Can Unhappy Endings Be Happy?

         Whenever one sees a movie for the first time, or at least when I see a movie for the first time, I look for three things: good acting, good writing, and a good ending. When I say good ending, that is exactly what I mean— not happy, because happy endings are not always necessarily a good thing. Sometimes one may not like how a movie ends, but it is the only way to end the movie.

         In Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley (Marlon Brando) drives his witch sister-in-law, Blanche (Vivien Leigh), to an insane asylum. He also manages to drive his wife, Stella (Kim Hunter), away. This does not sound to me like a very happy ending, but if you look closely it may make more sense. Stanley, a drunken factory worker who repeatedly hits his wife and treats her with disrespect, is a bad person at heart. He does not seem to really care about Stella.

         On the other side, one has Blanche, a delusional teacher, who had lost her job because of a love affair with a student. Blanche is clearly crazy. Thinking realistically, I can see that both Blanche and Stella need help; and in the end they both get it. What can be happier than that?

         Looking at a different play-movie combination, with an “unhappy ending,” I am aware of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 A Doll’s House, filmed twice in 1973 by Joseph Losey and Patrick Garland. Nora (Jane Fonda/Claire Bloom) and Torvald (David Warner/Anthony Hopkins) seem to have a normal happy marriage. But this all seems a distant memory once Nora is hit with reality. The truth is that Torvald had a human pet in Nora. For years they were struggling just to put on a show. I suppose they should have resolved their quarrels and fallen back in love. Well that does not happen; instead Nora leaves Torvald, leaving him heartbroken and confused. This ending is very suitable for the characters; both soon after will realize how they have been living and will be happier people because of it. One can think of it this way if one is a “happy endings” kind of person.

         How should we explain a happy ending for Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, based on Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw, then? In the movie two children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) are haunted by former tenants of the house. Quint (Peter Wyngarde), a dead handy man, takes over the life of a young boy. Miles in the end of the film is eventually killed by him. This brings up the question; how is this justification? Would anyone want to live the rest of his or her life haunted and dominated by the dead? Miles is probably better off dead anyway—there is no more suffering.

         The entire happy ending, good endings concept was one I did not understand for a long time. Why did certain things have to happen at the end of the movies? But that is exactly why these things happened because they had to. Sometimes in a movie the main character will be killed. Since movies are mostly fictional, a character can be very rich and powerful. When you have everything, where else is there to go?

Joe Benton

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