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. Tor.com 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.