Happily Ever After?

We’ve all heard it.  Usually after the end of a fairy tale or Disney movie, we finish the movie, say “and they all lived happily ever after” and then roll credits.

But how often does it really happen?

I’ve seen a couple of blogs ask this question recently.  Michelle over at Books and Boston in this post said that when a friend asked her for a book recommendation and said they wanted something happy, she couldn’t think of a book.  In a similar vein, Hannah over at Realm of Reviews had this post about Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy where she was talking about the ending.

(Before I go any further, I have to say that both of their blogs are great and they are awesome people, check out their blogs.)

(One more note, this post discuss the endings of The Lord of the Rings, Mockingjay {book 3 of the Hunger Games}, The Belgariad, Final Fantasy 7, and Final Fantasy 4, along with some thoughts for Alan Campbell’s Deepgate Codex and The Blind Assassin.)

I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of days, and the more that I’ve thought about it, the more I find that the best stories that I’ve read often have an element of tragedy at the end.  They don’t have characters living happily ever after.  The ending is really what makes the book for me.  I’ve had several reviews in my blog where I’ve said that the ending of the book or series changed my overall score by several points, and this can work in both directions.  The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is a perfect example of the ending saving the book.  I was going to give that book about a 4 until the last part of the book really brought everything together.  On the contrary, Alan Campbell’s Deepgate Codex trilogy (Scar Night, Iron Angel, & God of Clocks) the series had a lot of potential, but I disliked the ending so much that I’ll never really suggest the series to anyone.

The first example that I’ll bring up is one that everyone should be familiar with, and if you’re not, what’s wrong with you?  It’s Lord of the Rings.  The central character of the entire trilogy is Frodo, and his character arc ultimately ends with his failing.  Even though his ultimate goal is accomplished – the ring is destroyed and Sauron is defeated – he fails and is depicted as being very depressed, which is why he ultimately leaves with the elves.

In a similar vein (and I will try to talk about this series without spoiling everything) there is the very end of The Hunger Games trilogy.  In Hannah’s review of Mockingjay (link above) she talks briefly about how the ending of the trilogy is for many people the weakest part of the series.  I think the reason that it falls flat for many people is because it isn’t the super-happy ending that many people have grown to expect (especially after being raised on movies, which tend to have really happy endings all the time).  Although it isn’t the really happy ending that many people might have wanted, I think that the ending is perfect because if you had been through everything Katniss had been through, how happy could you really be with the rest of your life?

By comparison, look at David Eddings’ Belgariad.  The characters go on their journey throughout the entire world, they encounter all kinds of danger, and everything works out ok for every character.  I think the fact that everything ended up too perfectly for every character I think the ending fell kind of flat.

Even in video games this can be done very well with the mixture of sadness into the happy ending.  Final Fantasy 7, which is widely regarded as one of the best RPG’s of all time, is a perfect example of this.  Your party finally defeats Sephiroth to save the planet, but there is still the moment of sadness because Aeris is still gone, which adds the element of sadness to the story.  Similarly, Final Fantasy 4 (my personal favorite game) has a moment of character sadness at the end as well.  Throughout your journey to save the world (a real common theme in FF games) Cecil meets his brother Golbez and even though they start out opposed to each other, they ultimately reconcile their differences.  At the end of the game Golbez ultimately decides that he can’t return to Earth with Cecil, giving that key moment of sadness to the end of the story.

Most of the best stories have an element of sadness to the ending.  If you’re going to have characters go through the horrible things that they face in a given story, it’s unrealistic to think that they’re going to be able to live a perfectly normal life.  It’s also unrealistic to think that everything is going to end perfectly with the world where these stories take place.

So what do you think?  Do you have any examples where everything ends up perfectly happy and the story is great?  Or do you have other examples of stories that have an element of sadness to the ending that really helps to round out the story?  (Please mark any spoilers for stories in your comments.)

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  1. hannahrose42

     /  November 22, 2011

    Yes! I was glad that Mockingjay didn’t end up like, “Oh, remember all that strife that happened in the last two books? Forget about that, here’s a happy ending where everything turns out all right!” I was very satisfied with how the ending was treated.
    I don’t know if you’ve ever read/watched Stardust (Neil Gaiman), but I loved the book. The movie adaptation was great, except for the ending — they pretty much changed it into an “everyone lives happily ever after” thing, where I don’t believe it was in the book.
    Speaking of video games, I was thinking of Red Dead Redemption, where in the end… something very unexpected and unusual occurs and you end up finishing the game as a different character. I thought that was really neat, and definitely not what you might call a typical happily ever after.
    On books… I just finished Memoirs of a Geisha, and that ending seemed pretty happy to me. It was weird and felt very altered from the rest of the book. It was nice to get a happy ending, but it was very odd within the context of the pain and struggle Chiyo went through in the rest of the book.
    I feel most great book endings, even if they end ‘happily’, are intertwined with the pain/strife or whatever conflict the rest of the book had going for it.
    If you’ve never read/watched Everything Is Illuminated, you should. Now. The sadness at the end of that story is so beautiful it completely makes the story. I’m not done with the book, so I hope it handles it just as well, if not better. I will just say that there is a death and it makes the story have a very complete feeling, as if that event had to happen to make everything make sense.
    I hope I haven’t bored you with my ridiculously long comment. Very nice ramble!

    • I’m a little wary of Gaiman sometimes, but on your recommendation I’ll check out Stardust. Everything is Illuminated I’ve not heard of before, but again on your recommendation I’ll check it out (you’re referring to the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer I’m assuming).

      • hannahrose42

         /  November 23, 2011

        Yes. If you have to pick one book to read by Gaiman, I would read American Gods or Stardust. What’s your reason to be wary? Bad experience? Bad suggestions?
        Also, yes to Jonathan Safran Foer. If it weren’t for the movie, I might have picked up the book simply for its cover design.

      • Gaiman seems like he writes his books from the POV of a character who is along for the ride rather than driving the plot. Shadow in American Gods is a perfect example of this. He never really makes a decision that matters to the main plot thread of the war involving the various gods. The ideas for his books are absolutely brilliant, but the execution doesn’t always work out for me.

  2. Thanks for the compliment and mention Adam! I had to skim a lot of your post since I plan on reading some of the books mentioned and didn’t want to ruin them, but I agree that an element of sadness can add a lot to the book. In my opinion, what better shows character growth than a little misery and despair? I’m interested to see what feedback you get about this topic =) Great post.

    • I’d suggest pretty much all of the books that I listed there. Most authors know that you need the misery and despair to help grow a character, but then blow it at the end by having the character ignore everything that they’ve gone through to live a normal life. It just isn’t realistic in most fiction.

  3. This is a great post Adam, with a question I’ll probably think about for some time. Now I do like happy endings in appropriate places – for instance, I’m a huge muppet fan, and am looking forward to seeing the latest movie in a day or two.

    But for the most part, the element of loss or tragedy is part of our experience of living, so fictional worlds that echo this one to any degree cannot just be happy, happy.

    Take Tolkien. His son, Christopher, has written that his father’s lifetime literary output was seriously impacted by (1) disorganization and (2) depression. Reading his biography, I sometimes wonder how he could not be depressed. His next stop, after graduating Oxford, was the battle of the Somme; he was the only one of his college friends who survived the war, and that only because he contracted a serious illness and was sent home. Later he the rural countryside he loved as a child and youth, increasingly paved over and “modernized.”

    I often think of the elves in the Silmarillion as parallel to our awareness – there is room for love and heroism, but in the end, loss is inevitable. As Jim Morrison put it, “No one here gets out alive.”

    That doesn’t mean there is not victorious living, but it does mean it isn’t easy or common or “whew, close call,” for everyone, as in the Belgariad.


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