The First Law of Bad Literary Novels is simple: there are no happy endings.
It’s the same story with Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings.
Now, that’s not to say every book and movie needs a prototypical Hollywood happy ending. Tragedies should have sad endings, and there are plenty of classic movies where the ending is ambiguous.
Rocky actually loses his first fight. The victory comes from not getting knocked out – and from the journey from loser to contender. Rocky suffers, sacrifices and grows. That’s why the movie is good: there’s a big contrast between where Rocky is in Act 1 and where he ends up in Act 3.
The trouble with these movies is the audience doesn’t want to see them again, if they ever saw them in the first place, because the ending sours everybody, despite the beautiful imagery and amazing acting.
I’m not saying you can’t make a great movie without being low-brow and throwing in more explosions than Michael Bay ever dreamed possible.
THE KING’S SPEECH proves that great acting and great storytelling can be greatly entertaining on a low budget without a single fight or explosion.
And there are plenty of great movies with ambiguous plots and endings that I will happily heap love upon: MEMENTO, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, CHINATOWN, INCEPTION, MILLER’S CROSSING.
Here are three well-known and beautifully shot movies, all with great actors, which you never want to see twice because of the sad, stupid endings. I’m purposely picking three well-known movies that won awards, to not stack the deck by choosing boring literary films about angsty rich people where the most exciting scene is where Baron VonDipstick shows up drunk at his daughter’s wedding and hits on the bridesmaid.
Big, Bad Beautiful Movie No. 1: THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
How it ends: The lover’s triangle gets messy and everybody kills each other. Seriously.
Why this stinks: This is a period piece with a great actors and amazing scenes. Yet at some point, no matter how gorgeous a film is, the thing has to stop wandering around and take the audience to the final destination in Act 3. In this case, that destination makes you want to throw things at the screen.
How to fix it: Every movie trying to be dark and deep can defend a miserable ending by saying, “Hey, it’s a tragedy.” No. Tragedies work best when the hero actively fights their fate, even in a losing cause. Hubris does them in, sure, but they try. Maybe they fail and never reach redemption, but they try.
In this movie, who’s the hero? It’s not clear. Instead of one person being tempted to double-cross their side for love, we’ve got three characters with similar issues with betrayal and everybody dying for their collective sins.
Good tragic deaths have real meaning. BREAKING BAD ended well because Walter White made his end worthwhile, saving Jesse and taking out the Nazis.
You could fix THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS while raising the stakes by having the three characters truly switch sides. Let the undercover army captain lead the military to his former buddies in the Flying Daggers hideout, threatening everything. Then go ahead and have the lovers die, but do it in glorious battle, sacrificing their lives to stop the massacre.
Big, Bad Beautiful Movie No. 2: THE ENGLISH PATIENT
How it ends: Ralph (it’s pronounced Rafe!) Fiennes kills himself. Seriously. If you want to get technical, he sells secrets to the Nazis to get a plane, so he can retrieve the body of the married woman he was having an affair with this whole time.
Why this stinks: Ralph isn’t heroic. He’s a villain, straight up. Everything he does is selfish and wrong, including having an affair with a married woman and selling secrets to the Nazis that will lead to the deaths of innocent folks. And then he dies.
How to fix it: There’s no real journey for Ralph’s character. In a real tragedy, there’s a fall from grace. One way to change things is to make Ralph’s count honorable. Have him fall in love with the married woman, but not act on it. The husband can still freak out and crash his plane into his wife, fatally wounding her in a jealous rage, even though they aren’t having an affair. Ralph can still sacrifice everything to try to save her. But now the audience feels for the count, because he wasn’t a jerk the whole time. Also, unrequited love has inherent tension and story goodness out the wazoo. Redeem the Ralph!
Big, Bad Beautiful Movie No. 3: CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
How it ends: Except for Michelle Yeoh, who has to co-star with Pierce Brosnan in a Bond movie, everybody dies. Mostly in the final fight, though Zhang survives that battle so she can reunite with her boyfriend, which makes her so happy she then jumps off a cliff. I’m not making that up.
Why this stinks: What’s the point? There’s a bit of redemption with Zhang’s character trying to do the right thing and getting the antidote to her evil mentor’s poison darts, though it’s too late to save Chow Yun-fat’s warrior.
There’s no sense of rising stakes. In the beginning of the movie, people are fighting. In the middle, they’re fighting more. In the end, they fight again. The trick is to raise the stakes each time. That doesn’t happen.
How to fix it: Make the danger posed by the villain grow, and give her some motivation. She’s a cartoon villain now, bad for the sake of being bad, with no real direction. Channel that. Maybe she’s been training Zhang as her young protégé for a suicide mission against whatever person in authority she wants revenge against, and the girl doesn’t know it. That makes more sense than the evil mentor wanting to kill her precious protégé for hiding fighting technique secrets from her. For the audience to care, the audience needs to know what’s at stake aside from the character’s health. If the villain wins, so what?
Another option: the villainous mentor gets away after hitting Chow Yun-fat with the poison dart, and Zhang’s character goes after her, both of them fatally wounded in the duel. There we go. Now her death means something, and everybody can still die except for Michelle Yeoh.
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- Why Hollywood is plagued by The Invincible Hero problem
- Hollywood: Sidekicks do NOT need their own stupid sidekicks
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.