More than genre, more than subject, it is the ending that defines a story, and defines how we will remember it. Sometimes an ending will exceed our expectations. Sometimes, it will derail us. And sometimes, of course, we will be disappointed. Sometimes we get to laugh, sometimes we get to sob uncontrollably and wonder what on earth we could possibly bring ourselves to read or watch next.
Sometimes, I think, people have unrealistic expectations. The ending they want isn’t necessarily the right ending for the story. Not all endings should be of the fairy-tale variety – but more about that later. ‘The end’ is not always a guarantee of closure (and where would sequels and series be if closure was de rigueur?). Charles Dickens knew this. When he wrote Great Expectations (1860-1) he came up with two endings: the right ending for a realist novel, and the fairy-tale ending he knew his readers would want. Personally, I prefer the original ending: it is far more satisfying than the too easy fairy-tale variant. And really, beyond having unrealistic expectations, what did Pip do to ‘deserve’ Estella? Far better that Estella should reclaim her personal agency from the legacy of Miss Havisham’s sense of vengeance, and from her disastrous first marriage, by finding happiness with someone outside of the story, than by ‘rewarding’ the boy she used to tease. On the other hand there are those in whom the words ‘Reader, I married him’, inspire a deep rage. Is it not enough that Jane Eyre holds on to her principles, her virtue, her hard won sense of self worth, and then gets to marry the man she loves on her own terms – not his – and as an equal? Her fairy-tale is tarnished by the madwoman in the attic, and everything she stands for; why should she not marry her psychologically and physically scarred love, and have babies? Why should she not retain her own agency and follow her heart?
Similarly, the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe (2013) seemed to garner a less than favourable response for the final episode. Judging by the reactions in my Twitter feed, the preferred ending would have seen all the untidy loose ends neatly tied off in double knots and the threads snipped. Not wanting to be spoilery, I will only say that for me, the ending made sense. In a story dealing with seemingly senseless acts of violence, and the aftermath of grief, how do you write any meaningful kind of closure? Grief is messy: it lasts as long as it lasts. To underscore this point, one of the main characters (played by Rory Kinnear) is shown to be be still dealing with the bullying he endured a child. Again, what meaningful kind of realistic closure can there be for him? In the real world, vengeance should not always be enacted – indeed, the very point of the main story: the burning need for personal vengeance meant tragedy for too many other people. There are always consequences. But resolution is far more rare.
I have a theory that collectively we have been spoiled by the Hollywood version of happily ever after. Sure, there’s the occasional blockbuster that isn’t afraid to take the road less travelled, but for every Se7en (1995) there are too many films that are afraid to aim for anything other than the cliché. Which is fine, as far as it goes: sometimes it’s nice to see the prostitute go shopping before ending up with the wealthy business man who paid her for sex. Pretty Woman (my god but 1990 is an AGE ago) is a classic Hollywood fairytale. More to the point it’s a classic Disney fairytale, of the same vintage as The Little Mermaid (1989): a happy ending can’t be a happy ending unless the princess gets her man, regardless of the ending of the original source material. (see also, rewriting history: Pocahontas and her supposed relationship with John Smith, for which there is no evidence, etc etc)
I have a problem with Hollywood altered endings. I am aware that what makes a good novel and what makes a good film are not always mutually inclusive. There are always certain compromises to be made: events and characters cut, condensed, rearranged. But change the ending, and the story is rarely altered for the better. Compare Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1997) with the 2007 film. Both are tagged as a fairytale that won’t behave. One ending is ultimately sweetly, darkly sad. The other is considerably less so. I leave it to you to work out which is which. (I love both: they are two separate entities, and that’s fine.) But both are fairytale endings. The film The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) manages to sidestep the darkness of the 2003 novel’s ending, in favour of taking the cake and liberally smearing it right across the collective audience’s face. The text again is rendered as two separate entities, but – and of course this is only my opinion – at the expense of the novel’s identity: the flavour of schmaltz has never appealed less.
But sometimes, of course, we are given the unexpected ending; endings that seem to promise one thing, and give us something else. If you have neither read, nor watched Atonement (2001/2007), then please, do.