Thursday, February 18, 2010

When Tragic is Better

I'm normally all for a happy ending. This does not mean I necessarily want everything to work out for the "happy ever after." Given my preferred genres for writing - namely sci-fi and horror - I am all too aware that sometimes what you're left with is the "happiest possible ending." Let's face it, at the end of an apocalyptic film, it's still the end of the world. Mad Max does not get to settle down someplace with a wife and kids. The world still sucks. Sometimes that's all implied, especially in a horror film. Yeah, you've survived, but you've also watched several people get whacked. Usually in horrible fashion. So there's going to be a bit of mental trauma, I think.

But on the whole, especially with movies, I prefer not to have things end on too down a note. This is why I eschew a lot of foreign cinema. Everything I know about Chinese cinema can be summed up as follows:

  • The girl dies.
  • The boy dies.
  • The girl goes crazy.
  • The boy goes crazy.
  • The girl goes crazy and then dies.
  • The boy goes crazy and then dies.
  • They both go crazy and/or die.

Which, seeing how most of the movies I watched to determine that formula were either two hours or longer, seems a bit more of my life than I want to invest in being depressed. If I'm going to sit down and give up two or three hours of my life, I'd like it to end on a good note.

Which does not always me everyone walks away in the end. Sometimes the tragic ending is the better ending.

And fair warning, there are spoilers below.

Take 1408, for example, which is based on one of King's best short stories (in this humble reader's opinion, anyway). In the original story - this is the spoiler part, so consider yourself forewarned and stop here if you don't want to know - the ghost hunter protagonist does not make it out of the hotel room alive. I can't remember off the top of my head if we learn exactly how he dies, only that he is, in fact, claimed by the room.

In the film, he gets out. He "beats" the room, so to speak, and survives his ordeal, reconciles with the important people in his life, and everything goes on, with our hero in theory a better person. Which was fine, I didn't mind that, only there was an alternative ending, a tragic ending, in which he still "beats" the room only he doesn't get out. Instead he dies, but he takes the room with him.

Now, aside from giving Samuel L Jackson more screen time, which as a general rule I am always in favor of, I thought the tragic ending had more weight to it. Aside from reuniting our character with his dead daughter - as having her taken from him twice was a particularly cruel touch and the kind of thing that even if you survive it will truly mess with your head - it seemed more fitting with the overall tone of the movie.

(I suspect the ending was changed for much the same reason that I Am Legend and The Forgotten went with the weaker ending - it tested better. )

There are some other instances I could think of if I put my mind to it where, for whatever reason, the ending needs that little bit of tragic element to it to make it work. It's not the same thing as a tragedy where everyone dies, like Hamlet (and if that was a spoiler than you need to write a letter of apology to your high school English teacher), it's just tragic in one fashion or another. These are also often the more realistic endings, I think, the ones that more often make sense within the framework of the given story and are less likely to feel merely tacked on at the end.

Sometimes that happy ending just doesn't feel right.

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