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The happiest ending could be an unhappy ending

August 10, 2012

We live in a dystopian world. One website describes dystopian as defined by “massive dehumanization, totalitarian government, rampant disease, post-apocalyptic terrains, cyber-genetic technologies, societal chaos and widespread urban violence.” Happy stuff. Inflation’s up, the stock market’s down. Ebola, pink slime, anti-biotic resistant disease. Even good cholesterol isn’t good any more.

So why not a happy freaking ending? (One industry insider I know said the next big thing in middle-grade and young adult books is going to be the happy ending. After years of darkness and cynicism, kids are starting to crave something that ends the way it’s supposed to.)

And yet…sometimes a happy ending is the worst ending.

Take the first year of 24, for instance. If you haven’t watched, you should. It’s amazing television, Keifer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, battling to save his country, avert a race war, and keep his family together. At the beginning, his marriage exists in name only. But as he searches for his daughter, who’s gotten caught up in this whole thing, his passion for his wife Teri is re-ignited. If anyone deserved a happy ending, it was the Bauers.

But in the last episode, the mole, Nina Myers, takes Teri at gunpoint, and as she erases all evidence of being a mole, she ties Teri to a chair, tells her she’s leaving, and says someone will find her soon. Our hero Jack does, indeed find her, tied to the chair, slumped over with a gunshot to the abdomen. He cradles his dead wife, telling her over and over how sorry he is.

I’m a sucker for happy endings as much as the next guy, but Teri Bauer had to die at the end of season 1 of 24. She knew Nina was the mole. Any ending in which Nina leaves Teri alive doesn’t ring true.

Sometimes your story demands an unhappy ending. Sometimes the unhappy ending is the best way to make the story work. After all, at the end of two of the most popular movies ever, Titanic and The Passion of the Christ, the endings are horribly unhappy. But they’re the only endings that work. The boat sinks and Jesus dies on the cross*. Any other ending cheats the consumer of the story.

What books have you liked because of the unhappy endings?

* — I know the rest of the story, but the movie ends with the death on the cross. The Catholic passion play, which is the basis for Mel Gibson’s movie, don’t extend to Easter Sunday.

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2 Comments
  1. August 10, 2012 9:09 am

    Reblogged this on BookRepublic.

  2. August 10, 2012 11:42 am

    Actually, at the end of The Passion of the Christ there’s a fleeting glimpse of Christ arising from death, which was quite effective. As to 24, your point about Jack’s wife’s death–and unhappy endings in general–was a good reminder for me. (We owned every season of 24 on DVD through 7, I think. Totally addictive.)

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