The Train-Wreck Theory of Film and Literature

         For entertainment purposes, almost everybody views books and movies as an escape from reality. Someone who had had a bad day at work can forget his or her troubles by spending an evening at the local movie theatre or reading a book. People get caught up in these stories. They get pulled in to the dramatic conflicts, and they sometimes identify with the characters. We rely on these sources of entertainment to enrich the quality of our lives. Books and movies can evoke great emotion in an audience. Some help to lift our spirits, while others may show a darker, more complex side to the human condition. These films hold just as much merit in the entertainment world as films that convey a happy ending.

         Some may say, “Sorrow is already a part of life; why would I want to see or read something that depresses me?” Not all films that are unhappy are depressing to the audience. A book or movie can have an effect on the audience that makes the audience happy that these things are not happening to them. William Wyler’s 1939 Wuthering Heights, based on Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, depicts a man who becomes consumed with vengeance. Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), the main character, alienates everyone around him. It is intriguing and appalling at the same time to watch this, and the audience may have no understanding of how someone could go so far. Wuthering Heights is the type of movie that could easily leave one thinking, “I thought my life was bad!” It is in this way that a film or novel centered on misery or unhappiness can actually uplift an audience’s spirits.

         Movies and books that depict misery usually contain a very good dramatic conflict in them. For many, that is what makes a story interesting. The story could be a sunny, happy work as a whole; but every story needs a good dramatic conflict. Sometimes the best stories are the ones that involve misery.

         Tennessee Williams’ 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed in 1951 by Elia Kazan, contains a great dramatic conflict between two main characters that are not “sunny and happy” by any means. These characters, Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stanley (Marlon Brando), are very much opposites; and this provides a conflict that gets better and better until the shocking climax. Watching these ultimately doomed characters in these films is like watching a train wreck. It is something horrible, but one cannot turn away. There is a guilty pleasure involved. These characters are doing horrible things, but we cannot help enjoying watching the events unfold. The audience loves to see a villain get his just reward, but when that does not happen, we continue to watch just the same.

         Popular media love to take advantage of our guilty pleasure of watching bad things happen to good people. A celebrity scandal will always hold top billing over someone committing good deeds. This is the same thing that happens in an unhappy movie. We are appalled on the outside, but inwardly these train-wreck events are very appealing to us.

         In conclusion, works that are centered on misery and unhappiness have their place in the world, just as happy and bright movies with a happy ending have. When Hollywood movies use the “happy ending” so much, movies that leave the audience hanging or conflicted capture a place in their memory that much more. For this reason, film makers and writers should continue to make these types of endings.

Brian Schuldt

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