Friday, February 8, 2008

Roads, versus their destinations

Yesterday, Dwight made an interesting post called What's a little sacrifice between friends. He brings up some very interesting points about happy endings, and predictable endings, and why he prefers works that are not formulaic in their resolutions. One interesting quote from Dwight's post, this one specifically referencing movies:

As a kid, I was the biggest James Bond nut. Somewhere in my teens (circa A View to a Kill with that awful Duran Duran soundtrack) I finally had the “He’s never going to die. What’s the point of all this? Why am I wasting my time here?” epiphany. I was done with Bond.
Here's the original response I posted in the comments of his blog:

Very good post, Dwight. I have a lot of the same feelings. The intersting thing about tragedy is that it often goes well until the end, when everything falls to shit. I don't like to write tragedies any more than I like to write comedy, or happy endings, or whatever.

As you say, write the story honestly. For me, this means bits of dark comedy throughout; moments of success for the hero and moments of abject failure (somewhere between page 1 and "the end"); and endings that are never all bad nor all good. Bittersweet? You could call it that.

But, more to the point, things are never wrapped up with a bow on top -- for good or for ill. Just like life.
I still stand by what I wrote there. However, as yesterday progressed I found myself wondering how I could think that, and still love Bond movies (or the latest Batman incarnation, which has much the same problem -- there's no way Batman will die, any more than Superman "died" in the mid-90's during that whole "Death and Return of Superman" publicity stunt). How is it that I can pride myself on writing the unexpected, often bittersweet endings, and then not be as judgmental with other works? What's the appeal of those other stories, if the ending is a relatively foregone conclusion?

Well, I think it boils down to the fact that I don't read books or watch movies for their endings. I want to find myself captivated the whole way along, and if the ending is predictable -- so what? If I come away feeling good and happy about myself, what's the harm in that?

Granted, my own writing tends to be much darker, but that doesn't mean mean I can't enjoy the lighter side of things in others' works. In the case of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies, it was all about the cleverness of the action and situations, and the interesting bad guys and their plots. Sure, it was lightweight fare, but it was pretty entertaining nonetheless. Those aren't among my favorite movies, to be sure, since they lack the depth to make me really connect with them, but every movie I enjoy can't be my favorite.

With the most recent Bond movie, Casino Royale, the writing is much more poignant and deeper, and Daniel Craig portrays a much more interesting Bond. Did I think there was a possibility that he might die in the end? Of course not. But there are a lot of things nearly as bad as death, in such movies. What about the heroine? She's fair game to die, and I didn't want her to. What about the other secondary characters that I was coming to care about -- would Bond be able to protect all of them? And, of course, there are other interesting subplots, such as his relations with M (who doesn't seem to like him very much), his growing finesse as a spy, and the ever present danger of betrayal. So, clearly, there was a lot to keep it suspenseful.

I think the same can be said of Batman Begins, which is another of my favorite movies. I was less interested in Batman before that movie, but I really connected with every aspect of that rendition. Harry Potter was the same way -- of course there was no possibility that Harry was going to die until the last book in the series, and even that seemed pretty unlikely. Yet those books drew me along like few others, as there was a whole world there that I cared about and didn't want to see ruined. There were plenty of characters that I cared about just as much as Harry, and was distraught when they did die (though I was artistically pleased with all of her choices as to who to kill).

I could give plenty of other examples of books I think fall under this category (The Dresden Files, which I just finished the first of and loved, for instance), but I think you get the point. The endings of books and movies should definitely not be telegraphed in advance -- that's bad writing -- but the central question of whether the protagonist(s) live or die is not always the most important one. Sometimes it's all about seeing what they do along the way (all unexpected events, hopefully), and sometimes it's about any collateral damage that might occur.


Anonymous said...

Hi Christopher,
It seems that so many newer films and books don't really have an ending. They just stop, leaving the viewer/reader wondering. "is that it?" Whether it's sad, happy, unexpected, or different, a story needs an ending!

Christopher M. Park said...

You make a really excellent point there. I definitely felt that way about the ending to Children Of Men, for instance, and also certain other books and movies. While I did love the last book of the Harry Potter series, I felt like the wind-down at the end was a bit insufficient for ending an entire seven-book series.

I'm sure you can think of loads of better examples, but honestly it's not an issue that I've put too much thought into, before. Thanks for bringing it up!


Anonymous said...

I think even the individual books of a series need endings, or at least "break-points." As my work is turning out to be a series, I hope I am doing just that. That the story goes on into the next book is what prompted my question to Anne Mini a couple days ago.
(As I get ready to send this, I'm ammused at the word verification "word." Xfudh just looks neat!)