I’ll admit it, I’ve always been a sucker for a happy ending. I think it has something to do with the sense of satisfaction you feel at the conclusion of things. I mean, why would anyone want to walk away from the final act feeling upset or depressed? Some people might argue that an unhappy ending has more impact, and in certain cases they’d be right.
In one of my early creative writing classes the instructor, Len Jellema, had the class read two stories. One was Bill Adam’s “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” which Len told us had been described by a critic as “one of the best Christmas stories ever written.” The other was Truman Capote’s riveting memoir, “A Christmas Memory.” Needless to say, the first story had what could be called “a traditional happy ending.” Capote’s piece, which is a recollection of his happy childhood memories of spending Christmases with his much older cousin (whom he referred to as “his friend”), ends with those halcyon days being totally dashed. “This is our last Christmas together,” he wrote. “Life separates us. Those Who Know Best, decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t’ count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.” When we discussed the two stores virtually everyone in the class agreed that Capote’s memoir was much more powerful. The aforementioned critic must have been Adam’s brother-in-law, or something.
What about the converse? Is it possible to write a powerful piece with impact that has a happy ending?
I think it is. John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee series is a fabulous example of how a protagonist can go through various trials and tribulations and still emerge on top at the end. While the endings of these novels certainly would not be described as “McGee lived happily ever after,” there is a sense of satisfaction that after going through a grueling trial McGee still manags to beat the odds each time. The last book in the series, The Lonely Silver Rain, has a great ending in which McGee comes to terms with his past and is champing at the bit to open a new phase of his life. Travis discovers he has a teenage daughter he didn’t know about. Sadly, MacDonald died before he could write another McGee novel and explore this further. But ironically the unintended last novel provides an appropriate bookend for the series as a whole. It leaves what happens next to the reader’s imagination.
But getting back to our original question, which ending is better, happy or unhappy?
I think the answer depends on the evolution of the story. My mother used to always lament that one of her favorite movies, Gone With the Wind, ended with the disillusioned Rhett Butler leaving the spoiled Scarlett just as she realizes he’s the one (not Ashley) that she loves. There were two ill advised sequels in which she won him back. One was shelved and never published, and the other wasn’t very satisfying or successful. Some stories are meant to end at certain point, which may not be happy, but that’s where they end.
In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon the story ends with Spade sending Brigid, the woman he “maybe loves,” to face prison or the gallows. “If they hang, I’ll always remember you,” Spade tells her. He clears his name, solves the murder of a partner he didn’t particularly like, and turns over the thousand dollars he made to the cops. You certainly couldn’t call it happy, but neither is it a total downer. Sometimes the hero can win the battle but lose the girl. And that’s the way it should be . . . sometimes. Can you imagine the final scene of Casablanca with Illsa not getting on that plane? Believe me, she would have regretted it . . . Maybe not that night, maybe not the next one, but soon, and for the rest of her life.
Endings can change too. An unhappy ones can be tweaked to appear less downbeat, or even (gasp!) happy. Take the first Rocky movie, for instance. Stallone’s original ending had the defeated Italian Stallion slowly walking back to the locker room with his true love, Adrian. He wisely changed the last scene to the bruised and battled hero winning the moral victory by finishing on his feet and yelling, “Addddrrrriiiiian!” Sylvester knows the value of a happy ending, all right. He also changed the ending of his Get Carter remake. In the original Carter (played by the incomparable Michael Caine), after having exacted revenge on the gangsters who murdered his family, gets shot by a sniper. In Stallone’s version Carter gets beat up, but like McGee, survives to fight another day. He does shave off his mustache and goatee, however.
But which type of ending has more impact? As I said, I think the ending has to suit the mood of the story. Long ago my Shakespeare professor admonished us that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy was that in the comedy the audience is pleased that all the players end up better off, while in the tragedy the payoff is in the catharsis— “Thank God you’re not on that stage.” Certainly, I’d rather leave a play or movie feeling better, regardless whether it was due to a pleasant feeling or a catharsis. What I find more upsetting is if the ending doesn’t fit. I can think of a few of those too, but I won’t mention them.
As I said, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.