Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Unsatisfying Nature of the Happy Finish

"And they all lived happily ever after.”

There is a reason bedtime stories often end this way. They're intended to put you to sleep.

It's not that a rewarding and satisfying conclusion can't also be positive, but too often “happy endings” are too pat, summing things up too neatly and too well. By tying up all of the loose ends into a cheerful pink bow, we're left with nothing to hold on to. It's like watching gift being wrapped neatly in pretty paper and ribbon. Ultimately, you're left with an appealing but closed box.

Sometimes a more challenging ending can be more rewarding. We connect with the story on an emotional level, truly sharing the experience of the fictional characters. Even when you know the story isn't “real,” the emotion it evokes is. By the end, you haven't just watched/read the story – you've lived it.

Below is a list of (some) books and (mostly) films that are beloved because they are total bummers.

Title Why It Is Better Because Of It's Unhappy Ending
Lolita Without seeing the sad consequences, the moral of the novel/film would be lost and it would be reduced to shallow pornography.
A Clockwork Orange Without seeing the sad consequences, the moral of the novel/film would be lost and it would be reduced to shallow pain pornography.
Citizen Kane We leave the theater happier knowing that fat bastard wasn't.
Charlotte's Web The barn is no longer infested with a zillion baby spiders.
Old Yeller None, actually... I'm still pretty much an emotional wreck over this one...
Titanic Because the boat sank in real life. (Better yet, imagine if it had never been made at all! The movie or the ship!)
The Scarlet Letter Because otherwise it becomes just another crappy Demi Moore costume romance.
Steel Magnolias Julia Roberts' character is tolerable only because we know that she is ultimately doomed. (Ditto whatsherface in “Love Story.”)
Sophie's Choice Gave us a wonderful new parental threat – “Behave or you'll be the one Mommy sends to the gas chamber.”
The Planet of the Apes Otherwise you might miss that this is a biting social commentary and think it was just a funny movie about guys running around in cheesy ape suits.
Breaking the Waves Imagine the years of dreary, expensive couple's therapy if Bess had lived.
Grave of the Fireflies In case “Slaughterhouse 5” didn't quite bring it home for you, makes it clear that fire bombing inhabited cities is a bad thing.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Could otherwise be marketed as a companion piece for Animal House.
Apocalypse Now What's in a name? In this case, pretty much the implied guarantee of an unhappy ending.
Easy Rider Safeguarded against the inevitable studio-backed sequel starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty
Casablanca Saves Ilsa from having to wake up to Humphrey Bogart's potato-face every morning for the next 20 years.
Cool Hand Luke Because really, no kidding and no joke, nobody can eat fifty eggs. (That's over 9000 mg of cholesterol!)

Today's lesson: Sad is the new Happy. 

Next: Hopefully something for National Poetry Month

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