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Why the obsession with happy endings?

Fireworks over Disney castle
Disney is all about happy endings on sad fairytales

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

We're always being warned not to expect happy endings to the ecological, economic and political crises that beset the world, and yet when times are grim, these upbeat conclusions abound in the stories we seek out.

Two years ago, a group called the Happy Endings Foundation momentarily came to prominence.

They were demanding that authors of children's books come up with happier endings and even suggested that works with less sunny conclusions should be burnt on "bad book bonfires" held around the UK.

Soon, however, bloggers had investigated the foundation and revealed it was a marketing hoax - the like of which abound on April Fools Day, although this was in October. But by that time the BBC and several national and local newspapers had carried the story.

The point is that this kind of campaign doesn't seem that ridiculous. In troubled times there are plenty of people who want happy endings - an matter perhaps recognised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, last week, when he cautioned God will not intervene in climate change to supply a happy ending.

Hepburn and Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's
Boy very much gets girl in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's

Go back to the 1930s, particularly to films of that era, and you see the process of "happyendingification" in full flow during a time of grinding poverty and uncertainty about the future.

What audiences wanted on both sides of the Atlantic was a dose of escapist fun. Or so the financiers of culture thought.

Classic stories ended in a much more heartening fashion when they made it to the silver screen.

But before you read any further, be warned - it's impossible to discuss this subject frankly without breaking a few metaphorical eggs in the shape of plot spoilers.

Now, returning to Depression era America. Take 1931's classic Frankenstein. In the book, Frankenstein marries but his wife Elizabeth is killed by the monster. Frankenstein then meets his doom in the Arctic. In the film, however, Dr Frankenstein and his wife live happily ever after.

Or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In Victor Hugo's novel, the ending sees Esmeralda hanged and Quasimodo choosing to die next to her body. In the 1939 film they both survive.

Even John Steinbeck's tale of misery in the dustbowl, The Grapes of Wrath, found itself with a more upbeat conclusion in the film made by John Ford and released in 1940.

Film of the Hunchback of Notre Dame
Book: Esmeralda and Quasimodo dead. Film: Esmeralda and Quasimodo fine

"The death of central characters sent completely the wrong message at a time in American history when they were coming out of a huge depression and looking forward to a better future," says National Media Museum film historian Tony Earnshaw.

"They want to send people away from a movie experiencing the idea of the hero getting the girl."

It is perhaps no surprise then that the term "Hollywood happy ending" has entered the cultural lexicon in Britain, and even among some non-anglophones.

Fast forward to the present day and in our current straitened times and you will again see happy endings.

Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars, representing the perfect hard times blend of a grim tale with a euphoric ending.

At the same time, a publishing phenomenon of recent years, autobiographies of troubled childhoods - "misery lit" - started to peter out last year.

Ending battles

"Misery memoirs aren't doing well," reveals Philip Stone, charts editor of the Bookseller. "That genre might suffer a little bit in these times."

Of course, the theory can be undermined by examples of happyendingification from every decade, whether times were grim or not.

Scene from Grapes of Wrath
The film of the Grapes of Wrath ends in a remarkably upbeat way

Go back to 1961 and the adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's. In Truman Capote's novella, Holly Golightly heads off to Brazil. In the film there's a romantic happy ending where she ends up with Paul.

In 1982's Blade Runner the film ends with the protagonists happily driving through the countryside. Ten years later and Ridley Scott's director's cut deletes the happy ending and concludes the film with the couple leaving the apartment with their future unknown.

From the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino's True Romance script had the central character Clarence shot to death at the end. In the film, he survives and we see him and his wife and child frolicking happily on the beach.

And don't even get people started on Disney's takes on traditional fairy tales.

You can even take it back to classical times. We may think of Greek drama in terms of the unrelenting tragedy of Oedipus Rex or Medea. But even the Greeks expected a happy ending, says Alan Sommerstein, professor of Greek at Nottingham University.

Couple kiss on Juliet's balcony in Verona
Romeo and Juliet doesn't make sense with the lovers living happily ever after

"Greek tragic productions came in sets of four - the fourth was always a roaring farce. And not all tragedies had what we might call tragic endings."

In Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris, the central character is thought to have been sacrificed before the Trojan war. In fact she is taken away to the Crimea where she is made a high priestess sacrificing Greek sailors. One day she takes pity on two Greeks and one turns out to be her brother. They make good their escape.

"In a tragedy you have to have a terrible disaster taking place or narrowly avoided. It doesn't matter which," says Mr Sommerstein.

And there was a belief that a tragedy could actually make people happier.

"Aristotle argues that tragic drama gives pleasure, arousing the emotions. I would think myself of Shakespeare's time which was pretty grim, with the plague liable to break out."

Shakespeare had both tragedies and comedies. It's hard to watch the bloodbath ending of Hamlet and find any scrap of comfort. A version where Hamlet and Ophelia made it to the end and lived happily ever after wouldn't quite do, even in Hollywood.

And yet one Shakespeare play about to get the silver screen treatment - the Winter's Tale - is the classic Hollywood happy ending to the nth degree. The play has a deus ex machina, where an ending is imposed from above, that featured so much in Greek drama. And it's still a feature of stories today.

The ending of HG Wells' War of the Worlds didn't need to be changed at all for the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie. The world is saved when the invading aliens suddenly die of disease. In a time of obsession with terror and cataclysm it made the perfect happy ending for many.

But there are always some who regard the process of happyendingification as fundamentally crass, a sign of the excessive commercialisation of the concept of story, of pandering to our weaker side.

Aristotle wasn't happy when, a couple of generations after the passing of the classic tragedy playwrights, he sensed that the plays were getting a bit more unthinkingly jolly.

"He said the audience had gone pretty feeble," says Mr Sommerstein.


A selection of your comments appears below. Be warned that some contain spoilers.

If I know a story has a tragic ending, I'm not going to bother to go watch it, and that's something that Hollywood realized a long time ago. When it comes down to it, its a business, and happy endings sell better then tragic ones. Apart from that however, is there something wrong with wanting a happy ending?
Molenir, Phoenix, AZ

It's Americans who have the obsession with happy endings. Look at these classic films knocked up in the financially-gloomy 1970s Britain. Get Carter - main character dies at end, Watership Down - main character dies at end, Wicker Man - main character dies at end, Long Good Friday - main character driven off to uncertain fate at gunpoint. The message is clear - we are British, give us death.
Martin, Edinburgh

The problem with happy endings is that they have become more and more predictable. The not-so-happy endings never disappoint me, and I don't think they ever will. Some of the best classic novels have the protagonists die, but it is these characters we love and can identify with, to some extent. Just take Wuthering Heights, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest or 1984, Marley & Me. Need I go on? The hopelessness we experience at the end of a novel or movie is simply a reflection of our knowledge that there isn't a happy ending for everybody. We are in denial when we think bad things happen to other people, but won't happen to ourselves. If you can't bear the lack of happyendingification, stick to Disney movies or fairytales.
Stephanie Smith, Preston, Lancashire

My favourite fairy tale growing up was Hans Anderson's The Little Mermaid. I found its bittersweet ending very beautiful, and it was essential for Anderson's message. Needless to say, I loathed the Disney version.
Kirsten T, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The most changed story I know of is Robin Hood. In the original, Robin's cousin, Marion, fearful that she will be arrested for harbouring him, kills Robin.
Peter, USA

Personally I like happy endings, I tend to find it annoying when a tragic ending is needlessly shoved into a drama in some attempt to make it seem 'deep' or clever.
Michael Hodgson, Portsmouth, UK

Some of the films that have had the biggest impact on me have no happy endings: Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well and Ran, John Irvin's The Dogs of War, Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, Michael Mann's Heat and Mamoru Oshii's Jin-Roh just to name a few. I prefer ambiguous or sad endings to happy endings any day because I find them more thought-provoking.
MrSatyre, Fairfax/VA US

I've always been one of the people more upset by a tragic ending being changed to a happy one by Hollywood or otherwise than I was by the original tragedy. A good recent example was when I went to see the screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust last year at my local cinema; the book is one of my favourite small novels of the last few years, and its realistic, sad eventual ending did well to put the happy parts of the story into context, making them that much happier. When the movie ending was rewritten massively, from the "confrontation" battle scene with the witches to the "happily ever after" ending, I felt that all the trials and tribulations the characters had been through had their meaning snuffed out. What's the point of all that tension and danger when a movie has the forgone conclusion that everything will turn out okay. Dramatically, this sort of treatment is absurd, and to me personally, it kills what would otherwise be a very touching and lovely story (in Stardust), made poignant by its sad, but true, ending.
David M, Tullibody, Scotland

It might do to look at the culture of both the film-makers and the audience. Americans have the reputation of being cock-eyed optimists, so it makes sense that we should prefer a happy ending. Or as the saying goes, "If the ending isn't happy, it hasn't ended yet."
Karen, Colorado, USA

The most vexing for me of meddlesome happyendingification has to be Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Somehow, Lowery escapes in a Hollywoodmobile... I understand it irritated Mr Gilliam quite a bit. Did me, as well.
Frank Gilligan, Arlington VA, US

Life is not full of happy ending, and mostly we must face with sorrow. Tragedy can, in some way, make us bearable. If you cannot accept a misery of a fiction, how can you burden the real pain? I think that tragic drama often brings us to some valuable memory in our mind, which may be forgotten.
Oppo, China



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