“Hello, My Name is Your T.V.” is one of my favorite songs. It’s sung by the band Ludo and it nails the exact reason why people enjoy happy endings. Because, more often than not, life is unhappy.
The song is about a child that constantly deals with his fighting parents and being bullied. Television is the only thing he can escape to. It gives him hope that one day things might work out for him. One day he’ll have a happy ending. He’ll be big a strong, able to face his tormentors. As the song says, he knows that one day “The good guy gets the girl by the sunny sea.”
I think most people view movies as an escape. They don’t go to movies to see a reflection of their own lives. They go to see the bad guy defeated, the hero rise above impossible odds. Because they hope that in their own story they’ll be able to do the same.
I don’t write that way. Three of my four feature-length scripts have had downer endings, with the fourth being the most recent and designed in such a way as to leave a happy ending possible. To be honest, it’s not even totally happy. But it ends on a hopeful note, unlike my others. I’ve been wondering, recently, what reason is there to have unhappy endings, especially knowing that most moviegoers don’t want to leave the theater feeling worse than when they came in.
I think it comes down to two things: 1.) Message and 2.) The reality of the story. Let me talk about two before circling back to one, if you’ll allow me that bit of nonsequential reasoning as opposed to simply revising my numbers so two is actually one and vice versa.
Anyway, the characters of the story, the stakes, and the reality of the world you’ve created will probably do the most to dictate whether or not you have a happy ending. Because, like everything else (and following a set-up/punchline/callback structure) a happy ending has to be earned. It sucks to see a protagonist come across impossible odds, show no ability to overcome them, and then overcome them anyway thanks to outside help or some coincidence put in by the writer just to get a happy ending. An audience may want a happy ending, but they can also identify bullshit when they see it.
It may be necessary to forego a happy ending if your message precludes it. For example, if the message of your story is to not be like the main character (i.e. – Breaking Bad or Requiem for a Dream) they shouldn’t have a happy ending. It undermines the message of the film. In Requiem all of the characters are addicts who cannot overcome their own shortcomings. If they were given a happy ending despite of this fact, that essentially tells the audience that being an addict incapable of change is ok.
This is one of the reasons there was a big to-do over The Wolf of Wallstreet recently. People felt like the film glamorizes being a shitbag in the vein of Jordan Belfort. Only… the movie doesn’t do that. He loses everything that had any real meaning in his life. His wife, his kids, his fortune – all gone. Sure, he wasn’t punished in the ways that an audience likes to see bad behavior punished, and he was too stupid to realize that he ruined his own life, but the evidence was clear. The lesson stands; a happy ending is useless if it undermines the message.
This is something I need to keep in mind when I write. I’m a cynical person by nature, so my instinct is to hew close to life and if not keep my characters outright unhappy, at least make it ambiguous as to whether or not they’ll live happily ever after. I’m learning to fight that instinct. Hopefully it will lead to even more honest, more powerful work in my future.