Back a few million years ago, when we chipped all of our tools out of flint and all of our computers had dial up, I found that I had a fondness for unhappy endings. I had just driven an absurd distance to a town big enough to show foreign language films with a friend to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and was struck by the tragic ending. I felt that it took courage to make a work in which your characters suffered and didn’t necessarily have everything come out alright. I thought it was stunning and, in the face of a lot of works with forced saccharine endings, it felt more real. Above all, it was different.
After a while, I took a course on modern literature. No one is ever happy in modern literature—not the kind that gets critical acclaim, anyways. Modern “literary” writing is full of unhappy people doing unhappy things and never earning redemption. As a friend said of the movie American Beauty: “I just watched a bunch of screwed-up people decide that it was okay to be screwed-up, and I’m supposed to care?” Scratch the part about originality.
Take courage off the list, too. Following the crowd is easy. And as for real? I generally read and watch (and write) speculative fiction. The movie that brought about my love of unhappy endings features, among other things, a duel between Chow Yun-Fat and Ziyi Zhang atop a bamboo forest. Realism isn’t a prime concern.
So where does that leave us?
It’s not that happy endings make a work inferior. It’s that plotting and characterization aren’t up to par. When there’s a happy ending just because, we all go, “Meh.” When there’s a happy ending to a story with no logical happy ending, we’re annoyed.
There’s an anime series that I absolutely love by the name of RahXephon. I was watching it (or possibly rewatching, I don’t remember exactly) around the time I took my modern lit course. It was RahXephon which finally put the last nail in the coffin for my love of unhappy endings.
In RahXephon, the protagonist, Ayato, finds that he is being manipulated by his family and his government, and then by the government to which he defects. He deals with things of grand importance, like destiny and fate and the survival of two universes which are unable to coexist with each other. People close to him die. But yet, in the end, there’s a happy ending. RahXephon is a series which grows progressively darker and more heartbreaking with each episode, but in the end, I found myself breathing a happy sigh.
RahXephon does a few things right that a lot of other works don’t do right. The happy ending in RahXephon is a relief, and not a saccharine annoyance. There are two primary reasons for this: First, the end is appropriate for the context of the series. In another series, it would not work, and, I think, this is one of the hallmarks of a good ending. It is appropriate for the work it is in, and not appropriate for others.
In a movie that is not Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy saving his father with the Holy Grail would most likely not work. In a book that is not A Wrinkle In Time, the power of love is sort of a cheesy cop-out. In both of these works, though, it fits with the theme and the plot. Indy is searching for the Holy Grail and Meg Murray is struggling to rescue her beloved father. The endings are appropriate and in keeping with the theme of the works. The works would have fallen apart if the endings were different.
Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, the characters in RahXephon suffer. Ayato’s life falls apart in episode one, and over the course of the series, even though he tries to find his footing and cope with the world around him, he is frustrated time and again. He is betrayed and manipulated. World events spiral out of control—but, in the end, he finally begins to understand where he’s at and what’s going on in the world, and is able to make a difference.
This is when you want that happy ending satisfying and rewarding. Ayato has fought long and hard to earn his happily ever after. Indy has journeyed halfway across the world, been beaten up, betrayed, and nearly loses his father before his happy ending. Meg Murray has suffered without her father for a long time, is nearly killed by a demonic non-existence, and has to brave the identity-destroying world of Camazotz for her happy ending. Frodo suffers in Mordor and nearly succumbs to the Ring. Philip Marlowe is repeatedly caught in awful situations for the sake of his clients. Buttercup nearly marries Humperdink and Wesley is mostly killed.
It’s all in the plotting and the characters. If the end of your story isn’t an end that is appropriate to the work, or your characters just skate through every situation they encounter without pause, your happy ending will fall flat and feel trite. If you’re mean enough to your characters, though, if you challenge everything they hold dear, if you snatch it away and force them to fight for it– this is where we’ll care, and this is where we’ll sit back and breath a sigh of relief when they ride off into the sunset.