Friday, October 12, 2012

Should Every Movie have a Happy Ending?

Should all movies have a happy ending?  No!  I'm surprised that I'm even addressing such a narrow and absolutist viewpoint, but this came up during a conversation I was having recently and I thought I should approach it here.  Firstly, most movies have happy endings and this trend is acceptable.  On the other hand, every movie having a happy ending removes suspense and realism.  Some movies have their very message based on a sad ending.  Happy endings can sometimes be corny as well as remove the opportunity for the natural interpretation.  The Christian mention that Christ conquers all is thoroughly off topic in a discussion of most movies.  Both happy and sad endings have a place in cinematic storytelling.

Most movie endings are happy.  It is human nature to desire happiness.  If most stories had a sad ending, it would be a huge downer.  It is good that movies uplift and the tendency towards, not absolute supremacy of, happy endings is a good thing. 

What if every movie had a happy ending?  There would be absolutely no suspense.  The audience would preemptively know the outcome of every movie.  Even movies with happy endings rely on the possibility that it might not end happily for the suspense value.  Movies with sad endings keep cinema in general from getting stale and formulaic as well as take one for the team so that movies with happy endings will still have the lingering possibility of sadness which creates suspense and hooks the viewer.  Also, having all happy endings removes realism and spontaneity and reminds the viewer they are watching narrative contrivances.

Another thing to note is that endings are ideology.  Sometimes the very thesis of a movie can be reversed based on whether or not the ending is happy or sad.  Happy endings promote complacency with societal status quo.  They are the difference between critiquing a broke system or praising a working system that merely involves some hardship at times.  Sad endings need not encourage useless despair, but can be a call to action.  Happy endings can potentially leave us with the complacent feeling that a system will always work itself out and thus we don't need to get involved.  Complacency with the status quo can mean a status quo that is conservative, liberal or any other ideology, so happy endings need not always be a force of conservatism or sad endings a force of liberalism.

Happy endings can also be corny and remove an audience member's natural interpretation of events, often an interpretation that would have been in line with what the artist wanted anyway.  Look at the ending of The Robe.  At the end of a thoroughly and unabashedly Christian movie, both main characters are martyred.  After two hours of Christianity, we have to watch both main characters walk off into the clouds while a cheesy choir sings alleluias in case you didn't get it.  By this point, you've either bought the message of the movie and don't need the corny obviousness of the ending or you haven't and the ending will be completely grating.  A more interpretive ending would feel less preachy, leave room for the audience to come to Christianity themselves and play up the power of the martyrs' witness.

What of the Christian claim that Christ conquers all in the end?  How can we show an unhappy ending when all things will come to good?  This is the talk of an overzealous Christian getting way off-topic.  Not every story is a Christological or eschatological metaphor.  Nearly all movies have nothing to do with eschatology and it is a stretch to interpret them otherwise.  The scope of most stories is much smaller.  Although Christ conquers all in the end, evil has its day in the meantime.  This is the world we live in.  Nothing but happy endings can also lead to a spiritual complacency that is parallel to the ideological complacency mentioned earlier.

Happy endings, while a valid approach to story, are not the only approach.  Sad endings are very necessary as at least an occasional device.

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