A happy ending is the finale of the plot in a work of fiction where everything turns out for the best. Many Hollywood movies are designed to fit a particular genre or formula, and the happy ending is part of that. The ‘romantic comedy’ formula, for example, usually goes: ‘Boy meets gurl, boy loses gurl, boy gets gurl.’ Audience members expect to get this type of resolution, where the couple ends up together.
While I am slightly embarrassed to admit that my favorite book is a romance novel by Nicholas Sparks — this is one of the sad and unabated truths of my life. I had never before entertained the notion that a romance novel could even vaguely be associated with a true portrayal of relationships. This was due to my belief that all romance novels have incredibly convoluted “happy endings.” But I was curious and I ended up reading, Dear John. Now, the major reason that I really enjoyed this novel was because the ending was refreshingly tragic – refreshing because it showed the other, less positive side of relationships.
So once the movie based on the novel came out, I was basically first in line. I was interested to see how the ending would be translated onto film, since this genre generally ends well. What I wasn’t expecting (though I probably should have) was the original ending being axed in favor of a positive one. This is the film that got me thinking about the model of grief and loss that society often presents to us in the theatres.
In the model of grief that we’re given, there is always the reassurance that there will be a forward movement – a certain path to acceptance. In many popular movies, this model always ends positively and in an incredibly short period of time. I suppose that could be partly due to movies having a very short period to get a really large message across, but it’s definitely not a well-thought out model of representation. This ‘sheltering’ of the realities of how much work grieving of any kind can be really just makes the whole process more difficult for everyone. While there are obviously films that end in tragedy those that don’t far outnumber those which do.
That’s not to say movies with happy endings aren’t beneficial. There can be a definite catharsis with some of these movies, and they aren’t always completely unrealistic. I’m sure there are a decent amount of good and jolly real-life endings out there for some people. I can’t say I’ve experienced something so neat and tidy. But I would also define myself as an emotional basket case. What really needs to change is this message that no matter what unfortunate event happens, we are lucky. Always search for the silver lining. Exhibit strength and ‘get through it.’
In fact, society’s unrealistic expectations and inappropriate response to your normal grief reactions may make the grief experience much worse than it otherwise would be. If we weren’t taught to always ‘look on the bright side,’ we would probably have fewer conflicts about the way we grieve. We would also have more realistic expectations about the grieving process and in general would have fewer problems in recovering naturally from it. It really is crucial that society be given realistic and appropriate information about grief.
Although most people can adapt in as few as two months, some are slower or unable to adapt completely. The fatal mistake is being unaware that there will be weeks, months and years beyond any loss. There may not be a quick, happy ending. It may not be easily compartmentalized. And that is fine.
While happy endings are beneficial to instill a sense of hope in the viewer/reader, it just isn’t appropriate in every scenario. Nor is it appropriate to oversimplify the process of loss. Shaming someone for feeling inconsolable and crazy after any kind of tragedy, remarking that they are ‘lucky’ and it could be worse is just a sign of ignorance and has no validity whatsoever. That is a statement that I have tried to embrace in the past, but it has only left me wondering: What exactly does luck have to do with it?