This is something I find fascinating, and I’d love to hear some opinions. Do bad endings destroy a story for you? My mother is the sort of audience member who hates a bad ending. It can completely wreck her enjoyment of a thing if she perceives of the ending being poor. With that in mind, let’s talk about what constitutes a bad ending.
When my mother talks about bad endings, she means that a character she liked dies. It doesn’t matter the circumstances or whether it served the story, she simply didn’t want them to die and that’s that. If they do, it’s upsetting and not fun anymore. As you can imagine, she hates horror, which is my favorite genre. Even excluding horror, where you’d best be ready for a lot of people to die, she still can’t handle character death on any level.
Let me give you an example. Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe. I love this movie. I went to see it in the theater and became completely obsessed with it. I thought it was brilliant. Spoilers ahead, but I have to spoil it to prove my point. It tells the story of a general in the Roman army who is betrayed. His wife and child are killed, and he’s made a slave and forced to battle in the coliseum. He becomes the best fighter ever and works his way up to the emperor who betrayed him and takes his life, but our hero dies in the process.
My mother calls this awful and sad and doesn’t want to see it, because he dies. But our general-turned-slave, Maximus, is achieving his greatest goal. He killed the man who caused him so much pain, got his revenge, and it’s implicit in the imagery at the end that he’s going to be with his family in the afterlife. Hero achieves greatest wish = best possible ending. That’s my feeling. So even though he dies, he doesn’t fail. Failure would’ve been much more tragic in this case, and it would’ve made the film feel nihilistic and depressing. Even then it’s still arguable if “nihilistic and depressing” means a bad story or a bad ending.
Yet I’m not immune to feeling irritated when a movie or book ends on a hopeless note or with its entire cast of characters slaughtered. I feel that I manage to skirt hypocrisy in this though. Because the thing that makes a bad ending stand out is bad writing. If I’m reading a book that feels good, the experience is enjoyable, I have few complaints, and the main character dies at the end, I still enjoyed the book. That’s not a deal breaker. On the other hand, if the book was a terrible, awful, no-good time and ends on a sour note, the ending amplifies everything I was already feeling. It becomes the punctuation mark on a crappy sentence. When I talk about books and films like these, I find myself saying, “and on top of everything, it ended badly!”
So ultimately what I find is Gladiator was well-written and well-made. Had it been otherwise, I might’ve been saying the same thing as my mother. “And then he died! Ugh!” Instead I found beauty in Maximus letting go, finding peace after a life of blood and war. Because the filmmakers and actors and everyone involved worked to make that implicit for the viewer. The ending was a culmination of everything that came before, therefore it made sense and fit nicely in place and was part of a beautiful whole. It’s when stories fumble and don’t stick the landing that these endings become jagged and frustrating.
All this is not to say that happy endings aren’t ideal. Or that I’m too cynical to enjoy a happy ending. They are ideal, and I do enjoy them. When you’ve followed someone through a long, arduous journey, you want to see the best thing happen for them. But in a way, that’s my argument. Sometimes what a character wants is not our definition of “happy”, but it still applies. And that cynicism has its place, and it should be discussed, but not at the expense of good writing.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments. As always, happy geeking!
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