Monday, January 17, 2011

You Tell Me: How do you feel about happy endings?

It seems that with today's literature, no matter how bleak the outcome looks, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel; the MC always gets what he/she was after.  

This had not always been the case with books.  Some of them didn't have feel-good endings that made the reader smile and/or shut the book with satisfaction.

GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, by Jonathan Swift was one of those books that ended rather sour.  Sure, the MC got home, but by the end that WASN'T what he wanted.  He had wanted to stay with the Houyhnhnms.  So when he got back, he spent the rest of his life estranged from his family.  The only happiness he found was when he talked to his horses.  This was not a happy ending.

And though most literature a few decades ago could go either way (happy or sad), dystopians ALWAYS ended badly.  That was the point of them.  More than just entertaining, they were warnings to readers that if we go down a particular path, we WON'T be able to dig ourselves out.

Today, though, it seems all the books I've read have happy endings, even the dystopians.  Now, I'll be honest and admit most of my reading material has been YA, but I'm kind of surprised that ALL of them end happily.

Even THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy had a happy ending in its own twisted way.

But do you want to know what entertainment medium doesn't always have a happy ending?


And a few decades ago, that was almost unheard of!

It seems books and movies have switched places.  Now why is that?  I have my own theory.

When movies first came out, they were fresh and exciting sure, but more than that, they were NEW.  People needed to be convinced to spend their money to watch something for an hour or two out of their day.  So they had to be, ultimately, happy (or end happily).  As the years went by, and an audience became more dependable, movies started becoming more experimental, trusting they'd get the viewers.  Now, a good portion of movies end rather badly with the MC dead or otherwise ruined.

Books, on the other hand, had been around for thousands of years and had already earned their place in the ranks of education and entertainment.  And more often than not, books were both educational AND entertaining.  They'd earned their audience and could afford to be written in a way to make readers think.

Nowadays, though, readers have become harder to come by.  Books are being run through the happy meal conveyor belt, and though they're still high quality, they've lost that educational finesse they used to have.  If dystopians don't end badly anymore, was the story world really hopeless?

I'm afraid not.

Though I do enjoy a satisfying ending as much as the next reader, I'd love to read a new book written in the same style as 1984 or BRAVE NEW WORLD, and leaves me terrified of what we as humans can do to ourselves.

What do you, dear readers, think?  Do you like all the happy endings?  Have you read anything new lately that DIDN'T have a happy ending?


  1. i don't know. i like happy endings, but i also appreciate unhappy endings. i think it really depends on the story you want to tell... i don't really see endings as endings... in general. to me they are more like the last scene we see, but the story goes on after that. just how much hope is apparent at that point determines whether it's a happy one of an unhappy one. while i always believe that there is hope out there- sometimes it's difficult to see though- whoo... i got lost... there was a point in there somewhere, i'm sure. :P
    i do think the trends you pointed out are interesting!!! i'd never thought of that! :)

  2. I think that if something has a happy ending, though the story may have been 98% dire, it can't have been hopeless (i.e. lacking in all hope).

    Look at 1984--for most of the story, it actually reads kind of hopeful. The MC and his lady friend are positive they can work the system. By the end, they realize they've been played all along. So the reader finds out the story has actually been hopeless from the beginning.

    If a story has a happy ending, it was hopeful through-and-through. Characters can't move forward without a glimmer of hope that they will succeed. And when they DO succeed, you see that the story was never really hopeless at all. Dire, yes. Hopeless, no.

    And thank you! They are interesting trends. And though nothing is ever 100% (planet of the apes, for example, had a sad ending), there has been a visible shift.


  3. I tend to favor happy endings, but sometimes a less cheerful ending works fine as long as it is appropriate and satisfying.

  4. Interesting analysis you've come up with!

    Happy endings bother me too. I don't like everything tied up in a neat bow, especially since an entire book, or series, is spent unravelling and twisting everything. It feels contrived. (I think Katniss should have ended up alone, like Athena.) For me, the best endings are a resolution to a main conflict, but with lingering questions. Then I can contemplate "what if" for myself. After all, I know the characters by heart if an author has done a good job.

  5. Very interesting theory about the book/movie relationship! I wonder if something similar is going on in the newspaper/internet world too. I see it in our local newspaper, at least. Over the last few years, there have a lot more heartwarming, community-based stories.

    Like you, I tend to read YA, and I actually expect to get a positive ending. I think it has a lot to do with encouraging hope in teens, since those of us who are older know that even though teen years can sometimes be very tough, things will get better.

    The last few books I read that didn't end with roses and sunshine were Never Let Me Go and Atonement (yes, I am 5 years behind in my adult reading). I think your theory is dead-one, except for the "literary fiction" genre, where every book seems to try to be more depressing than the last. I think of novels like The Human Stain and Before I Die (which might be considered YA).

    I wonder if I'm drawn to books that will have a happy ending, since that's what I like. I can appreciate a good sad ending if it fits with the novel, but I tend to get overly worked up and cry way too much. It's better for me to use my entertainment as escapism and get my drama elsewhere. :)

  6. I like happy endings but a lot of my favorite books, movies, tv shows, veer towards satisfying, not necessarily happy. I think if you're going to write dystopic fiction, the endings should be realistic.

    The last book I read, Marriage of Sticks, had neither a happy nor unhappy. It was like the curtain losed. You could finish the story in your mind, if you wanted or just take the ending and that's it. Weird. I'm still pondering that one.

  7. I care less about whether it's happy or unhappy, and more about whether it fits the rest of the book. If the ending is unrealistic in any way, then I just don't like it.

  8. Honestly, the books the stick in my memory the most are those that do not end happily.

  9. I agree that it does depend a lot on the book, and if a happy ending fits with everything else in the book. My general opinion, however, is that the ending should be happy, but it should have a little bit of sadness. I don't think the MC should die, but maybe if the book ends in a fight, have the MC win, but maybe have him/her break a bone or something and they will never be able to fight again, something that will get the audience to be sad, to show the audience how much they truely care about the characters. Or maybe have one of the MC's friends die, or maybe his/her sould mate die. I don't know, I just think that there sould be a compromise in a happy ending.

  10. I don't always write happy endings. I like happy endings but sometimes it's not appropriate or true to the meaning of the story.

    I think films have in many ways become the dominant media so filmmakers feel they can take risks and write non-happy endings. Books, on the other hand, are suffering from an imploding publishing industry that insists on giving the reader what they want, not what they need.


  11. Whether the ending is happy or sad is largely irrelevant to me. What is important is that the ending provides resolution and that it maintains the tone and direction of the rest of the book.

  12. my books and films have to have a happyending and I won't have them any other way :) It's just that we are surrounded with so many bad and evil things in reality, I really like something good and positive happening in the things I read or watch.

  13. Interesting post about interesting trends.

    And you need to read FEED, by M T Anderson. Then read GOING BOVINE, by Libba Bray. Both wonderfully crafted, both achingly sad, and the latter is so bittersweet. Wonderful books.


Yay! Comments! Oh, how I do love them! :D