Everyone loves a happy ending. Or so it seems.
I just finished watching Terminator 2 with Amy today as a fundamental part of her upbringing (Marvel, James Cameron, Spielberg, Jedis, Tolkien, etc - all in the name of parental education) and it got the 3 of us talking. You see, Amy became concerned about 3/4 of the way through the film that this "bad" Terminator could actually win the day and the "goodies" might actually die. Well, yeah, that's part of the tension that good writing should evoke for a decent pay-off, but it did occur to me that there must have come a point in my own formative years when I happily accepted a film that DIDN'T end happily. Not all do.
Kids would be devastated if Bambi, famous for its matricidal moment, also ended with the young deer himself being eaten with a side of Thumper stew. It doesn't of course, but what if...
So, I was trying to recall the first downbeat-ending film I'd seen and how I felt at the time as I walked away. I'm not talking about bitter-sweet endings - I couldn't include Empire Strikes Back since there's still hope at the end - nor films with "sad bits" like E.T.. No, I'm talking about films that haunt you because the resolution you'd hoped for never arrived. I have a funny feeling the original King Kong was my first. And I think I coped pretty well.
As for more recent films that have the same tenor: some I accept, and still enjoy a re-watch, others I struggle with. Atonement, Revolutionary Road, American History X, Chinatown, Thelma and Louise, Das Boot, Oldboy, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest... The list goes on (and I've left others out to avoid spoilers!), but these endings work because they have a story to tell, they remind us that life isn't always happy, and we can accept what they show us. Others, like the The Vanishing (the original! Hollywood did its usual), Se7en, Rosemary's Baby, The Mist or The Wicker Man I personally find a bit too cynical. In fact, Jennie and I sometimes prefer ambiguous endings - or at least wish the film-makers hadn't tried to tack on an extra few minutes to sugar it up. Leave Source Code and A.I. Artificial Intelligence at a certain point some minutes before the end = even better films. I quote Orson Welles: "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." 'Nuff said.
But why, ultimately, do we all love a happy ending? Because there is a sense of justice deep inside all of us and when it is not served, we feel cheated. I'm a Bible-believing Christian and the Bible says this: no, life is not always pain-free, and our individual stories do not always end happily, but there is a bigger picture. And that is the most glorious happy ending you could ever experience. Justice is served. And the redeemed live happily ever after. Go check it out.