TRAGEDY IS COMEDY WITHOUT THE PUNCHLINE - Complications Ensue
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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Q. In your book, and Lew Hunter in his, it is clear that "happy endings" are preferable if one seeks to maximize commercial viability. The idea being that North American audiences prefer to walk out of the theatre feeling chipper rather than sad. My question to you is two-pronged:

1) Forrest Gump, the English Patient, Gladiator, Titanic, Terms of Endearment, American Beauty, etc -- all "sad" or somehow tragic endings where characters we care about are killed or fail in accomplishing an objective or where a victory is pyrrhic, but Oscar-winning commercially successful pictures nonetheless. Don't audiences also enjoy a good cry? Doesn't a tragic ending make them leave the theatres speaking about the picture for days to come? Isn't a tragic ending also a poignant one?

2) What's your view on a story's protagonist successfully and heroically accomplishing an objective that makes you "feel good" whilst at the same time having him experience a tragedy (e.g. he defeats the antagonist in a wonderful display of heroism, but he does not get the girl at the end)?
It depends on what kind of movie you're writing, and what audience you're going for. If you're making a popcorn movie -- Mission Impossible n -- it better have a happy ending. The same is generally true for kids' movies. If you're making a drama for the Brokeback crowd, then you have more latitude. An ending that rips your heart out is fine.

I don't mind sad endings and I'm rather fond of bittersweet endings. What I don't like is melodramatically sad endings. When the tragedy has been set up from the beginning, it can work. You pretty much know from the poster that William Wallace is not going to survive Braveheart, and if you didn't clue in, the scene where Wallace pretty much admits he's probably walking into a trap should tell you that. The bittersweet Wallace-dies/Scotland-wins ending works because by the time we get there, we know that this is how it has to happen. I don't think anyone watching Brokeback expected the boys to work it out and head off to the West Village to open a successful cowboy-themed bar.

Tragic endings often work best when they're foreshadowed. In the first couple of minutes of All That Jazz, Joe Gideon falls off the high wire. And the whole movie is punctuated by Joe's flirtations with the Angel of Death. The English Patient has already ended badly -- the guy's dying in agony -- we just want to know why.

What I can't stand is where the story ends unnecessarily sad ending. The only reason The Commitments ends badly is because (so far as I can tell) they're Irish and nothing ends well for the Irish. Or something. There's no point to it. There's no structural reason why they couldn't have met B. B. King and got a record contract. Certainly Fleetwood Mac went through even worse interpersonal problems and came out with a platinum album or two. You can probably think of other unnecessary bad endings in movies.

I see a useful distinction between a tragic ending, in the traditional sense of a bad ending brought on by the protagonist's fatal flaw, and a merely ugly ending, brought on by the writer's neurotic desire to send the audience out the door with even more misery in their lives than they came in.

The former brings catharsis. The latter brings critical acclaim and low box office.

It doesn't even need to be a fatal flaw. You can have a successful tragic ending when it is the point of the story. Love Story is not about whether Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw's characters will get together, as it would be in a romantic comedy; it is about how Ali McGraw's lingering death allows Ryan O'Neal to grow up.

Here's my simple test: would the story be stupid with a happy ending? The Commitments would be a movie about a bunch of messed up people who manage to get over their differences because they love Motown. Not a stupid theme. Not a stupid movie. I wouldn't feel at all cheated. While if The English Patient got better, or saves his lover, then we'd be stuck with hating him for selling out Tobruk to the Nazis, and the story would no longer function well.

Tragedy works when we know, either up front, or secretly, in our heart of hearts, how it's going to turn out. But we root for it to turn out okay anyway. So the key is letting the audience know the ending is going to be sad, and making sure the story still has enough drama and humanity going for it that knowing the ending doesn't kill the experience.

5 Comments:

I can think of lots of stupid happy endings. Like the Snows of Kilamanjaro. When the hero lives. Even though the story is about the characters last thoughts while dying. Hemingway disowned it, calling it The Snows of Daryl Zanuck.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 4:06 PM  

Am I the only one that thought, even amidst the fine acting, blah blah blah, that "Million Dollar Baby" was about as melodramatic and manipulative as could be? (And yes, I know it's based on a book, and no, I haven't read it). I'm just saying...

By Blogger Scribe LA, at 7:33 PM  

I'm with you on Million Dollar Baby. It was good but, just as 'saved by the bell' moments are condemned, I feel that falling on the footstool was a bit of a writing ploy to make me (the audience) suffer. Then, it drags on forever.

I can see why it works for the Clint Eastwood character. But it was rather drawn out for the purpose it served.

One of my most hated endings is Arlington Road. Not only do I feel it makes the police and the main character look stupid at the ending, but how would the Tim Robbins character know how the hero would react in the end? It *had* to happen a specific way and I just don't see how anybody would know.

It's one of quite a few movies I feel are written, as Alex says, just to make you feel worse than when you came in.

I'm also a fan of saying something positive with your story. A story doesn't have to have a happy ending to have a positive message.

By Blogger Dave, at 12:45 AM  

I liked this post.

Maybe the "happy ending" conundrum is based in dualistic thinking about endings, like there are exactly three questions about the end of every story that must be answered with a yes or no: Does the main character survive? Does he/she get the girl/guy? Does he/she win at whatever competition the plot sets up? Three yesses mean a happy ending, and three noes mean sad. And probably for popcorn movies, you want the three yesses.

But in other stories, the stakes can be more subtle, and the ending is their natural conclusion. Sometimes, a struggle with ending is really a struggle with beginning--what set this story up? Where does the plot really begin? How does the story unfold so that the ending is both surprising and inevitable?

By Blogger Andrew, at 8:13 AM  

Experience suggests you can pretty much guarantee that any movie involving wolves or Native Americans isn't going to end well for them.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 2:55 PM  

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