Why are endings often so bad?

ImageSome narratives end well, others not so.  By well, I don’t mean happily, but in an interesting, provoking fashion.  As audience (whether for film or book) I don’t want a simplistic tying up of loose ends, or the placebo of romantic love.  

Sometimes, of course, we all want the brain candy.  I’m not saying every narrative encounter has to be Crime and Punishment.  But we should not accept endings which let down complex characters and tales, or are simply untrue to the kernel of the story.

To take a good example, I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild this week, the opener to the NZ International Film Festival.  The film, directed by Benh Zeitlin, won at Sundance and Cannes and stars the extraordinary Quvenzhané Wallis.  She was six (six!) when this film was made and portrays the brave, terrified Hushpuppy with magnificent aplomb.  Hushpuppy lives in the Bathtub, the drowned area beyond the levees of Louisiana, at the mercy of flood, disease and uncomprehending officialdom.  She is determined that thousands of years from now, scientists will know that a girl called Hushpuppy lived in the Bathtub with her Daddy.

Some critics don’t seem to have got it.  The NY Times cites some racist comments by watchers who did or could not enter into the vivid world Zeitlin creates.  I loved it.  And it ends beautifully.  The future remains open, the choices for Hushpuppy remain bounded only by her self-belief.  The mythologisation, the romanticism of poverty and catastrophe are leavened by her onward march through flood and disaster.

By contrast, yesterday I saw The Door, a new Hungarian film starring Helen Mirren and the German actress Martina Gedeck.  Mirren is an angry, isolated older woman who agrees to clean and cook for novelist Gedeck.  The film has had poor reviews, not least because of the dubbing of the Hungarian minor cast members into English.  Some of the reviews are too harsh, particularly where the reviewer can draw on lots of comparisons with European cinema and Hungarian writing.  Not being an expert in either, I enjoyed quite a bit of it.  Looking at Helen Mirren, here without makeup and in uncompromising headscarf and ugly boots, is always a pleasure.

The ending – in particular, the last ten seconds, was a right let down.  Here is a story about anger and betrayal, promises made and broken, protection and safety.  It is only about forgiveness insofar as absolution is withheld, compassion denied, whether for heifers, Jews, kittens or young women.  So the cheap shot of sun breaking through clouds and gales abating as Gedeck approaches Mirren’s grave is a betrayal of the film’s central narrative.  I left the cinema annoyed.  

Now I shall have to read the book on which it is based to find out whether that was what the author intended.  I had already read Torday’s book Salmon Fishing in the Yemen  before I saw the film.  On screen, Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt end up gazing meaningfully into each others eyes:  all the deaths, protests and diplomatic machinations are vindicated by their reunion.  The novel allows us no such easy out, and is all the more satisfying for the questions it leaves behind.

Based on this tiny sample, one might argue that films based on novels are not good at narrative-appropriate endings.  I suspect that would be a mistake.  Salmon Fishing is a studio blockbuster and must conform to the genre.  The ending of The Door is laziness.  And there are plenty of films not based on books that are equal sell-outs.  I know all too well how hard endings are:  this week’s viewing has reminded me to reflect the original vision right to the final word and never to take the easy way out.


About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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