Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Bruno Bettelheim

The fairy tale theater

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It must have all started with The Princess Switch, although that’s so long ago now that I can barely remember. Netflix was pushing me hard to watch an original movie with Vanessa Hudgens in a dual role as a European royal and a baker from Chicago who trade places and end up romantically entangled with each other’s love interests at Christmas, and I finally gave in. In the weeks since, my wife and I have watched Pride, Prejudice, and MistletoeThe Nine Lives of ChristmasCrown for ChristmasThe Holiday CalendarChristmas at the Palace; and possibly one or two others that I’ve forgotten. A few were on Netflix, but most were on Hallmark, which has staked out this space so aggressively that it can seem frighteningly singleminded in its pursuit of Yuletide cheer. By now, it airs close to forty original holiday romances between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, and like its paperback predecessors, it knows better than to tinker with a proven formula. As two of its writers anonymously reveal in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

We have an idea and it maybe takes us a week or so just to break it down into a treatment, a synopsis of the story; it’s like a beat sheet where you pretty much write what’s going to happen in every scene you just don’t write the scene. If we have a solid beat sheet done and it’s approved, then it’s only going to take us about a week and a half to finish a draft. Basically, an act or two a day and there’s nine. They’re kind of simple because there are so many rules so you know what you can and can’t do, and if you have everything worked out it comes together.

And the rules are revealing in themselves. As one writer notes: “The first rule is snow. We really wanted to do one where the basic conflict was a fear that there will not be snow on Christmas. We were told you cannot do that, there must be snow. They can’t be waiting for the snow, there has to be snow. You cannot threaten them with no snow.” And the conventions that make these movies so watchable are built directly into the structure:

There cannot be a single scene that does not acknowledge the theme. Well, maybe a scene, but you can’t have a single act that doesn’t acknowledge it and there are nine of them, so there’s lots of opportunities for Christmas. They have a really rigid nine-act structure that makes writing them a lot of fun because it’s almost like an exercise. You know where you have to get to: People have to be kissing for the first time, probably in some sort of a Christmas setting, probably with snow falling from the sky, probably with a small crowd watching. You have to start with two people who, for whatever reason, don’t like each other and you’re just maneuvering through those nine acts to get them to that kiss in the snow.

The result, as I’ve learned firsthand, is a movie that seems familiar before you’ve even seen it. You can watch with one eye as you’re wrapping presents, or tune in halfway through with no fear of becoming confused. It allows its viewers to give it exactly as much attention as they’re willing to spare, and at a time when the mere act of watching prestige television can be physically exhausting, there’s something to be said for an option that asks nothing of us at all.

After you’ve seen two or three of these movies, of course, the details start to blur, particularly when it comes to the male leads. The writers speak hopefully of making the characters “as unique and interesting as they can be within the confines of Hallmark land,” but while the women are allowed an occasional flash of individuality, the men are unfailingly generic. This is particularly true of the subgenre in which the love interest is a king or prince, who doesn’t get any more personality than his counterpart in fairy tales. Yet this may not be a flaw. In On Directing Film, which is the best work on storytelling that I’ve ever read, David Mamet provides a relevant word of advice:

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim says of fairy tales the same thing Alfred Hitchcock said about thrillers: that the less the hero of the play is inflected, identified, and characterized, the more we will endow him with our own internal meaning—the more we will identify with him—which is to say the more we will be assured that we are that hero. “The hero rode up on a white horse.” You don’t say “a short hero rode up on a white horse,” because if the listener isn’t short he isn’t going to identify with that hero. You don’t say “a tall hero rode up on a white horse,” because if the listener isn’t tall, he won’t identify with the hero. You say “a hero,” and the audience subconsciously realize they are that hero.

Yet Mamet also overlooks the fact that the women in fairy tales, like Snow White, are often described with great specificity—it’s the prince who is glimpsed only faintly. Hallmark follows much the same rule, which implies that it’s less important for the audience to identify with the protagonist than to fantasize without constraint about the object of desire.

This also leads to some unfortunate decisions about diversity, which is more or less what you might expect. As one writer says candidly to Entertainment Weekly:

On our end, we just write everybody as white, we don’t even bother to fight that war. If they want to put someone of color in there, that would be wonderful, but we don’t have control of that…I found out Meghan Markle had been in some and she’s biracial, but it almost seems like they’ve tightened those restrictions more recently. Everything’s just such a white, white, white, white world. It’s a white Christmas after all—with the snow and the people.

With more than thirty original movies coming out every year, you might think that Hallmark could make a few exceptions, especially since the demand clearly exists, but this isn’t about marketing at all. It’s a reflection of the fact that nonwhiteness is still seen as a token of difference, or a deviation from an assumed norm, and it’s the logical extension of the rules that I’ve listed above. White characters have the privilege—which is invisible but very real—of seeming culturally uninflected, which is the baseline that allows the formula to unfold. This seems very close to John W. Campbell’s implicit notion that all characters in science fiction should be white males by default, and while other genres have gradually moved past this point, it’s still very much the case with Hallmark. (There can be nonwhite characters, but they have to follow the rules: “Normally there’ll be a black character that’s like a friend or a boss, usually someone benevolent because you don’t want your one person of color to not be positive.”) With diversity, as with everything else, Hallmark is very mindful of how much variation its audience will accept. It thinks that it knows the formula. And it might not even be wrong.

The essential strangeness of fairy tales

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Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

Note: I’m taking a break for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 30, 2015.

Over the last few months, I’ve been telling my daughter a lot of fairy tales. My approach has been largely shaped, for better or worse, by Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: I happened to read it a few years ago as part of an unrelated writing project, but it also contained insights that I felt compelled to put to use almost at once in my own life. Bettelheim is a controversial figure for good reason, and he’s not a writer whose ideas we need to accept at face value, but he makes several points that feel intuitively correct. When it comes to fairy tales, it seems best to tell the oldest versions of each story that we have, as refined through countless retellings, rather than a more modern interpretation that hasn’t been as thoroughly tested; and, when possible, it’s preferable to tell them without a book or pictures, which gets closer to the way in which they were originally transmitted. And the results have been really striking. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” have seized my daughter’s imagination, to the point where we’ll discuss them as if they happened to her personally, and she isn’t fazed by some of their darker aspects. (In “Hansel and Gretel,” when I tell her that the parents wanted to take their children into the woods and leave them there, she’ll cheerfully add: “And kill dem dere!”)

There’s no denying that the traditional versions of these fairy tales contain elements that most contemporary parents find disturbing or inexplicable, like the red-hot shoes that the evil queen in “Snow White” is forced to wear to dance herself to death, or the willingness of the father in “Hansel and Gretel” to abandon his children in the forest. (When my wife told me that she thought that the real villain in that story is the father, I replied: “Actually, I think the real villain is the witch who cooks and eats little kids.”) It’s tempting to tone down the originals a bit, sometimes to the point of insipidity: I recently came across a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother at all—she just gets scared and runs off to hide behind the house. But based solely on my own observations, I think it’s a mistake to shy away from the darkness: not, as Bettelheim would have it, for its psychological benefits, which can be hard to pin down anyway, but simply from the perspective of good storytelling. A version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless. And kids who sense that their time is being wasted won’t ask to repeat the experience.

Tangled

And there’s a particularly important point here, which is that the more bizarre or irrational the detail—and the harder it is to extract any clear lesson from it—the more likely it has survived for a reason. Plot points that are simply functional or logical, or which serve an obvious didactic purpose, as in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” will be retained out of practical considerations; when something arbitrary, grotesque, or even borderline immoral lingers on through countless retellings, it can only be because it gets at something fundamental. It reminds me a little of the criterion of embarrassment in literary analysis, which states that a historical detail that would have seemed embarrassing or strange to its original authors or readers—like the crucifixion—is likely to be authentic, since they wouldn’t be inclined to invent such an inconvenient fact if they had any choice. (Similarly, in classical philology, when you need to choose between two variants of the same text, the stranger or more unusual form is usually the older one: it’s more probable that a scribal error would smooth out a perceived anomaly to make it more conventional, rather than the other way around.) We may not be able to articulate why these details are there, but the fact that they were selected to survive speaks to their importance and resilience, which would be foolish to underestimate.

And it can be disorienting to move from the older versions of these stories to their more recent, Disneyfied incarnations. In the version of “Rapunzel” recorded by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, the story is set in motion by the mother’s obsessive desire to eat some of the lettuce from the garden of the sorceress next door. We aren’t told why she wants it so badly; she simply tells her husband that if she can’t have it, she fears that she will die. In Tangled, this detail is rationalized and clearly motivated: the lettuce becomes a flower with magical healing properties, and it’s literally used to save the queen’s life. This version has the benefit of explaining away the weirdness in the original tale, and it’s far more acceptable from a narrative point of view, but it also diminishes its mystery and resonance. I like Tangled a lot, and I’m not going to reject the Disney versions of these stories—which have considerable artistic merits of their own—just because they soften or minimize the darker elements of their sources. (Although I do avoid the Disney storybooks, which follow the plot points by rote while losing most of the appeal of both the movie and the original story.) But it’s worth remembering that each version exists to fulfill a different need, and a child’s inner life ought to have room for both.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

The magic feather syndrome

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Spirited Away

Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 6, 2014.

Recently, my baby daughter learned how to clap. It’s her latest trick, and she’s very pleased by it, so the two of us have taken to applauding together on the slightest of pretexts: if she finishes her breakfast, if she stands by herself for a few seconds, if she knows the correct answer to “Where’s your nose?” And for a girl who just passed her first birthday, these are achievements to be celebrated. All the same, at the back of my mind, there’s also the lurking fear that I’m raising yet another narcissistic kid. You know the type. It’s the middle-class child whose psychological health has been a topic of increasing concern in recent years: she’s endlessly coddled by her parents, told how special she is, and assured that she’s exceptionally talented. At school, she racks up gold stars; at her athletic events, everyone gets a trophy; and by age thirty, she’s in therapy, having never been informed of the uncomfortable truth that not every human being is equally gifted and hard work alone is no guarantee of success. As Jean Twenge, one of the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, has said: “[Being raised this way] gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.”

If there’s one place where this message is repeatedly, even cloyingly underlined, it’s in contemporary children’s entertainment. A while back, Luke Epplin of The Atlantic decried the easy inspirational morals of movies like Turbo and Planes, which both suffer from what he calls the “magic feather syndrome.” He writes:

As with the titular character in Walt Disney’s 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists’ primary liability, such as Dumbo’s giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather—or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears—and believe that their greatness comes from within.

Epplin goes on to note that these movies equate following one’s dreams with pursuing unusual, exceptional destinies at the expense of everyday work, including the kind that goes hand in hand with any meaningful accomplishment. These characters are enabled solely by believing in themselves, which, as adults know, is all very well and good, but not nearly enough in itself. (It’s the preschool equivalent of the convention of The Chosen One, often encountered in movies made ostensibly for adults, in which the lead character is fated for greatness from birth.)

Disney's Planes

But there’s another point that needs to be made about the movies that Epplin discusses: both Turbo and Planes are, by consensus, fairly mediocre films, and this would be the case regardless of the messages they were trying to convey. And there’s a strong and surprisingly sophisticated argument that children do, in fact, need to be given idealized images of their own strengths and potential, at least at a certain age. Bruno Bettelheim’s classic The Uses of Enchantment forcefully advocates for the role that fairy tales play in a child’s early psychological development, and while some of his Freudian terminology has dated, the central thesis remains sound. We often forget how vulnerable young children really are: they’re relatively weak and helpless, without agency in their own lives, surrounded by adults who can transform in an instant from benevolent giants to fearsome ogres. Fairy tales, with their preternaturally resourceful protagonists and happy endings, don’t paint a realistic picture of life, but if they did, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective. In order for a child to trust his own mind and body, leave the comfort zone of his own family, and venture into the larger world, he needs stories that dramatize these rites of passage in an unambiguously positive way, with good rewarded, evil punished, and the hero living happily ever after.

True, the world doesn’t always work this way, but that’s something that children naturally come to understand on their own, not through a premature introduction to hard truths that adults think they need to hear. And it doesn’t mean that every story that takes such an approach is equally worthwhile. Bettelheim wasn’t especially impressed by The Little Engine That Could, which he felt gave children a superficially positive message without addressing their deeper anxieties, and I suspect that he’d feel the same way about Turbo or Planes. But I’d also like to think that he’d look favorably on a movie like Spirited Away, the best children’s film made in my lifetime, in which the heroine quietly and believably transforms the fantastic world around her for the better. In the best films of a director like Miyazaki, the message isn’t stated baldly in the dialogue, as we see even in Pixar’s weaker movies, but baked directly into the story itself. That’s also true of the best fairy tales: Jack climbs the beanstalk, steals the enchanted harp, and slays the ogre, and he never stops to remember the importance of believing in himself—he’s too busy getting things done. As with most things in art, the message only works if it’s properly delivered. And while I think it’s fine, even necessary, to tell children that they can be anything they want, it’s equally important to remind them not to settle for anything less than good storytelling.

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

The essential strangeness of fairy tales

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Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

Over the last few months, I’ve been telling my daughter a lot of fairy tales. My approach has been largely shaped, for better or worse, by Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: I happened to read it last year as part of an unrelated writing project, but it also contained insights that I felt compelled to put to use almost at once in my own life. Bettelheim is a controversial figure for good reason, and he’s not a writer whose ideas we need to accept at face value, but he makes several points that feel intuitively correct. When it comes to fairy tales, it seems best to tell the oldest versions of each story we have, as refined through countless retellings, rather than a more modern interpretation that hasn’t been as thoroughly tested; and, when possible, it’s preferable to tell them without a book or pictures, which gets closer to the way in which they were originally transmitted. And the results have been really striking. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” have seized my daughter’s imagination, to the point where we’ll discuss them as if they happened to her personally, and she isn’t fazed by some of their darker aspects. (In “Hansel and Gretel,” when I tell her that the parents wanted to take their children into the woods and leave them there, she’ll cheerfully add: “And kill dem dere!”)

There’s no denying that the traditional versions of these fairy tales contain elements that most contemporary parents find disturbing or inexplicable, like the red-hot shoes that the evil queen in “Snow White” is forced to wear to dance herself to death, or the willingness of the father in “Hansel and Gretel” to abandon his children in the forest. (When my wife told me that she thought that the real villain in that story is the father, I replied: “Actually, I think the real villain is the witch who cooks and eats little kids.”) It’s tempting to tone down the originals a bit, sometimes to the point of insipidity: I recently came across a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother at all—she just gets scared and runs off to hide behind the house. But based solely on my own observations, I think it’s a mistake to shy away from the darkness: not, as Bettelheim would have it, for its psychological benefits, which can be hard to pin down anyway, but simply from the perspective of good storytelling. A version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless. And kids who sense that their time is being wasted won’t ask to repeat the experience.

Tangled

And there’s a particularly important point here, which is that the more bizarre or irrational the detail—and the harder it is to extract any clear lesson from it—the more likely it has survived for a reason. Plot points that are simply functional or logical, or which serve an obvious didactic purpose, as in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” will be retained out of practical considerations; when something arbitrary, grotesque, or even borderline immoral lingers on through countless retellings, it can only be because it gets at something fundamental. It reminds me a little of the criterion of embarrassment in literary analysis, which states that a historical detail that would have seemed embarrassing or strange to its original authors or readers—like the crucifixion—is likely to be authentic, since they wouldn’t be inclined to invent such an inconvenient fact if they had any choice. (Similarly, in classical philology, when you need to choose between two variants of the same text, the stranger or more unusual form is usually the older one: it’s more probable that a scribal error would smooth out a perceived anomaly to make it more conventional, rather than the other way around.) We may not be able to articulate why these details are there, but the fact that they were selected to survive speaks to their importance and resilience, which would be foolish to underestimate.

And it can be disorienting to move from the older versions of these stories to their more recent, Disneyfied incarnations. In the version of “Rapunzel” recorded by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, the story is set in motion by the mother’s obsessive desire to eat some of the lettuce from the garden of the sorceress next door. We aren’t told why she wants it so badly; she simply tells her husband that if she can’t have it, she fears that she will die. In Tangled, this detail is rationalized and clearly motivated: the lettuce becomes a flower with magical healing properties, and it’s literally used to save the queen’s life. This version has the benefit of explaining away the weirdness in the original tale, and it’s far more acceptable from a narrative point of view, but it also diminishes its mystery and resonance. I like Tangled a lot, and I’m not going to reject the Disney versions of these stories—which have considerable artistic merits of their own—just because they soften or minimize the darker elements of their sources. (Although I do avoid the Disney storybooks, which follow the plot points by rote while losing most of the appeal of both the movie and the original story.) But it’s worth remembering that each version exists to fulfill a different need, and a child’s inner life ought to have room for both.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2015 at 9:07 am

Teens like us

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Jon Cryer and Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture prom would you want to attend?”

Babies do not want to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles.

—Samuel Johnson

I know what he means. Growing up, I rarely, if ever, read books or watched movies with protagonists my own age. Even in grade school, after graduating past picture books, I was quickly devouring novels by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, the characters of which tended to be five or so years older than I was. By middle school, I was reading books about the adult world that I desperately—and prematurely—longed to enter. I’m not saying that these were works of great literature; I consumed my share of bad thrillers, horror novels, and miscellaneous junk. But it was all junk about grownups, and even the most mundane novel of adulthood offered a promise of life that I didn’t see in stories about people my own age. (The big exception here is Stephen King’s It, which I did read when I was just about the same age as the protagonists for half the story, and I still think it’s the ultimate young adult novel, although the glimpses it gave of its characters at a later stage were equally revelatory. It isn’t exactly a book I’d give to a twelve-year-old to read, but I wouldn’t discourage it for a second.)

In some ways, my diet of adult novels was partially fueled by the historical moment in which I grew up, in which teenage readers were relatively underserved by publishers. These days, teens have entire sections of books devoted to escapist entertainment with protagonists their age, and if I were growing up now, I don’t doubt that I’d be reading the likes of Divergent. As disposable as many of them are, these books serve the same purpose for teenagers that Bruno Bettelheim identifies in fairy tales for younger kids: they’re fantasies of empowerment, stories that deliberately exaggerate the agency you have at a young age to encourage you to take ordinary risks. If there’s a common theme in these books—or at least the ones that have reached my radar thanks to their adaptations in other media—it’s that the fate of the world hangs in the balance due to the actions of one adolescent, whether named Harry or Katniss. In real life, a teenager has changed history maybe once, and it didn’t turn out so well for the girl involved. But there’s still a place for that kind of daydream: anyone under eighteen gets used to feelings of powerlessness, and sometimes it takes the fiction of a singular destiny that will shake entire civilizations to ignite that first cautious attempt at independence.

Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

There’s another, more modest vein of fiction for teens, of course, and that’s the high school story. Some are overt fantasies as well: you could write a book or three on how Buffy, Twilight, or The Vampire Diaries use vampirism as a metaphor for a coming of age, and even a more “realistic” show like Beverly Hills 90210 presented an absurdly heightened vision of high school as a cauldron of glossy melodrama. That’s part of their appeal; like fairy stories, they gain much of their power from their displacement, which may be why we’re so willing to accept high school seniors being played by actors in their twenties. When I was in high school myself, I don’t remember latching onto any depictions of it for solace or escape, perhaps as another accident of timing: I was born too late for The Breakfast Club, too early for Freaks and Geeks, and in any case, I was already far down a strange cultural path of my own. Yet part of me wonders if I could have used it. Just as I sometimes feel that I discovered The Smiths ten years too late, I occasionally regret that I didn’t watch My So-Called Life on its first run, or make a point of catching up on John Hughes. I wanted to be told of giants and castles, but while I still feel that it’s important for young people to read slightly above their heads, I’ve also begun to appreciate the importance of a familiar face.

If young adult fiction has taken the place that traditional stories and tales once occupied in the minds of children, it’s no accident that so many center on the big dance: a prom may seem absurdly trivial in retrospect, but at the time, it feels like the royal ball in Cinderella. I had a pretty good time at my own senior prom, so my feelings about it aren’t as charged or ambivalent as they might be. And although I’d be tempted to attend Back to the Future‘s Enchantment Under the Sea, the first fictional prom that comes to mind is the one in Pretty in Pink, which is one of the few John Hughes movies I saw at around the right time. Not so much for the prom itself, but for the montage sequence that comes right before it, scored to the gorgeous instrumental version of New Order’s “Thieves Like Us,” as Molly Ringwald prepares her dress and we cut between the solitary faces of the rest of the cast. It captures something of how high school felt to me: tentative, full of hopes and plans, looking for fragments in beauty in an experience I was otherwise glad to move beyond. It’s about making the best of things when you’re on your own, and I almost didn’t wish it end so happily. Perhaps, as in a fairy tale, that happy ending is necessary to sweeten the rest of the experience, but the real message lies here, twenty minutes earlier, as we get ready for the big dance even if we’re afraid of a broken heart.

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2014 at 9:51 am

Quote of the Day

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Bruno Bettelheim

The child identifies with the good hero not because of his goodness, but because the hero’s condition makes a deep positive appeal to him. The question for the child is not “Do I want to be good?” but “Who do I want to be like?”

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2014 at 7:30 am

“And they lived happily ever after…”

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Harold Bloom

In old age, I accept unhappy endings in Shakespearean tragedy, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, but back away from them in lesser works. Desdemona, Cordelia, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina are slain by their creators, and we are compelled to absorb the greatness of the loss. Perhaps it trains us to withstand better the terrible deaths of friends, family, and lovers, and to contemplate more stoically our own dissolution. But I increasingly avoid most movies with unhappy endings, since few among them aesthetically earn the suffering they attempt to inflict upon us.

Harold Bloom, Genius

I’m starting to feel the same way. For most of my life, I’ve never shied away from works of art with unhappy endings: in movies, the list begins and ends with Vertigo, the greatest of all sucker punches ever inflicted on an audience, and includes films as different as The Red Shoes, The Third Man, and Dancer in the Dark. When I’m given a choice between ambiguous interpretations, as in Inception, I’m often inclined to go with the darker reading. But as time goes on, I’ve found that I prefer happy endings, both from a purely technical standpoint and as a matter of personal taste.

Which isn’t to say that unhappy endings can’t work. Yesterday, I cited Bruno Bettelheim on the subject of fairy tales, which invariably end on an unambiguously happy note to encourage children to absorb their implicit lessons about life. As adults, our artistic needs are more complicated, if not entirely dissimilar. An unhappy ending of the sort that we find in the myth of Oedipus or Madame Bovary is psychological training of a different sort, preparing us, as Bloom notes, for the tragic losses that we all eventually experience. Just as scary movies acquaint us with feelings of terror that we’d rarely feel under ordinary circumstances, great works of art serve as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, expanding our capacity to feel in ways that would never happen if we only drew on the material of our everyday lives. If the happy endings in fairy tales prepare and encourage children to venture outside the safe confines of family into the wider world, unhappy endings in adult fiction do the opposite: they turn our attention inward, forcing us to scrutinize aspects of ourselves that we’ve been trained to avoid as we focus on our respectable adult responsibilities.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

In order for this to work, though, that unhappiness has to be authentically earned, and the number of works that pull it off is vanishingly small. Endings, whether happy or unhappy, are very hard, and a lot of writers, including myself, are often unsure if they’ve found the right way to end a story. But given that uncertainty, it’s wisest, when you don’t know the answer, to err on positive side, and to ignore the voice that insists that an unhappy ending is somehow more realistic and uncompromising. In fact, a bleak, unearned ending is just as false to the way the world works as an undeserved happy one, and at greater cost to the reader. A sentimental happy ending may leave us unsatisfied with the author’s work, but that’s nothing compared to our sense of being cheated by a dark conclusion that arises from cynicism or creative exhaustion. Simply as a matter of craft, stories work best when they’re about the restoration of order, and one that ends with the characters dead or destroyed by failure technically meets that requirement. But for most writers, I’d argue that being able to restore a positive order to the tangle of complications they’ve created is a sign of greater artistic maturity.

And while it’s nice to believe that a happy or unhappy ending should flow naturally from the events that came before, a casual look at the history of literature indicates that this isn’t the case. Anna Karenina survived in Tolstoy’s first draft. Until its final act, Romeo and Juliet isn’t so different in tone from many of Shakespeare’s comedies, and if the ending had been changed to happily reunite the two lovers, it’s likely that we’d have trouble imagining it in any other way—although it’s equally likely that we’d file it permanently among his minor plays. On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Winter’s Tale is saved from becoming a tragedy only by the most arbitrary, unconvincing, and deeply moving of authorial contrivances. In practice, the nature of an ending is determined less by the inexorable logic of the plot than by the author’s intuition when the time comes to bring the story to a close, and as we’ve seen, it can often go either way. A writer has no choice but to check his gut to see what feels right, and I don’t think it’s too much to say that the burden lies with the unhappy ending to prove that it belongs there. Any halfway competent writer can herd his characters into the nearest available chasm. But when in doubt, get them out.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am

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