts his characters through utter Hell so he can deliver that one moment of climactic relief. He plays the conventions of bleak fiction against its own crowd. He keeps getting nominated for awards, so thank goodness the wrong people haven’t caught onto what he’s doing yet.

Depressive folk always tell me, “That’s the way the world is.” FX’s Louie having no soundtrack, dull lighting in an airport as he laughs at someone else’s distress – this is, according to The New Yorker, “giving reality its due.” This is real life.

Bullshit. That is something that can happen in reality. A man in a Ronald McDonald costume humming show tunes can also happen. It’s less likely to, though art affords the possibility for it. To mindlessly or pedantically mimic some myopic reality any reader can experience more clearly by putting the book down and living – that’s more intellectually bankrupt than a thousand Happily Ever Afters.

This storytelling environment has left the “happy ending” malnourished. We’ll continue to see trite happy endings, where the heroes either win outright or by Deus ex Machina. RomCom Guy gets RomCom Girl. Harry Potter sends his magic kids off to magic school. In many cases these still satisfy. I’ll almost always side with a treacle positive ending over a treacle negative one, because my soul isn’t a black vortex that demands to be fed disappointment. If we’re going to be superficial, I want to smile through it.

But we should do more with happy endings, though. What else could be done with them? Examining what people want.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day is remembered as an indictment of servitude and denying common desires. I’m still at odds with the novel, because its protagonist butler is an extreme stereotype of a human being who’s given up any personal ambition in favor of blindly supporting his employers, and the novel definitely tortures him for doing so. Yet the ending has him choose an affirmation: to continue in service, but to alter his personality to do it even better, by learning to have a sense of humor. In that way he actually has a spirited moment at the ending, even though he’s chosen against the independence society believes he should prize.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle literally ends on the line, “we are so happy.” Their circumstances are tragic, psychotic, and yet are desired. The survivors are deranged and enthusiastic to live in something as ruined as any Greek Tragedy.

Happiness also plays a role in the better kind of ending: the complex one. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is held up as an example of too many things, but one it never gets recognition for is its insanely ambitious conclusion. It deserves that recognition because it gets lumped in with “happily ever after” – largely by drunks and people who’ve never read it. Evil is defeated, a monarchy restored, our king marries someone we never met, the dead rest, Gimli and Legolas for an interracial friendship, the Shire is destroyed by bloody war, Sam starts a family while Frodo is so emotionally exhausted he essentially gives up on living. What happens in the payoffs in Return of the King are progressive, regressive, conservative, triumphant, joyous, defeatist and agnostic. All these themes must share a complicated world.

But writing rich endings like that is hard, which is why most authors don’t do it. The “bad ending” or “happy ending” is about as complex as most human minds are capable of fabricating, as is evidenced by the inventory of modern fiction. We mere mortals must strive for an essential goal: the ending that is authentic to the story. Of Mice and Men and Brave New World succeed in the end because their deaths are wretched and appropriate closure to great stories. A lame story can’t seed and grow a good ending. No matter what you tack onto the end, it won’t be particularly meaningful. Likewise, you can’t beat how The Princess Bride goes out. I adored Reiner’s decision in the film version to actively have a narrator tease us for wanting the right ending.

And going against what’s built up can be harmful. The end of Batman Begins suffers for Batman letting R’as Al Ghul die, tarnishing the hard-worn altruism and aversion to the death of others displayed throughout the movie. “I don’t have to save you” sounds like hokum, or a screenwriter making up for Liam Neeson’s contract expiring.

Sorry. How cynical of me.


  1. Generally, if the writing is good and I've connected to the characters, I want them to end happy. I might say "that was a cool twist" if the ending is hard but I won't necessarily enjoy it.

    I think Requiem for a Dream is an ace film but the ending is so relentless that I'd never watch it again.

    Whereas I've seen Flash Gordon or Star Wars loads of times.

    Your opening point was spot on by the way. I hate that I've been conditioned out of playing with action figures etc, and that I have to 'work my way' back to it.

    1. There are definitely films I don't desire to see again. Hotel Rwanda is my go-to example: brilliant film, well-acted, well-plotted, but I can't see the merit in going through it again even though I see enormous merit to seeing it once. Though that had more to do with the experience of the whole rather than the conclusion.

      Also, just because I love you:

  2. John, what a fantastic article. As always I am in love with the way that you write and particularly here what you have to say.

    I'm also sick to death of a bleak ending for the sake of a bleak ending and wish for the more complex conclusions to stories similar to what Tolkien wrote. I have to say, the last thirty or so pages of Among Others was difficult for me to slog through because I was so terrified that the ending wouldn't live up to the rest of the novel, which was of course amazing. I was so happy it ended happily.

    I'm also getting a little tired of the cop-out cop-out ending, where the main character "dies" but is in reality off somewhere living a "different" or "alternate" life (or dies, and comes back to life). It's like the author can't commit to the sugary happy ending (that people seem disinclined to want to read), nor can he or she commit to the bleak ending (which people seem to want, but is, as you said, a cop-out). WTF? I won't say which series I'm thinking of here in case folks are actively reading, but I will say it was a huge time commitment for an absolutely bollocked ending. *sigh*

    Anyhow. Just wanted to share my two cents. ^.^;

    1. That's so funny that you fretted over the ending to Among Others. I presume a certain character's return spooked you? I always figured it would wrap up the way it did, for whatever reason. I guess I always trusted Walton to pay off the conclusion in the style of the rest of the story.

      Also, thank you so much for your kind words!

  3. We seem to avoid complexity. Which is where much of my interest lies. I am not interested in a cardboard cut-out bad/evil character any more than I am in goody two shoes (except as a spoof of themselves). And with complexity comes the requirement for complex resolution.
    Thank you so much for this post. I loved it.

    1. I notice there are defaults in my mind which avoid complexity if I'm not actively aware of it. Dogmas, "others," set-arguments and parties all contribute to a sense of anti-complexity, which is a shame.

      I'm glad the post spoke to you. Thank you for the kind words.

  4. Man I hope this wasn't a reaction to my post on Invisible Man. What was the source of this?

    1. This is actually an updated version of an essay I ran a few years ago. I brought it out because a fellow author was wondering about the desirability of happy endings, and because a bestselling author had very recently written about grimdark and verisimilitude.

      I promise it was not taking a hatchet to your thoughts. In fact, I'll ashamedly admit that I didn't know you'd posted yet! I'll pop in later.

  5. I just wrote a post the other week about endings too, and I have to say that questionable endings are my favorite over happy and sad, because I think they are most like reality. There often is no end to things, just a shift or change, and more uncertainty/challenge leading to the next story.

    Yesterday I finished Iain Banks' "The Wasp Factory," and I felt conditioned throughout the book to expect some explosive, dark ending, and while there was quite a twist in the end, there was also this sense of forgiveness and love. It threw me for a loop, and I have to say that I first, I felt robbed and cheated, but the more I let it stew in my mind, I think it was better than I had hoped for.

    Great thoughts, John.

  6. Excellent essay, Mr Wiswell. It's not a subject I'd given nearly this amount of thought to, but I'll try harder.


Counter est. March 2, 2008