As the Tears for Fears song goes, everybody loves a happy ending. That said, what makes an ending a happy one? Does that depend on the person doing the reading or watching? And does it matter whether we’re looking at a more meta or personal level?
I stumbled into these questions recently after finishing Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, which became the movie Knock at the Cabin, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and released last year. It was the movie promos that made me want to read the book (I’ve not had good luck with Shaymalan’s movies over the years) so I was always interested in how the adaptation went. The endings of the book and movie differ quite a bit and raise some interesting questions about what constitutes a “happy” ending.
Needless to say, the post from here on out is going to be spoiler heavy, so if you don’t want to know about any of this, head away now.
The plot of the book and film are pretty close, until a certain point. They both start with a young girl playing outside a remote country cabin where she and her two fathers are on vacation. She’s approached by a large, friendly guy who winds up having three friends with him. He gives the family a startling ultimatum – the end of the world is upon us and the only way to stop it is for one of the family members to be sacrificed. It’s sort of a horror/mythical take on Sophie’s Choice.
Naturally, the family refuses to kill one of their own and the tension ramps up from there. The interlopers start to kill each other and there’s some evidence from the outside world (via TV) that maybe it really is the end of days. Tragedies are happening and the big dude in charge may or may not know of them in advance. In the book, at least (I haven’t seen the movie yet), it’s left very vague whether the intruders are religious fanatics, simply nuts (but I repeat myself), or are really telling the truth.
Here’s where things part ways, significantly, between book and movie. In the book there is a struggle over a gun that leaves the little girl dead. Eventually the dads escape (all the intruders die) and they confront the question of sacrificing one of themselves just in case the world is really ending (one is now more of a believer than the other). Ultimately they decide not to, essentially concluding that any kind of God that would require such a thing isn’t worth obeying, and they walk off into a brewing storm that may or may not just be a storm. In the movie, by contrast, the girl is not shot and one of the dads decides to sacrifice himself to save the world on her behalf. The girl and her remaining father leave and find evidence that the sacrifice really is stopping the world from ending.
Per this interview with the LA Times (via), Tremblay explains that while he generally likes the movie, he prefers his ending to Shaymalan’s. No big surprise there. Endings are hard and if you get what you think is a good one you’re kind of protective of it. But what really interested me was Tremblay’s explanation as to why:
I think the movie’s ending is way darker than my book. I don’t mean to say this flippantly. But politics aside, on a character level, the idea of, “What are Andrew and Wen going to do now”? Not only did they just kill Eric – how will they go on with that knowledge – but also with the knowledge that this supreme being that controls the universe was so unremittingly cruel to them? I would never write a sequel . . . but I’m actually weirdly interested in a story of what Wen and Andrew do now.
He further explains:
at a certain point in telling the story it didn’t matter to me if the apocalypse was happening because the story to me became, “What were Eric and Andrew going to choose?”
That was the story: their choice. Their ultimate rejection of fear and cruelty, whether or not the apocalypse is happening. What has happened in the cabin and what they’re presented with is wrong; it’s immoral, and they refuse. And I find that hopeful . . ..
This is weird on its face. The movie ending is clearly the happier one, right? The little girl lives. While one of her dads decides to sacrifice himself (which is honestly where I thought the book was going) at least we know it wasn’t in vain and it really did save the world. For a story full of psychological terror that seems like the best possible outcome.
But I think that framing depends on whether you look at the story from a personal or meta level. On a meta level this story is the trolley problem on steroids. Forget five strangers on the tracks versus one, we’re talking about survival of life on Earth – billions of people – against the life of one person who is, to you, particularly beloved. By pure utilitarian calculus this is a fairly easy call (the needs of the many, as Spock would say). Of course, that presumed that the apocalypse is really happening and the requested sacrifice could really stop it.
A similar dilemma animated the season finale of The Last of Us (and the end of the game, so far as I’ve read), in which Joel was faced with Ellie being operated on in a way that would kill her but that might lead to a cure for the pandemic that was ravaging humanity. Rather than give it much thought, he broke very bad (badder than before, at any rate) and killed anyone who got between he and Ellie. He saved her, thus potentially condemning the rest of the people on the planet.
Is that a happy ending? It sure is for Joel, who doesn’t have to go through the trauma of losing (in essence) another daughter. Is it for Ellie? Hard to tell, since she didn’t really get much choice in the matter (either way). Is it for humanity? If it was going to lead to a cure, fuck no, but if it wasn’t?
My point isn’t to take sides (although I have my preferences, like anybody), but to point out that any on person’s conception of a “happy” ending might not match someone else’s. In a way, that’s a great thing for writers. Endings are hard and the knowledge that people can interpret a particular ending so differently means it’s folly to try and please people. But in another, it means more to think about when trying to shoot for a happy ending.
As always, the best course is to think hard about what you’re going to do and why you want to do it. That way at least you’ll have a satisfactory conclusion to the story you want to tell.