Do Happy Endings Work For You? (Warning, Contains Spoilers)

The age my daughter’s at, it really got to her when, in the movie “Bolt,” the girl is separated from her dog. I wasn’t so heartbroken myself, having noticed a few decades ago that Disney movies always have happy endings. The screenwriters for “Bolt” had noticed the same thing, and even during the sad scenes, couldn’t resist ironically referencing the fact there was nothing really to worry about.

(See what I mean about spoilers — I already gave it away that Bolt and Penny get reunited by the end of “Bolt.” More spoilers on the way regarding “Slumdog Millionaire” and Saturday.)

The ending of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” worked for me, largely because I didn’t see the happy ending coming. Because it didn’t feel like a movie that was automatically going to have a happy ending, I experienced the way things turned out as life-affirming.

And I loved the conclusion of the novel Saturday, perhaps because an Ian McEwan novel is the last place I would have expected to find a happy ending. John Banville apparently found the book too tritely comforting. But surely McEwan has produced enough memorably downbeat moments in his oeuvre that he’s earned the right to dream up a single day when things turn out somewhat all right? Saturday delivers that trademark McEwan effect, of events slowly and in horrific detail moving towards an appalling moment you know is coming even though you don’t know exactly what it will be… and then presto, kindness prevails after all. Does the fact that I relished this surprise make me one of the “scum who want the cockles of their hearts warmed,” as Brecht put it?

Let’s say happy endings work if they’re earned. But perhaps as one consumes more and more of them, the currency with which they must be earned becomes increasingly devalued? Playing devil’s advocate here, will we reach a point where happy endings will simply not be worth the amount of trauma we’ll have to endure to render them meaningful?

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