What’s wrong with happy endings?

Anne here, having a bit of a rant. There's a strange thing about happy endings — a lot of people think they're rubbish. Not serious. Not real. Unrealistic. Not worth reading. Or watching.

Me, I love happy endings in books and movies. And I get grumpy when I think books or movies are needlessly miserable at the endMost of my comments below should be preceded by Spoiler Alerts. I'll highlight the book or film titles in bold so you can be warned.

The belief seems to be that tragic or unhappy endings are “real” and therefore “worthy” while happy endings are an easy cop-out. As I writer I can say that it’s a LOT easier to write a story where you make people care about a character, and then kill them off for dramatic effect, leaving the reader gutted. It’s much harder (in my view) to craft a believable happy ending. Nevertheless, the attitude that tragic is better, nobler, cleverer persists.

Children'sCrusadeI remember when I was a kid reading Henry Treece's The Children's Crusade. Boy, was that ever a sad ending. It was a story about the religious crusade made by children in 1212,  where hundreds of children left their homes to join a crusade, believing they were sent by Jesus, and that their innocence and righteousness would convert the Muslims. It ended very badly. Many of the children starved and died along the way, some (the lucky ones) returned home, and others were sold into slavery, believing the ships they sailed in were taking them to the Holy Land, instead of which they went straight to the slave markets.

I could cope with that kind of a tragic ending — it was history, after all — and there were important lessons to be learned, though for years I fretted about those children.

But there's a lot of fiction where people die and bad things happen for effect, and a book or a film ends badly simply because the writer thinks it will make for a better, more dramatic ending. Or they think it's "more realistic" — as if happy endings are unrealistic. I say, who needs gloomy so-called "realism"? There's plenty of that in the world we live in, but there's also a lot of happy stuff, and I want us to celebrate that, not push it under the carpet and call it mindless fluff. As people so often do.


There was a film I watched once, called CRUSH, with  Andie MacDowell. She was a middle aged school headmistress who met up with a much younger former student (played by Kenny Doughty) and had an affair. He's a breath of fresh air in her life, and she has a chance to change her humdrum, routine life. But she doesn't have the courage, and when he is tragically killed in a random stupid accident, she ends up back in her rut, keeping the whole affair a dirty little secret, only she has a baby now.

So, by the end, nothing had been learned, and she didn't change at all. 

That movie so frustrated me that I bought the DVD and mentally rewrote the ending. Instead of him being killed, I would have had him badly injured. And the accident makes her realize what he means to her and how he's changed her life. Of course he would get better, only now he's not alone — she's with him, facing the world with courage, and they're bringing up their baby together. And thus, instead of a pointless tragedy, it would make it a happy ending, in which she's learned something important — that an age discrepancy doesn’t matter if you can be happy together.

DressmakerThe film and novel, The Dressmaker, with Kate Winslett also bugged me and once again I mentally rewrote the ending. There was no reason why the romantic lead hero needed to die pointlessly in a really dumb stunt, no reason I could see for the protagonist to revenge herself on the whole town, let alone set it on fire. It was all there (as far as I could see) for the drama. And it was presented as a triumphal ending, but all I could see was pointless vandalism, and what about the people whose homes were burning — how did they deserve that?

Then there's the movie The Bookshop (with Bill Nighy.) Wonderful photography, fabulous acting — I love Bill Nighy—a  gorgeous location — and then, (in my opinion) a pointlessly gloomy ending. Bookshop

The film is all about a youngish widow starting a bookshop in a small island town, and how the first lady of the local community vehemently opposed her. But the bookseller persists, and more and more people come to buy books. And it's all looking so hopeful, and right (ie books) is about to triumph — and then?  It all ends gloomily and hopelessly — the shop is closed, the widow has lost all her money, and the supposed "triumph" at the very end is when the little girl sets the shop on fire. Why end on such a negative note? Because it was "realistic"?

Bah humbug, say I. People could have come out of that movie feeling uplifted and happy but no, they had to come out feeling crushed and thinking "what was the point of that?" And the message for life was "don't even bother trying." And when did pointless revenge become triumphal?

81hbo3Wv7bL-1._SY606_ Contrast the audience response to that of the people coming out of cinemas after watching the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, all smiles and happy discussion — a reinforcement that goodness can triumph and that happy endings are possible. A link to the movie is here, and the book (which is wonderful) is here. 

Then again, the ending of the French movie, Two is a Family (with the wonderful Omar Sy), was perfect. It's a brilliant comedy, and yet when I watched it in the cinema and the lights came on after it ended, more than half the audience was in tears. TwoIsAFamily

And despite the tears — or maybe because of them, the audience loved it. It's a wonderful movie and the end, though sad, felt entirely right. Which is what I meant at the start when I was ranting about needlessly sad endings — some sad endings are just right.

I hate this belief that negative and miserable endings are more "realistic" than happy endings. As far as I'm concerned, if it's a choice between coming out of a cinema (or closing a book) feeling gutted and gloomy, or coming out feeling uplifted and positive — well, you know which I'd choose.

What about you — have you seen any of these movies or read the books? Do you agree or disagree with my view of them?  Are there other endings that you think are pointlessly miserable? Do you mentally rewrite the endings of some stories? 

30 thoughts on “What’s wrong with happy endings?”

  1. As I get older, I find I have less tolerance for unnecessary gloomy endings and the attitude that fuels it–that bad is always more realistic than good. If such is the case, why bother with anything? Years ago I read a wonderful book called City of Light, historical fiction about Buffalo. The heroine was a splendid character who really had to fight for her happiness and place in the world, after much adversity. As a reader, I cheered her on. She was within inches of her justly-deserved happiness, and than a random, incredibly cruel accident blew that out of the water. I thought it was a TOTAL violation of the reader’s trust, and also an ending that just did not fit the book. I could well imagine that the author had written a different, more uplifting ending, but the editor nixed it because it wasn’t “realistic” enough for serious historical fiction. Phooey, I say!

  2. Anne. I could not agree with you more! For grimly realistic, I have the news. I write about people who go through hell and at the end, triumph. As a kid, I also mentally rewrote endings I didn’t like. I suspect that’s the sign of a future writer. *G*

  3. I agree with you 100%. I remember reading a Western many years ago where half way through the book there was a huge gunfight that killed off half the characters. I can’t remember the name of the book and I didn’t bother to re-write it in my mind. I just dropped it in the trash and moved on.
    I don’t necessarily mind a sad ending if it fits the story. Although given my situation now (old and mostly house bound) I look for things that don’t have sad endings. I need all of the positivity I can get. And having always loved historical romance, it fits my needs perfectly.
    A good romance doesn’t leave you with the feeling that the characters will always have smooth sailing through life. They will not, of course. But you feel that this is a couple who will make it in spite of anything life throws their way.
    Loved the post Anne.

  4. I rarely watch/read anything with unhappy endings. And I don’t care about spoilers because I usually check before I start something so I’m not surprised at the end. For that reason I did not watch The Bookshop. 🙂 Life is too hard to be reading and watching things that make me unhappy. And honestly, I don’t need everything to be “happily ever after” but I want to feel hopeful instead of hopeless when I finish something.

  5. I agree completely with you Anne & with the comments so far. I think it was Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone (set mostly in Alaska) that had so many horrible things happen but ended on such a positive, hopeful note. One of my favorite reads.

  6. Such good points and examples included here. I will just say, that the ROMANCE genre requires one thing– a Happy Ending or, at the very least, a Happy For Now Ending. And this is the genre that has been number 1 for a long, long time. That has to mean something, right?

  7. I want a HEA. I even want my mysteries to end with case solved, the bad guys taken away, and others able to resume their lives.I didn’t read Love Story or see the movie, because I didn’t like the ending. Sure, real life has tragedies and unhappiness,, but I don’t need to read about it. Some authors/playwrights such as Shakespeare and plays like Oedipus
    can present us with a tragic ending, but they are in a special class.

  8. Oh my word, I hear you. I feel so miserable when a movie that’s branded as a comedy or romance doesn’t end well, or a main character is suddenly killed off! Why, why, why?! Give us our happy endings! Same reason I love reading romances, the HEA ending.

  9. I waited 13years for a book in a series. I devoured it when I got it. Then the next book came out but before I could even start it, I got wind of the ending and haven’t been able to read it. They split up?!!?
    And don’t even ask me about the end of Gone with the Wind! I watched the movie and went, “I spent 3 hours for that?!” My father fell over laughing at my indignation!
    A dear friend gave me Anna Karina because I ‘like to read and it has a woman’s name in the title….’ It’s Tolstoy for Pete’s sake! No, I haven’t read that either.
    I no longer have the emotional energy to read or watch stories with unhappy endings. I’m living my happily ever after (40 years) so I know it’s real, thank you very much! Keep your nilism and angst to yourself. I’d rather celebrate joy, rather than misery.

  10. Vanessa, that violation of the reader’s trust is exactly what I mean when I talk about how much easier it is to create a gut-wrenching so-called dramatic ending than to craft a believable happy ending. The effect is intensified by the reader’s bond with the character, and when that is shattered — well, it makes me angry, especially when it’s because of some random event, and not something that was there in the book, all along and we just didn’t notice it. Thanks for your comment — and I join you in a “phooey” chorus.

  11. Thanks, Mary Jo. Yes, the news is full of grim realism, but even that is biased in favor of the grim — there are plenty of happy stories that could be reported on to balance the gloom, but they’re rarely reported.
    As for your comment “As a kid, I also mentally rewrote endings I didn’t like. I suspect that’s the sign of a future writer.” I think that’s very true ‚ though some of us keep doing it even when we’re grown up . I had dinner last night with a small bunch of writers and one, who is now a bestselling author, laid the foundations for her future writing career when she was a child and rewrote the ending to the Silver Brumby books (very popular books in Australia, about brumbies — wild horses.)

  12. Thanks, Mary — I think we all need as much positivity as we can get, regardless of age. And I agree, sad endings are fine if they fit the story — they can even be quite cathartic. The trouble is, so many just don’t.

  13. Thanks, Misti. I was so disappointed in The Bookshop, because in so many other respects I loved it. But the way it ended, with defeat—for no good reason— and then a kind of revenge that was pointless and yet presented as a weird kind of triumph—well, it was sour icing on a promising but ultimately disappointing cake.

  14. Thanks, Jeanne, I haven’t read Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone but it sounds well worth reading. I think that’s what most readers want — to see the characters they’ve invested so much time and emotion in triumph by the end.

  15. Pamela, I obviously agree with you — but despite the popularity of the romance genre, it gets the least respect. And it is the sneering comments romance so often gets , that prompts occasional posts like this one.

  16. Thanks, Malvina. Yes, when a movie is branded as a comedy or romance and then turns out to be NOT — it’s infuriating — and a betrayal of the people and false advertising, IMO. And so often I’ve come out of one of those movies wondering WHY. And my answer is usually, “for no good reason except that they wanted a dramatic ending.”

  17. Karen, I’d be infuriated too if I’d waited so long for a book and then discovered the couple I’d spent so much time invested in had split up. Why do that to your readers?
    And yes, I agree with you about the ending of Gone With the Wind. I studied Anna Karenina at university and honestly, that course was full of “great” novels about women who loved and ended tragically because of it. Another bah humbug from me.
    Keep living your happy ever after and keep celebrating joy. It’s contagious—in the best possible way.

  18. I totally agree with you and also rewrite the endings if I don’t like them! The book Inkspell by Cornelia Funke had a (to me) unnecessarily unhappy ending but when it was made into a film they changed it and I was so pleased! Made a world of difference. I really don’t see why things need to be sad in order to be ‘worthy’.

  19. I definitely am in favor of happy endings. I don’t even mind ambiguous endings if there is a potential for happiness. But I certainly don’t need depressing endings in books or the rare movie that I watch. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Anne.

  20. Thanks, Christina. I don’t know Inkspell, but I’ve notice that several movies I’ve seen, where I also know the book, have done that too — changed the ending to make it upbeat. Very sensible, and pleases the audience much more.
    I once attended a Michael Hauge workshop in Australia for Australian screenwriters and film-makers, and he said, “Why are you people so afraid of happy endings?” I wanted to cheer.

  21. I like happy endings. I certainly don’t like unhappy endings. But they can’t come out of nowhere; I have to see how the couple (who presumably had some problems and differences and adjustments to make) got through them to the other side where they have that happy ending: a stable lifelong relationship between the two of them that is the basis for a happy and healthy family.
    So I don’t much care for plots with made-up personal problems that don’t seem organic to the characters, especially if they’re in daily contact and could talk things over with each other. This is what rational people do; if they’re not rational people, well, that’s a different sort of novel and ought not to be labeled romance.
    I have read some romances in which the estrangement works because contact is limited to letters or messages from others (wartime, for instance), but if they’re living in the same house and sleeping in the same room (or one of those suites with the famous connecting door), then I can’t buy it. Johnny Carson used to say if you buy the premise, you buy the bit – and if you don’t, you don’t.
    One thing I like about happy endings is that they give me, the reader, some clues about how I might understand what other people do or even achieve the same thing myself. When the couple start being nice to each other again and cease assuming the worst, they find they can communicate, trust each other and resolve things. There aren’t many genres of literature nowadays that teach these skills. It’s educational 🙂

  22. I think that the danger with romance HEA’s is that they can be rather predictable and therefore a little boring. I definitely want to end a book on a happy or hopeful note and a skillful author will disguise the HEA to give that important element of surprise. Maybe that’s the mystery lover in me speaking! 😀

  23. I am definitely in favor of happy endings, and I rarely read a book that doesn’t guarantee that(mysteries qualify because the puzzle is always solved at the end). I have read a few classics that were absolutely tragic, for instance Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome. She’s a great writer, but so depressing!
    I have avoided seeing Love Story, as well as anything by Nicholas Sparks, as I have the impression there are no HEAs.
    I haven’t seen The Bookshop, but from the description, I assume it is based on the Penelope Fitzgerald book of the same name. I do like Fitzgerald’s writing very much. The book has a bit of ironic humor about human foibles, and I don’t remember a fire, although it’s been a long time since I read it. She reminds me a bit of Muriel Spark, who I love.

  24. Thanks, Janice. I’m not sure I agree with you completely about the “talk to each other” solution to problems being so easy. I know quite a few real life situations where the people involved can’t talk through their dispute, whether from pride, reluctance or inability to admit to any fault or mistake, or whatever. People can be remarkably stubborn and it takes both parties to want to sort it out.
    But I do agree that there are also quite a few books where the estrangement is over some silly misunderstanding that a simple question and answer could solve. The “that was not ‘another woman’ I was hugging, it was my sister who you haven’t met yet.” kind of thing.
    And I totally agree that some romances show people how some of the knotty problems of life can be handled — better or worse. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  25. Quantum, I think that’s one of the difficult things about crafting the HEA in romance. From the first chapter, the reader pretty much knows who will end up together, so then the job for the writer is to show how it happens, and to make that both realistic and engaging, and with a few surprises along the way.
    In that sense a mystery is much easier. You can hold the reader right to the end waiting to find out whodunnit.
    And I have read an occasional romance where there were several possible heroes for the heroine to end up with, and it was only towards the end that the final choice is made. (Mary Balogh’s Courting Julia is one.) But there is a risk with that that some readers will be disappointed, because they wanted her to choose someone different.
    It’s tricky. Thanks for your comment.

  26. Thanks, Karin, I think you’re right that the movie was based on the Penelope Fitzgerald book The Bookshop. I haven’t read it, so I might chase it up to compare the two. I suspect that even if the movie and the book have a similar ending, that book will explain that ending much better, because in books, you get the thoughts of the characters in so much more depth. Movie adaptations are so interesting.

  27. The worst example I can think of is the gratuitous killing of the detective Thomas Linley’s wife by author Elizabeth George. Why? I’ve never read another book in that series.


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