Most endings in Hollywood movies follow the specific cliché of the happy ending. The problems of the plot are resolved and the future looks bright, but why are unfortunate endings still so satisfying?
Let’s take a look at how Hollywood has trained us to watch films and how anti-happy endings satisfy and stick with us by portraying reality over fantasy. Hollywood films have been formatted since the 1970s in a very specific formula that is meant to sell the most films and appeal to mass audiences. This aim for mass appeal has determined most films to follow a similar plot structure which is always capped off with a happy ending. These happy endings are meant to bring the viewers a sense of completeness and satisfaction. Anti-happy movie endings play off of the expectations viewers already have to the movie endings, they know that the viewer wants to see the plot resolved and the protagonist thriving so they take these elements away leaving the audience hanging in suspense and stuck on a cliffhanger.
What makes a good happy ending? Is it the character’s ability to finally find love? Is it the magical and perfect resolution of all of their problems present in the rest of the film? Regardless of your personal definition of a happy ending. Hollywood would say a happy ending embodies all of these things. Happy endings as we know them wrap the entirety of the narrative present in the film up into a singular plot point once we think about it a bit more the idea of a happy ending is quite impressive. It takes all of the complexity of a film and resolves it in one fell swoop. At least this is how happy endings may appear in reality. The Hollywood happy ending doesn’t really need to perfectly wrap up everything in the narrative, it only needs to wrap up enough of it, that the viewers don’t notice some things that are missing or unsolved. The happiness that these endings put forth relies on the idea of completeness as the narrative itself comes full circle and is complete so the protagonist must have met their goals.
For example, Interstellar concludes with the savior of humankind through murphy’s work, this leaves the audience appeased with the resolution of much of the plot strife, however, it is unexplained why the Tesseract collapses sending cooper back into our solar system considering it was an unnecessary and almost impossible step in the narrative. His arrival back to the solar system makes no practical sense but is still a prominent plot point just to further drive home the complete happy ending where the father reunites with the daughter. Interstellar is just one example of this type of expectation meeting ending but nearly every film produced in Hollywood embodies this repetitive happily ever after.
This formulaic creation of conclusions has worked to shape the way in which audiences watch movies. Hollywood sets us up with exact expectations. There will be a distinct beginning, middle, and conclusion of a narrative and that conclusion will be a complete and happy one. When we sit down to watch a movie and it doesn’t follow this structure, say a non-linear film like I’m Thinking of Ending Things, people oftentimes get bored or confused and stop watching. This is what drives Hollywood to keep repeating the same plot format. It keeps people watching because it feeds into their expectations and therefore makes the producers money.
Let’s move on to what distinguishes a specifically unhappy ending in Hollywood. This would include any ending that doesn’t leave viewers with a sense of completeness, one that seems to be lacking in some regard. Typically eliciting feelings of sadness, anger, or loss from the viewers, It is both the content of the ending; what we see playing out on screen, and the structure of it; the feeling that something is missing that combined to produce an emotional sensation for the viewer.
Let’s look through some films with notoriously sad anti-happy endings and see what kind of effect this type of ending has on the viewer. Midsommar‘s ending was not all sad but was without a doubt a violent and horrifying one, very much unlike the ending to a film like Mamma Mia.
Parasite also came to a crashing close with a violent attack by Geun-se ruining the park family party and Mr. Kim becoming the next victim of the cycle of poverty tied with the park’s home.
In the joker the plot builds up to make it seem like the joker might have some sort of a happy conclusion but with his dark twist at the end, the audience is left horrified and saddened by his downfall.
All of these horror suspense films use the unhappy ending to communicate realism to their audiences. This means that the anti-happy endings used in these films work to make the narrative closer to reality think about it if all the terrible things that happened in Midsommar, Parasite, and the Joker happened in real life, what are the odds of everything turning out fine? That’s right, slim to none. Anti-happy endings are not only used to establish a sense of reality for the film narrative but also inherently break out expectations and stick with us because we don’t see them coming. This can be seen best in dramas and romance films that really build up relationships and heartwarming characters so that we expect them to mold into the traditional happily ever after ending that Hollywood often promises but when this isn’t delivered viewers are shocked and a memorable effect is granted to that film’s ending.
This aspect of anti-happy endings can be seen in the films Gone Girl, La La Land, Shutter island, and the Boy in the Stripe Pajamas.
After Gone Girl‘s plot is full of twists and turns the ending leaves Nick and Amy in a toxic marriage that seems perfect to the public rather than Amy getting her true deserved revenge.
La La Land is one of the most built-up and bittersweet endings in the film as Mia and Sebastian see each other years after their relationship ended, having taken two separate heartbreaking paths for their own careers.
Shutter Island’s ending is also considered to be a huge twist; as teddy’s mental state gets called into question and suddenly the audience realizes he is the crazy one of the narrative.
Lastly, the Boy in the Striped Pajamas has to be considered, the saddest movie ending of all time still coming as a twist in the trajectory of the film, as the audience expected a reprieve from the melancholy of the rest of the plot.
In all of these films, the sad or anti-happy ending always came as a surprise creating a lasting memory, and satisfying experience for the viewers, while simultaneously situating them closer to reality.
Now that we understand what the difference between happy and anti-happy endings is in terms of Hollywood production. It will be interesting to reimagine the endings of notorious anti-happy ending movies and see whether or not this adjustment would benefit or detriment the quality of the film.
We’ll start off with Midsommar, had this film ended with a happy cliché ending I’m sure that Dany would have chosen to sacrifice a random villager, rather than Christian. She would have then waited for the hallucinogen to wear off and would calm down before talking with Christian and deciding to leave back to the United States together, back home, the two would have bonded over the trauma they experienced and gone to therapy which would allow them to grow closer and move on in their relationship. This ending would be so much less satisfying than the actual ending of Midsommar, as it necessitates Dany sticking with her careless boyfriend who treated her poorly.
Had Parasite had a typical Hollywood ending then Mr. Kim would not get trapped under the house as Geun-se was and would instead make it out after the murderous birthday party, get a high-paying job and ultimately buy back the home that caused him so much trauma as his son is trying aimlessly to do at the end of the actual film, had this been Mr. Kim’s fate the idea of the cycle of poverty and the anti-capitalist messaging of the film would have completely dissolved and meant nothing in the end.
If the Joker were to end positively; Joker would be attending a fully-funded rehabilitation center and would be making great progress in his steps towards reintegration into society. He would be granted outside visitors and would be working through his emotional burden of the lies that his mother told him. He would forgive his mother and ultimately come out a better person, because of the emotional work she forced him to do. This ending would be unsatisfying because it ultimately fails to set up the Joker’s character for the rest of his fictional existence and would have been a very confusing backstory for someone who was considered one of the evilest villains in the media.
Gone Girl had the potential to be a truly different film had the ending changed to be a classic Hollywood happily ever after. Much like Midsummer upon Amy’s return home, her husband Nick would beg for forgiveness and she would agree to work on the relationship with him. The two would go to couples therapy and Amy would admit to faking her own death to the media participating in supplemental therapy to get over the urges that made her do that in the first place. The two would put their differences aside and realize that marriage is the most important thing of all, deciding to love each other regardless of their flaws. At the end who would want an ending to Gone Girl as flimsy as this. It would take all of the revenge out of the revenge plot and would make Amy out to be submissive to the institution of marriage rather than an independent woman who was capable of much more than her meek husband in another alternate ending Amy would not have returned back home at all instead fleeing the country and having Nick locked up for her murder. Amy would be lounging in the sun next to a pool in Mexico with a whole new look as a disguise, while her husband goes through the process of prison intake. This ending is not necessarily the happy ending of Hollywood’s dreams but could be considered as happy as Midsummer’s ending currently is, to certain viewers Nick doesn’t necessarily get what he wants or deserves but we are ultimately rooting for Amy. Having Amy come out on top could be a whole new level of anti-happy happy ending.
In La La Land; The happy platitude of an ending that would have made the film conform to viewers’ expectations would have had Mia and Sebastian ultimately end up together rather than parting ways for the sake of their dreams and careers. Their love would overpower their individual desires and they would sacrifice their passion for each other. This ending is clearly much weaker than the actual ending of the film, as it requires the relinquishment of individuality from both of the protagonists for the sake of romance. This ending would have characterized Mia and Sebastian as co-dependent and unhealthy in their relationship which might seem temporarily more happy than the ending that exists, but in the long run, would be detrimental to their emotional well-being.
As for the Boy in the Striped Pajamas; Bruno would have entered the concentration camp and would have rescued Shmuel taking him back to the safety of his house with Bruno’s parents open and willing to care for him.
Shutter Island would have taken on a Hollywood ending only if Teddy was in fact right in his paranoia and it turned out that the entirety of the mental institution was a site for government testing. He would be deemed a national hero by the army and would live in pride for the rest of his days, but would it have had as big of an impact on the audience probably not.
The use of anti-happy endings isn’t just a trick up filmmaker’s sleeves to make people unhappy or confused at the end of their films, instead, these more realistic endings allow viewers to feel closer to the narrative of the film itself and doesn’t leave its audience with the glow of an immaculate conclusion. Empathy becomes a much bigger tool for filmmakers when using non-happy endings than when they stick to the cliché making these films more memorable and honest. In this way. Anti-happy endings can actually make a film more likable and respectable because they aren’t obviously trying to gimmick their viewers into a fantasy of an end.
This was very obviously seen in our exercise of reimagining anti-happy endings as the films always came out worse with a happy ending rather than a realistic one.
The next time you watch a movie with an anti-happy ending ask yourself does this feel more real than a sappy cliché outro, why was I expecting something different because of my own values or because of the norms of the film industry.