Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy endings

I am sick as a dog today. Actually I was sick yesterday, but didn't realize how bad it was until I was already out the door. So today I'm staying in bed while some stranger gives my students a state-mandated test. That'll make 'em appreciate me.

I got a note on my script the other day that I thought was worthy of its own post: the need for a Happy Ending.

Personally, I'm a fan of the bittersweet ending. Some character we all love sacrifices himself so the others can get away, two people get what they want in life but can't have each other, the good guys win but at a huge cost.

Pitch Black, Once, The Magnificent Seven, Last of the Mohicans, basically any story where you achieve your goal, but at an almost unbearable price.

Although Beefcake says by this definition Predator is bittersweet. I suppose that could be debated.

One of my very favorite genres of film is the artsy Chinese martial arts film. Your Crouching Tiger, your House of Flying Daggers, your Hero. I started thinking one day about these films and what they have in common and how a person could create an American version of these stories. I deconstructed them and recreated all their key elements into a story I could write.

One of the common threads of these films is the death of the lover. Each film is at its core a love story, and in each film one of the lovers dies, usually in some great sacrificial or symbolic gesture. If I'm going to adapt that genre, I need to keep that consistent trait. So I killed one of my lovers.

The friend of mine who read my script gave great notes and I definitely appreciate his reading my script because it's helping me spot some problems, but his final comment was that he thought I should give the story a happy ending. American audiences want a happy ending, and it feels like a cheat to take that away.

I get that the ending needs work for sure. I don't want anybody to feel cheated - I want them to feel like this is what had to happen. When I watch House of Flying Daggers I desperately want everybody to live, but when they don't I don't feel cheated, I feel moved to tears at the tragedy of it all. That's the reaction I want to elicit. So clearly I need to develop my ending to give that feeling.

However, a happy ending? Do you think that's true? Pitch Black is one of my favorite examples of a bittersweet ending, but it was an independent film. In fact, when I think about movies that had these kind of endings, they're almost always indies. And the Chinese martial arts films I'm inspired by - well, they're Chinese.

But I just can't see my characters with a happy ending. I even give them a dialogue exchange where they talk about ridiculous scenarios where they'll live happily ever after while they're both pretending not to know how ridiculous that is.

After all, we would never have heard of Romeo and Juliet if they didn't die in the end. But we Americans, we do love our happy endings. Can I sell a story where my protagonist dies?

What do you think about the American need for a happy ending?


  1. fuck happy endings. I dont know if this is related to your post, but Barbara Ehrenreich (the author of the brilliant novel, Nickel and Dimed) said that Americans are expected to be happy at all times, that it's actually making us miserable. Or something.

    I think that's true for Americans' thirst for (fake) happy endings.

    Hollywood is too scared to touch tragic or bittersweet endings. They need to stop being so scared. History has proven that audiences CAN and WILL embrace a movie with that.

    but I remember one of my ASL interpretors stormed out of the cinema at the ending of Titanic. She was furious that Leo died (oops, spoiler!) and she wanted her money back. I was like, "dude. it's about TITANIC. What did you expect? That everyone stays alive and gets rescued?" Dumbass.

  2. Do you want to be commerical or do you want to write what you want to write.

    Keep your ending. It's part and parcel of your concept. Fuck 'em if they don't get it.

    And maybe there's somebody not going to buy it because of that.

    But then, maybe there's somebody who's going to see what your script is meant to be and appreciates that and does buy it.

    Then the studio will change it.

    Keep your ending. If it's the only thing keeping them from buying it, they'll tell you to change or buy it and change it themselves.

    BTW, 2nd biggest grossing and most awesome flick ever - Dark Knight - bittersweet ending.

  3. Happy endings are for pussies.

    Seven was almost made with a ridiculously cliched, happy ending. If it had been, I doubt I'd still be thinking about that film almost 15 years later.

    Technically the cops in that movie achieved their goal. But at the highest price imaginable.

  4. Well if I hadn't been reading your blog for a while, I'd say that writers are always trying to do the unhappy ending to be hip and edgy and they don't do that Michael Bay commercial crap, not because it's the right choice. They got something to prove. But I don't think you're doing that.

    I actually noticed more unhappy endings in the past few years, even with totally Hollywood 'popcorn' films. It probably goes hand in hand with the bad economy.

    Jeez, I just hate to post the names on movies that are only a year or two old, seems like a spoiler, so I guess I'll just put the IMDB links. Click at your own risk.

    Movie one
    Movie two
    Movie three
    Movie four

    And that's not even counting the ones that are a little more sophisticated, but by no means 'art' films:

    Movie one
    Movie two

    So I think now is actually a good time for a bittersweet ending, as long as it really is the right ending.

  5. what American audiences want is catharsis. Give them that and they'll follow you anywhere.

  6. Since I had a long winded answer, I posted my response on my blog.

    On a related note, if you've seen them; how did you like Message in a Bottle or The End of an Affair?

  7. I think it depends on the genre - Romantic Comedy - yes. Mindless action movie - yes. Thriller? Maybe, maybe not. I feel like it's more about staying true to the tone you've established.

    Look at The Dark Knight - second biggest film of all time and the ending is a downer. Dent's dead, but not before he's been destroyed emotionally and nearly killed Gordon's family. Batman is now considered an outlaw and is actively being hunted by the police as a murderer. On top of that, the love of his life became a casualty in his war... and yet, it feels like the "right" ending.

    How would one even go about making that happy? Reveal Rachel somehow survived the explosion and made a miraculous recovery? Have Dent decide, "You're right. I don't want to be this guy," and then surrender and have plastic surgery to fix his face good as new? Have Batman cleared of the murders and fighting side-by-side with cops who revere him. Ugh... sounds terrible.

    (I've gotta read the comments more closely before I respond... I was just about to push "Publish" when I saw m beat me to it on mentioning TDK.)

    So my short answer would be, do what feels emotionally right.

  8. Whatever your ending, it's got to be worth the journey to get there.

    So it's got to be emotionally logical to your story.

    The three martial arts epics you mention (and I love) all come from a grand Chinese tradition of storytelling, and their endings are necessary for their cultural underpinings ... In Asia, there's a long grand tradition of beautiful tragic endings, and in the end, it's almost what's expected for those stories.

    In America, of course, our cultural expectations are far different ... think the Western, good guy in the white hat defeats the bad guy in the black hat and gets the girl. That's our cultural underpinings, for better or worse ... you can tweak it, bend it or ignore it (as in No Country for Old Men) but it is what is it.

    I always thought the grand tweaking of that happy ending expectation came with UNFORGIVEN, wherein Clint does defeat the bad guy (Gene Hackman) but it's done in such a way as to make us wonder about our own expectations (is Gene really bad? Is Clint really the hero? We want Clint to open up, but when he does ... oh whoa) and question them.

    Awesome stuff.

    BTW, Last of the Mohicans is one of my most favorite movies ever SPOILERS ... of course, it does end with the hero rescuing and getting the girl ... what kills me about that movie is that it's one of Hawkeyes antagonists (the Stuffy Brit officer) sacrificing himself for the two of them ... when he says "My compliments, sir!" to Hawkeye, it fucks me up, every time. Now that's subversion, right?

    Obviously I've digressed.

  9. Hugo I have not seen either of those films.

    Everybody's saying such intelligent things.

  10. Your script will be worth more money if the ending is a happy one... or at least mostly happy.

    Do what you want, but keep that in mind.

  11. Predator is bittersweet.

    It's also interesting that it reverses the standard action movie structure. The big battle is in the first act (guns and explosions, yay), then the Predator starts picking off guys one by one, the fights keep getting smaller and smaller in scope (with less firepower), until at the end you have a dude fistfightin' an alien.

    And how genius is that?

    But that's off topic.

    If there's something about your script that keeps a reader glued to the page, even if it has flaws, will catch attention. Regardless of the ending.

  12. Emily Blake said...

    Everybody's saying such intelligent things.

    You've picked a great topic. Next time you're at a party, and you don't know what to talk about, start a discussion on this.

  13. Braveheart. Casablanca. Stella Dallas. The Godfather. Out of Africa. The Dark Knight. Titanic. Cloverfield.

    Those are simply off the top of my head. (I'm impressed that I managed at least one for each of the past four decades.) Not with exactly the sort of ending you have in mind, but all with bittersweet endings, and all American, and all from major studios, and all moneymakers.

    Sure, Americans like happy endings, but that's not the only kind of ending they like. It's just the default setting, especially since elite artistes started bitching that happy endings aren't "genuine".

    So make your ending work, then fight for it.

    Good luck.

  14. Whatever.

    Happy, bittersweet, down.

    They're all equally tough to do well.

    But WTF is our problem with happy endings????

    It's a story, it's not supposed to be an accurate reflection of life.

    On the contrary: it's what should make life bearable.

  15. Actually, Karel I would say the question is the opposite. WTF is wrong with an unhappy ending? Why does everything have to be so clean and pretty in order to sell?

  16. American film= happy ending.
    Russian film= sad ending.
    German film= no ending!

    Just kidding, I'm with Bitter Script Reader, that genre guides it.


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