The unhappy ending

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 - 5:37pm

There is so much to be said about the happy ending. The attentive reader, the seasoned moviegoer, the overly optimistic Netflix aficionado –– they all crave the happy ending. It’s Dorothy finding home at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” it’s Ferris Bueller somehow making it back from Chicago unscathed in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” It is a monster that looms under our bed, that happy ending; it often feels forced or expected, however, we ignore these notions and accept it. The protagonist ends up with the love of their life, they get the job, they beat the odds, they save the day and they are the hero. We watch an entire movie, read a book, obsess over an entire series of television just to know the ending. And secretly the entire time, deep down, we silently beg for that ending to be happy.

We as the audience are so incredibly attached to the happy ending. I’ve thought about the happy ending a lot. Unfortunately, because I overanalyze every book, movie and TV show I come in contact with, I’m prone to questioning the ending. I like happy endings. They are pleasant, they make us feel satisfied. I always want the main character to succeed, and I am happy that Blair and Chuck end up together, or that Regina George can live in harmony with the rest of the high school world, but I wonder if this is how it would really be. I imagine every Nicholas Sparks couple springing to life, and I cannot fathom that they’d all end up together. That every couple would be happily eating dinner on a sailboat, or getting married in a barn surrounded by a field of wildflowers. I’m sure sometimes it would work out that way, but realistically, life doesn’t always work out as such.

We’re attached to the happy ending because it brings us hope. It shows us that in our fictional worlds, the ones we use to terminate the fears and stress that come up in our realities, things turn out all right. It gives us a tiny grain of something to hold on to, that in our lives if things aren’t going how we planned, somewhere far, far away (like Monica’s apartment in “Friends” or Elsa’s castle in “Frozen”), everything turned out just fine.

I find myself rejecting that artificial or unrealistic happy ending, so I also think about the unhappy ending. In famous literature, well-known movies and popular TV shows we’ve all seen the successful execution of the unhappy ending –– the no resolve, the vague cliffhanger, the lonely protagonist. Something not our typical cathartic and beautiful, but that redefines a beautiful resolve. Something that drags us out of our fictional worlds and forces us to think. Something that asks the constantly reiterating question: Why did the author or director do this to us?

Society often complains about that “unhappy ending,” and yet, audiences still return to it over and over again. “The Fault in Our Stars” is so successful because it mirrors real life. Sure, it’s heartbreaking, and I sat in a comfortable movie theatre chair sobbing over John Green’s decision to end his characters' stories the way he did. But there’s a catch to the whole thing. I went back and saw it again because it’s real, honest and painful, but it bleeds truth.

Jojo Meyer’s “Me Before You” is another example of the unhappy ending. After I finished the book, I still went to the movie theatre to see the film. It shocked me that Meyer would end her enticing story the way that she did, and I was drawn to it. Part of me wished that she would have ended the story with an intricately described wedding, something stunning that I could picture perfectly in my romantic head. But relationships in life don’t always end with a lovely wedding, so there's not a reason for every romantic novel to end that way either. All that does for an audience is constantly provide unexpected realities.

There are many more unhappy endings. “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Marley and Me,” “1984,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Titanic,” “Saving Private Ryan” and the list goes on. We return to these movies, we return to these books, despite their unhappy endings, because they are wonderful. They are magnificent and they are real and they provoke us to think about reality through the lense of fiction. However tough or scary they may be, they give us something to hold on to when we feel like there is nothing else. This is what the story aims to do. Not to provide the world with the idea that everything always goes our way, but to be there for us once we’ve accepted that not everything can go our way, just as it didn’t for many of our beloved characters. These difficult endings are so tragically alluring that we return to it in a myriad of mediums, constantly in our everyday lives.  

There’s something to be said about all endings. They’re put in place because our favorite books and movies and TV shows unfortunately don’t last forever. The unhappy ending knocks the reader or the audience unconscious from its element of surprise. It puts the world in prospective. It speaks truth and honesty, it proves that things go wrong in the world all the time — every day, in fact. It's our job as humans to take a deep breath, just as many of our fictional heroes had to, and carry on. I’d like to stand by the unhappy ending. It gives us a blissful piece of truth to hang on to. It proves that not everything can go our way. It shows a reality about the world that is often shadowed by the happy endings that we have become so reliant on. It boils down to a simple dichotomy: the person who turns to fiction to escape versus the person who turns to fiction for catharsis. I don’t turn to fiction to escape to another place, I turn to fiction to help me make sense of the world I’m in. And that to me is the happiest ending of them all.