What makes you happiest?
Is it a lavender sunset just on the horizon? Is it a stop at Taco Bell late at night after having watched several seasons of your favorite television show? Is it your significant other, whose quirks are part of their lovely charm?
We all have a place in our minds we retreat to for happiness. In times of stress, we indulge in these small treasures to get by. Often times, we escape the pressures of reality with an old pastime: reading, or watching films. But there’s a trend in storytelling I find at times disturbing, and that is the ever-so-popular last-minute change to the ending– to make it more “happy” for the target audience. As you can imagine, this late switch almost never works out, because nine times out of ten, it doesn’t fit the story at all. Often times, the ending is very generic. “They lived happily ever after” is a common theme, and we laugh at it, makes jokes about it, but we have to have it. Why?
My spouse and I rented four movies over the weekend. We’re huge film-lovers (as well as book-lovers), and we love to try new things. Three out of the four films had endings that seemed abrupt, as though the director added it in after receiving complaints. The only reason I felt that way was because the endings didn’t make sense, and didn’t fit the flow of the movie. I’ll give you a guess as to the effect these endings were meant to have on their viewers. Here’s a hint: It involves “saving the day” in some manner.
We all want to feel like we can overcome disaster and tragedy. After all, what’s the point of living if we can’t? But we need to question why we seek that pleasure in all things, not just life. Why must someone who isn’t likely to attack his wife suddenly become like a serial killer the moment she finds out some not-so-surprising secret? So that she can stab him in the neck and save the day, despite it making no sense whatsoever. We will change things deliberately to pleasure our inner selves, and we don’t question for a moment the cause.
Come to find out after some research we did, each of the films we watched had “alternate endings” that upon reading about, sounded much more interesting than the one they left in. We find endings about a man coming to terms with his mistakes “controversial” for some reason. We find a woman who accepts changes in her husband and living a lie “too much to handle”. In the “happy” versions of the story, it didn’t take long for us to grasp how awful it really was– not just in our opinion, but for the characters involved. We would come up with our own endings that made more sense following the conclusions given to us in the films, ones that would definitely make the main character’s life more complicated and screwed up simply because of the “happy ending” that happened. It made us realize that we blissfully forget how life could continue after a “happy ending” happens– how just because the movie backs out of a stronger ending to make it happier doesn’t mean that it would work out realistically, that the character might end up in prison for example for butchering a rapist. We love the perfection of this imaginary universe where everything works out for everyone. It gives us a sense of comfort that if we are ever in danger, we don’t have to give up… which is why if such things in films were attempted in reality, they would end in the worst way possible.
It became clear to me that we don’t entertain ourselves with books and movies to be told a wonderful story. We do it to pump dopamine into our heads, and we don’t want anyone spoiling that. We consider it almost a personal attack that a main character dies in a tragic manner. These characters are not real. They are fictional. No one is really dying. But if they care enough, people will hate you for killing someone they liked, even if they existed only in our imaginations. We are hopped up on a drug called “the revenge fantasy” and if a movie doesn’t give us that, we feel frustrated. I for one, get frustrated when a movie ends on a sappy note. It doesn’t make me feel good, or happy, that someone saved the day if there was no day to save. Whether or not your ending is “happy” it needs to make sense.
You could avoid this ranting nonsense by saying “I’m not changing my ending because it’s good for my story, and it’s the ending that was meant to happen for my character.” And that’s the kind of author/director I appreciate. But many others will change it because they don’t want to be criticized. To them, I must say this: Let them cry, let them mourn, let them throw the book across the room and tell everyone how bitter and sad it was. Because in the end, they care enough about that book you wrote to get mad at you. They care enough about those characters to get upset that they’re harmed. You made them care. And that’s what matters. That makes you a good writer/director.
I didn’t realize this for a long time. I thought it was all about giving people what they wanted so they would “be happy.” But maybe, just maybe, we can also find happiness in the other wonderful emotions we feel. I can feel happy crying at the end of an amazing tale where suffering took place, because it was good enough to make me cry, and that’s pretty damn rare. When a film or book affects me deeply, it’s better that way. If there were two characters named Sarah, and one lost her husband to a gunshot wound at the end of a movie after he had spent the whole film trying to find ways to prove his love to her, I’d find that a better film than one about Sarah who giggles with her boyfriend and lays around in flowers and drinks tea and reads poetry from her binder. I don’t want to read about someone who never goes through any conflict. I want a story about someone who struggles with something difficult, something that may change their entire lives forever if they do or don’t deal with it.
Being happy in life is incredible. Being happy in fiction…