WARNING: this article contains potential spoilers for Atonement, The Remains of the Day, The Godfather Part II, Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Life of Pi, No Country for Old Men, and Mockingjay.
Some people claim to only like stories with happy endings. Perhaps they think along the same lines as Burgess Meredith’s playwright character in the 1981 Clash of the Titans: “Real life is tragic enough without my having to write about it.”
However, when questioned closely, I generally find what people mean when they say they don’t like unhappy endings is that they don’t like badly conceived unhappy endings.
Atonement features what I consider to be an ill-conceived unhappy ending. Wiping out the romantic lead in a bombing raid simply isn’t satisfying. The incident acts as a tragic deus ex machina. It may well be that in real life that’s what could have happened, but the very best storytelling should be about what is dramatically satisfying. Sacrificing the right ending on the altar of realism is never a good idea. I for one think the lovers in Atonement ought to have been reunited in some way, shape or form.
On a similar note, I think the unambiguously happy ending of David Lean’s version of Great Expectations is better than the bleak ending Charles Dickens originally intended. After all Pip and Estella have gone through, somehow one feels they deserve to be free from the ghosts of the past and start again together.
Of course, it is easy to write a happy ending: just give your protagonist everything they want. But this isn’t necessarily right either.
How, for example, should The Godfather Part II end? Michael Corleone forgives his wife and brother, goes straight and retires from organised crime? How should The Remains of the Day end? Stevens and Miss Kenton get married? How should Romeo and Juliet end? The star-crossed lovers live happily ever after? How should To Kill a Mockingbird end? Tom gets acquitted?
If these stories had happy endings their premises would be emasculated; themes of power, corruption and family curses in The Godfather, wasted lives in The Remains of the Day, the feuds and reconciliation in Romeo and Juliet and the institutional racism exposed in To Kill a Mockingbird. A happy ending in each of these cases would render the stories nonsensical, phony and morally dubious.
In other cases, a more ambiguous ending is appropriate. Some do not care for ambiguity, but in the right context it can greatly enrich a story. Life of Pi, No Country for Old Men and Blade Runner are all good examples of this.
Sometimes the most satisfying endings are a mixture of happy and sad. A recent example would be Mockingjay, the finale of the Hunger Games trilogy. At the climax, for one awful moment it appears machiavellian President Coin and her resistance army are going to condemn the children of the capital to participate in a final Hunger Games in reprisal – thus proving that they have learnt nothing in their struggle against President Snow and his government. But then – at the very moment Katniss is supposed to publically execute Snow – she turns her arrow on Coin instead, killing her in revenge for allowing her younger sister to die as collateral damage in the rebel assault on the capital.
This ending is brilliant because 1) Snow and his oppressive government are overthrown and 2) the moral of the story – ie the inherent futility of vengeance and reprisals – is so powerfully delivered. Yet it works superbly on an ironic and tragic level too. Initially Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games to take the place of her younger sister Primrose and thus preserve her life. This act ultimately leads to the uprising and successful deposing of the tyrannical Snow. Yet Primrose ultimately dies anyway, due to an order given by Coin who considers her death an acceptable loss. The ending of the Hunger Games trilogy is emotionally resonant, morally correct and hugely satisfying.
Ultimately, just as a well-earned happy ending will cause the reader/viewer to punch the air in triumph, so a tragic end can be truthful, beautiful and moving. As long as it is the right ending…