What’s So Terrible About a Happy Ending?

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What’s So Terrible About a Happy Ending? by Robert Piluso | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting
“The D.A. breaks into the prison, runs down Death Row, but he gets there too late. The gas pellets have been dropped. She’s dead. I tell you, there’s not a dry eye in the house. She’s dead … because that’s the reality. The innocent die … No f***ing Hollywood ending!”

So ends the pitch for a movie that artsy screenwriter Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant) delivers to studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) in Robert Altman’s classic Hollywood satire, The Player. The movie gets made, but the joke is: The D.A.’s love interest lives. And everybody loves the movie that way, with the “Hollywood ending.” Why is this funny? Because whether or not audience members tell their friends they should go see the movie is the only “reality” that matters in Hollywood.

Audiences are not inclined to generate “buzz” on movies that have great beginnings and middles, but terrible (depressing) endings.

So, you’re wondering, “Is there any way I can write an ending that is not an insult to my audience’s intelligence, and so I can still look myself in the mirror in the morning?” Fret not, fellow writers. There is.


Script Extra: The ‘All is Lost’ Exercise – How to Sharpen Your Film Endings by Revealing Defeat


First, let’s try and figure out why “Hollywood ending” has became such a dirty word—because I don’t think it has to be. And moreover, I don’t think it should be.

“Hollywood endings” are popularly held to be the resolutions that stink of impossible good fortune and blind, dumb, deaf social optimism. Against all odds, the guy gets the girl, slays the monster or even saves the galaxy.

Why, however, would it be silly to trounce The Princess Bride for having a “Hollywood ending?” (The guy does, after all, “get the girl.”)

Or to diss Jaws? Slam Star Wars (original recipe)? Heresy!

The element these stories all have to make their “happy, Hollywood endings” work so well, and feel so authentic, is that they have beginnings and middles that are entirely conducive to such resolutions. Furthermore, they’re populated by characters that are entirely conducive to such resolutions (an in-love-enough couple, a tough-enough hero, a pure-hearted-enough farm boy).

If you want to have your script’s Hollywood ending not feel like it’s tacked-on dreck, you’d better have written a script with a thoroughly Hollywood beginning and middle. That’s the best thing you can do, really, to make your story shimmer and shine. There’s nothing shameful about doing so—you’re just speaking the same language as the execs, producers, actors and directors. The only shameful thing is walking into a room where everybody’s speaking Spanish, and you’re the only one who wants to speak English.

Let me clarify that.

Hollywood is about escapism, and fantasy. Therefore, it follows that the writing style called “Hollywood” is a style that is not “realistic.”

Take a realistic oil painting of a basket of fruit, and take a cartoon still-frame of a basket of fruit—Hollywood is the cartoon version. We can all recognize it’s supposed to be a basket of fruit, but it’s just funkier. It’s got none of the shadows of the reality. None of the imperfections. That’s a good thing. It’s marketable.


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Now, the fascinating thing is when a screenwriter manages to write a film that’s dark, quasi-realistic, and still can sell the Hollywood ending as being authentic to the story (and not the result of a test screening’s negative feedback in Canoga Park). A few recent examples are Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Fight Club and Garden State. I remember what was fun about watching these films for the first time was the strong sense of their pessimism, and yet not knowing if a Hollywood ending could come out of all this darkness—like a lotus flower blossoming up from muddy waters. The Hollywood ending was not guaranteed, like it would be if you were to go see a Will Ferrell comedy or a superhero flick.

With Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish and Clementine decide to give love another chance, to enjoy the ride while it lasts, and try to learn from their past mistakes. Yes, even though the odds are they’ll end up hating each other’s guts.

With Fight Club, the narrator (Edward Norton) triumphs over his inferiority complex (killing Tyler Durden), gets the girl and even vanquishes capitalism!

With Garden State, for all his neuroses and insecurities, Largeman (Zach Braff) decides not to get on the plane—to stay in New Jersey and give his new relationship a chance.

With contemporary, darker, Hollywood-style films like these, the screenwriter has to work a lot harder to sell the happy ending than if the film were not realistic whatsoever. For dark stories, the easy thing to do would be to write,

“And so it was that the romance did not work out. As is so often the case in real life. Boo-hoo. Fade Out.”

There’d be riots in the lobby if every movie ended in “the realistic style.” I guess I should put all my cards on the table as to why, for this screenwriter, “realistic” corresponds with “dark/pessimistic,” and “Hollywood” corresponds with “light/optimistic.”

We tend to think that, in reality, we don’t always get what we want. And even if we do, we can’t really keep it for that long, right? Reality so often tends to be defined by disappointment, by failed objectives.

There are no Hollywood endings in real life, because, as Edward Norton points out in Fight Club, “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” Everybody dies. Every relationship ends.

Everybody fails at something. Etc, etc.

But in Hollywood, we don’t get to see “a long enough timeline”—we don’t get to see a character’s lifetime consisting of millions of moments, and thousands of quests. Rather, we merely witness a single moment in time … that ends happily.

The movie traces the arc of a single quest: A hero wants one thing (not a thousand, as in real life), and, in the Hollywood style, he gets it. (The credits roll before we find out if he kept “it” or not.)


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Therefore, let us define a “Hollywood ending” not as gooey, overly optimistic, or impossible to achieve in real life, but let us define a Hollywood ending as whether or not the hero accomplishes his goal. Fantasies are, after all, about victory … not defeat. No one fantasizes about dying, losing or falling out of love. Insofar as that a Hollywood ending is about achievement (even if the achieved end is rather, well, freaky, as in the case of Fight Club), the Hollywood ending is the end that the audience will like the best. And audiences do not like to see the D.A. arrive “too late” to save his innocent beloved from the gas chamber.

Let’s take some classic endings and see why, though they may appear to be “realistic,” or “pessimistic” endings, they are, in fact, Hollywood endings … and some of my favorites.

Screenwriter Robert Piluso explains why giving your script a "Hollywood ending" isn't necessarily a bad thing.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin, Benico Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne, 1995, (c) Gramercy Pictures

In The Usual Suspects, a custom agent seeks to catch international crime lord Keyser Soze. In that Keyser is our protagonist (in the same vein as Scarface or Michael Corleone), he’s the one on the quest we care about, and his quest is to disappear. He does. The Hollywood ending is that he gets away with murder … and we wanted him to. Imagine if the cops had caught him, if Chazz Palminteri had run just a little faster: How disappointed we would have been!

In Braveheart, William Wallace is executed. Our protagonist dies. But does he accomplish his goal, from beyond the grave? You bet your kilt he does.

The rag-tag army of Scots is galvanized, and they win their “freedom.”

In Casablanca, Rick does not get the girl. But that wasn’t the journey he was on throughout the movie. His quest was to figure out how to live with himself, how to be alone, how to be self-sacrificing. If he’d ended up with Ilsa, all his suffering would have been for nothing—his selfishness would have paid off. He would not have accomplished his goal.

Alex may be a vicious, demented character in A Clockwork Orange, but is he both protagonist and antagonist?

A Clockwork Orange features a young sociopath, forcibly reformed by the State. His reprogramming nearly gets him killed, and the State deprograms him, returning him to all his former sadistic glory.

How in the hell can this be a Hollywood ending? Alex’s quest is for authenticity, as issuing forth from free will. When the State takes away his free will, they make him into an inauthentic, miserable, vulnerable entity. When the State restores his free will, it is a triumph for Alex because he shall be allowed to mature, or not, according to his own volition. The ending is about liberty: about the government trusting its citizens to redeem (or to destroy) themselves. Funky, huh? But still Hollywood.

peter-fonda-and-dennis-hopper-in-easy-rider

Easy Rider ends with its protagonists getting blasted off their motorcycles, to kingdom come. The movie can’t end with them riding off into the sunset with a couple of girls, because that would imply fertility, future and “rebirth” of the Love Generation, while the rest of the movie has been about hippies coming to terms with their extinction. That’s the quest they were on. Of course it ends, justifiably, with their deaths.

And so, comrades-in-quills, if you want to give the Studio what they want to buy, give them what audiences want to see: accomplishment, optimism, triumph.

In Hollywood, if nowhere else, the innocent never die, and love always conquers all.

What’s so terrible about that?

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3 thoughts on “What’s So Terrible About a Happy Ending?

  1. AlCielo

    Here are some Hollywood movies that don’t have the expected Hollywood happy ending according to their genre (though in some cases, the ending is not unhappy):

    Dr. Strangelove, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown (most Polanski films in fact), Citizen Kane, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye (many Altman films), Halloween, Limelight, In a Lonely Place, Se7en, My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Conversation, Godfather 2, Fallen, Tin Cup, Jacob’s Ladder, Midnight Cowboy, The Great Escape (mixed ending), Monster, She’s Gotta Have It, Body Heat, Sunset Boulevard, No Way Out…

    Now these and similar movies are in the minority, and organic happy endings will generally please more viewers than organic unhappy endings, but it is essential that there be SOME exceptions. Otherwise, the audience would know as soon as the protagonist commits to a quest that the outcome will be successful, and happy endings will lose their power.

  2. Troy

    I have received good reviews on the screenplay in following the book and not dumbing it down for the audience. The studios see a sequel and it’s not until page 38 in the follow up (uncompleted) novel that is it revealed who survived from the original.
    My wife tires of my predictions 10 minutes into a film when I announce, the protagonist will live, he will get the girl, money or bad guy but his best friend or partner will die. Yawn. Some times there is no reason.

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