Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Dreaded Unhappy Ending

This Halloween season, it's become my greatest fear. I'll explain why in a bit.

Once upon a time, I wasn't only used to fiction that ended on a gloomy note, I expected it to. Classic literature, I learned as an English major, often came bundled with a tragically appropriate conclusion -- even literature centered on a romantic relationship (or two or three; I'm lookin' at you, Emma Bovary). I might have cringed a little anticipating a novel's or a play's climax, but when the ax part of the climax finally came down, I invariably found it emotionally cathartic and intellectually satisfying. From Romeo and Juliet to Wuthering Heights, from The Great Gatsby to Sophie's Choice and beyond, bleak ever-afters never bothered me, as long as each one was the logical termination of beautifully crafted tale.

But my attitudes changed. As I got older, a turn in my life made me surprisingly vulnerable to tearjerkers.

My cinematic horizons expanded; my taste in movies matured. I soon discovered that sad endings played out on screen affected me in a much more visceral and tenacious way than sad endings played out in print. I can't seem to shake my reaction if I've become invested in the characters.

The first movie that really tore me up was Midnight Cowboy. It's a brilliant John Schlesinger film, infinitely better than the original novel (in fact, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1969), but I wasn't able to sit through the final sequence until a good amount of time had passed. Only many viewings later could I stand to watch Joe Buck hug the deceased Ratso Rizzo on that bus.

Other movies bothered me in much the same way, although not as strongly. Until Brokeback Mountain came along. That movie fucked . . . me . . . up. Even though I subsequently bought the DVD, I still resist watching it. I don't think I can without breaking down -- and without feeling resentful, feeling somehow betrayed.

Now I'm in the midst of devouring the American version of "Queer as Folk." (I never subscribed to Showtime, so I never saw the series when it aired.) The nature of the characters as well as all the plot turns began making me apprehensive about the series' conclusion, so I looked it up on the Internet.

NO! Knife in the heart! I won't be watching the fifth and final season.

I can't.


I hurt just thinking about it!

Movies and TV shows have made me a complete wimp when it comes to non-HEA's. I can still take them in books -- two of my favorite reads from the past year are The Brothers Bishop and Junction X, both of which made me cry buckets -- but when an on-screen couple I adore doesn't end up together, I'm in a mournful daze for days. (If the resolution is ambiguous, if it offers at least a glimmer of hope, I'm satisfied. But one that destroys a hard-won relationship and seems irreversible?  I'm shattered.)

So how do you react to non-HEA's and -HFN's for fictional characters who've thoroughly captured your imagination? Do such endings bother you across the board, in books as well as movies, or more in one than the other? Have you ever been crippled by disappointment at a story's outcome? Or do I need therapy?  


Kris said...

"Now I'm in the midst of devouring the American version of "Queer as Folk." (I never subscribed to Showtime, so I never saw the series when it aired.) The nature of the characters as well as all the plot turns began making me apprehensive about the series' conclusion, so I looked it up on the Internet.

NO! Knife in the heart! I won't be watching the fifth and final season.

I can't.


I hurt just thinking about it!"

Wuss! :P

The QaF ending could not happen any other way... even if it does break your heart.

The good thing is that there's plenty of fan fic out there about what happens after. Consider it a kind of 'choose your own ending'. :)

K. Z. Snow said...

Hiya, Ozcake.

"Could not happen any other way"? Bah, humbug! Writers can manipulate characters and situations however they choose, as long as there's logic to it. Marriage might've been a bit farfetched for that couple, but ongoing love and togetherness wouldn't have been. (See how pouty, foot-stomping stubborn I get about this kind of stuff? LOL.)

Fan fic won't make me feel any better, just like BbM fan fic couldn't have done the trick. That's like cheating. Damn it, I want to see an on-screen relationship culminate happily on screen, in its original format!


Tam said...

I think for many of us it changes as we get older. I don't particularly remember liking unhappy endings (I did start reading bodice rippers in my late teens) but now, I won't be bothered if it means an unhappy ending, and you're right, the writer can do whatever the hell they want and manipulate the whole thing so it works. Of course it has to work, but it can be done.

I ask about the age thing because my daughter is completely disdainful of HEA endings and all of the "stupid vampire romances" in the YA section. She has no interest in romance and everyone skipping off into the sunset. She wants blood death and dramatic endings. :-) Fight Club is her all time fave book if that indicates anything. But maybe when she's 30 and tired of reading about life ending in tragedy, when she's had some of her own (hopefully not terribly tragic - knock on wood), she'll be looking for something a little lighter and life-affirming. Or maybe she's just a got a soul like a lump of coal. LOL

K. Z. Snow said...

It probably is a factor of age, Tam.

I can relate to your daughter's disdain for the HEA, though. A lot of teens act more worldly and jaded than they really are, because they think it makes them seem mature and intelligent. I suspect I was the same way.

Besides, YA fiction -- hell, even a lot of adult romance fiction -- does make a mockery of that kind of ending. If not handled correctly, it can come off as unrealistic -- forced or silly or gaggingly mushy.

But an optimistic conclusion doesn't have to seem inappropriate. It depends on the author's skill. That's why I'm being all ranty about the QaF writer(s). He/she/they should've been capable of giving viewers a satisfying conclusion without violating the characters' integrity.


Jenre said...

I agree that it's an age thing. As I got older and less idealistic, the world just seemed too much of a dreary, sad place to want to read books which reflect real life in that way - although I do remember feeling particularly depressed in my late teens after reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude The Obscure one after the other.

I may be hiding away in my books with HEAs but that's OK. I KNOW the real real aint nothing like romance so I'm not kidding myself here, but I still don't want to read about sad things happening to people - or see it in TV shows when I can just turn the news on for that.

I read a book over the summer that someone recommended and was horrified when one of the main romantic pair was killed at the end. Apparently, it was a true reflection that no matter how happy and fulfilled you are, fate can be a bitch and take it all away in a second. Well fate can fuck off in my books because I need to read about people working hard to get their HEA and then keeping their happiness into old age, damnit!

K. Z. Snow said...

Right on, Jen! (And, yes, Tess and Jude ... gah.)

I think after reading and watching Brokeback, I went over the edge when it comes to stories featuring romantic gay relationships (if, that is, the characters fully engage me; if they don't, I don't give a crap what happens to them). I just can't bear to see such stories end badly, not after what Jack and Ennis put me through. :)

The depressing gay fic I have read and liked didn't really qualify as bona fide romances -- except maybe Erastes' book, in an unconventional way -- so I wasn't put off by them. It's when my expectations are built up and then dashed that I become infuriated.

Jeanne said...

QaF is too good not to take it to the end. BTW, I saw it in its f**ed up reruns and had to record it back and forth to get it inthe proper order! Talk about a bitch. OTOH, it's neat to see the actors in more current roles on TV Most of the guys have gone on intheir careers and I like that.

K. Z. Snow said...

I'm really torn about, Jeanne. I've loved the series so far (aside from a few of its lamer subplots), but I don't think I can sit through a parting scene between the Brian and Justin characters, especially after seeing on YouTube that Brian does end up declaring his love for Justin. For that couple to be torn asunder after all they went through together is just wrong. My romantic sensibilities are too tender to withstand it!