The happy ending is a sad but necessary part of translating fiction to the big screen, sad because it often ruins the intent or feel of the work, but necessary because the dummies who are paying to see the film demand to be happy when they leave--without their money there is no film. In most cases, the star does not die; or the lovers get together; so everybody feels good; and there is a nice, tight resolution, much to the chagrin of those who love the work. I would like to apply the idea of the happy ending to the complex translations of A Streetcar Named Desire and Wuthering Heights to film.
These two stories have no possibility of a happy ending because of what happens. The twist here is that the endings are changed to make the terrible less morbid. In fact, the films try to make what is shocking and dark seem almost virtuous.
Tennessee Williams' 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed in 1951 by Elia Kazan, is about death and desire, a spiraling look at grace and nobility falling into the sweaty grunge of New Orleans. Blanche had lost all but her illusions. She and her brother-in-law, Stanley, confront each other like polar opposites until eventually there is a rape and ensuing madness.
The play stays with reality in this screwed-up world. Stella stays with her husband after it all because she lies to herself just as the others have. This is shocking and sad and essentially what it is all about. To stay with a man who raped your sister and sent her to a madhouse would make sense in this world.
The film version of Streetcar is almost perfect in its faithfulness to Williams' play. The dialogue is nearly exact, and settings are changed very little. The censors at the time made the movie makers protect the public from evil. Blanche (Vivien Leigh) tells the story of her young husband but omits that she had caught him with a gay lover, causing him to kill himself. We have to believe he kills himself because she yells at him as all wives do.
The ending has been changed as well, but the logic behind it is what is fascinating. The film shows, or implies, the rape scene; but because of that, Stella (Kim Hunter) leaves Stanley (Marlon Brando) in the end. The viewer can handle a rape, apparently, but not the madness of a wife staying with such a man. This is confusing to me because it seems ridiculous that at the time that would be subject to censorship when the whole film had been dark, full of human evils and sorrow.
Wuthering Heights is translated much more loosely than Streetcar. The Laurence Olivier version takes a portion of the story and shows the emotion of the book through the love affair and death of Heathcliff and Catherine. The book is long and contains far too much information to get into a film, and as usual this makes the book a far greater (and darker) piece of work. The way the film creates a happy ending is to prematurely kill Heathcliff so he can run around the moors with his ghost love, Catherine (Merle Oberon). This is by no means a happy ending but in a way seems virtuous compared to what Heathcliff really becomes. The story is about love and something more sinister, an inhuman bond between two people that controls their lives and imposes their death. Heathcliff has a supernatural patience in his dealing out revenge. Catherine seems to have moved on a while after he had left to make his fortune, but one soon sees upon his return that she is as stuck as he is. The film focuses on these aspects of the story, to sell the "sizzle" and to not make Heathcliff into a monster that the audience would hate.
After Catherine dies in childbirth in the book, Heathcliff spends many years making sure those around him and their children pay for his separation from his love. He is terrible in his abuse to both households and forces the eventual ownership of both homes. His cunning and perseverance over the years to do evil to those around him are an eventual part of the story. This malice is intertwined with the deepest love. You hate him but care about him as if he were a hero. Years later, he wills himself to death as he sees Catherine just on the other side, darkly calling him.
In the film, Heathcliff is angry and gets revenge, but he is no monster. One would be hard-pressed to see Olivier as a monster in the film. The film makers want to sell the romance and tease us with the bitter pain. Death and tragedy are there but not the slow torture of the years of hate. This is what makes for a happy ending. The film saves you from the darkest places because the ugliness is too horrible.
In both these films we have the idea of a happy ending being modified into a no-so-ugly ending. These films are daring to go in as deep as they did; to go any farther would surely have caused chaos and riots in the theaters.