Endings: The Cliffhanger vs. the Payoff Part 2

Okay! Where did we leave off? I promised to examine some different endings with you.

  1. The Return of the King
  2. Ender’s Game
  3. Serenity
  4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty/ Midnight in Paris

Just for the heck of it we’re going to start with number four.

Now these are two movies (which I love). But they have a similar ending style. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Walter is a responsible man overseeing negative assets for LIFE magazine. He has taken care of his family since his dad died. He doesn’t branch out and is afraid to pursue the woman he’s interested in. The movie is about him stepping out, fighting for what’s important to him, experiencing life, and finding his own adventures (instead of daydreaming them). It’s a fantastic movie about not getting locked behind a desk, but experiencing this beautiful world that we live in. In the end, after chasing a photographer around the world, Walter finds the negative that he lost and gives it to the executive who fired him. And he gets the chance to stand up, not only for himself, but for all the men and women who were let go during the transition to online. Then he moves on with his life. He starts job searching. While picking up his severance package he runs into Cheryl and takes the risk to speak to her again. At the end of the movie his life of quiet responsibility is validated and there is the promise of a future relationship with Cheryl. It’s a quiet ending. But the movie was mostly about the journey, anyhow. It delve into the depths of human tragedy so there is no need for a dramatic ending. And his relationship with Cheryl was not the center of the story. The ending matches the tone of the movie: Walter is re-learning what life is about.

“Midnight in Paris” has a similar feel and a similar ending. But this movie is about a struggling writer and his wealthy, controlling fiance. While Walter daydreams about his life, Gil is caught up in nostalgia for the past. Through a bizarre set of circumstances he gets to visit his “dream era” (Paris in the twenties). But over the course of the movie he realizes that he has to live the life he has been given-that to long for the past is to miss out on the present. In the end he decides to pursue his dream of living as a poor writer in Paris, even if it means losing his fiance. At the end, not only do we see Gil contentedly walking through the rain in Paris, but there is the possibility of a new romantic interest. Again, it is a simple ending. There really is no need for extended “payoff” scenes of him living in Paris. He has been working toward this goal and now he found it. The audience can see clearly how his life would go from this point. They have all the information they need to know he’s going to be happy.

Number three on that list is a bit different. “Serenity” is a scifi movie with some pretty heavy content. It has action, it has comedy, and it has fun adventure, but it also delves into the dark side of humanity. River is a girl who has gone through deep psychological trauma at the hands of the Alliance–the same people who try to “fix” humanity and ended up turning a group of people into monsters with no morals. One main character and two minor ones die. Others are seriously wounded. So the ending of this movie can’t be a quick cutoff, or even a vague send off like “Walter Mitty” or “Midnight in Paris.” The movie took the audience through deep emotional waters and now the story needs to lead us to the shore again. When the crew of Serenity accomplishes their mission it is bittersweet, because they have lost so much. So the storytellers show a beautiful funeral ceremony where the characters and the audience get a chance to say goodbye. Then there is a montage of the crew patching up the ship. This assures the audience that they will be able to move forward with their lives, and it also serves for a metaphor of emotional and physical healing. A few quiet conversations wrap up plot points and emotional loose ends. There are seeds of hope for the future. Finally, the Serenity takes off, bursting through the storm and above the clouds (another metaphor). The audience can take it from here.

“Ender’s Game” is perhaps the bridge between “Serenity” and “The Return of the King.” While it is difficult to objectively compare the depth of emotional content there are a couple of factors to take into consideration. “Serenity” is a little far-fetched. The technology, culture, and science are pretty far removed from our own. So although you can sympathize with the characters’ struggles, it doesn’t hit super close to home. The world of “Ender’s Game” is much more similar to ours. And the fact that Ender is a child through the entire book makes him more vulnerable, not to mention that the book is far more psychological than the “rollicking adventure” of “Serenity.” “Ender’s Game” explores themes that we deal with in daily life: self-preservation vs. compassion, the struggle of leadership, being your own worst enemy, and betrayal to name a few. Beside all these conflicts there is the main and obvious one:┬áthe leaders of humanity have to face the guilt of what they’ve done to Ender and Ender has to face the guilt of his own actions. After the major climax, Card takes his time finishing the story, which I have always been grateful for. He explains some of the political consequences. He shows the impact on Ender and the internal struggles he is facing. The solution for what he does next felt a little bittersweet. I didn’t like it much, but it also made sense. But then Card jumps eight or nine years into the future and gives a remarkably satisfying ending. There is redemption and again hope for the future. The reader can now visualize how Ender’s life will go.

And finally…”The Return of the King.” I won’t take too much time explaining the plot (I bet you all know it). The first time I experienced this story was in theaters. If you’ve seen the movie you know that it has several “fake endings.” The screen blacks out for a full couple of seconds before the scene changes. It was like Jackson kept teasing us that it was the end, but then adding in more. And every time the scene faded in again I was so very gratified. Because after such a long journey through struggle, war, hopelessness, and despair you can’t just end it. If any story needs a payoff at the end it is this one. Not only does Jackson give us the payoff in the movie version, but Tolkien did even more so in the book. In the movie the hobbits are saved from the exploding Mount Doom, the Fellowship is reunited, Aragorn is crowned king, and the hobbits return home. All beautiful things that you hoped for. But in the movie version the Shire is unchanged and no one can understand what the four hobbits have been through. And even though Frodo writes about his experiences, he can never fully recover from what he’s been through, so he goes off with the elves across the sea. I was happy with this ending because it matched the rest of the story. How could he return to a normal life after fighting against such evil for so long?

But the book ending is now my ultimate favorite. Tolkien takes a full hundred pages to explain what happens after the ring is destroyed (and this not counting the Appendices). The Fellowship have many conversations with each other. There is the process of Aragorn becoming king and finding the sprout of a new White Tree. He explains how each party goes back to their own land. The hobbits go with the elves to Rivendell for a while before finally returning to the Shire. Of course, anyone who’s read the books knows how vastly different the Shire is in Tolkien’s story. The hobbits have to fight to redeem their Shire. And they do so valiantly.

Either way, this story was so long, the darkness so deep, and the struggle so real that it is only fair to be patient in wrapping it all up. The story could have ended with some profound comments after the destruction of the ring. Honestly, when I thought the movie would end with Frodo and Sam on the rock surrounded by lava, I was okay with it. It would have been bittersweet, but at least we knew they had won. All the additional information is like whip cream on top. Here’s the difference: if the story had ended right there, the audience would have remembered the struggle against Sauron as the main part of the story. But since it went on to show the lives of each character afterward you are reminded that the focus of the story is not Sauron, but each of these dear and wonderful characters. And after all of that emotional impact, when you get to follow the characters into their normal lives you love them more intimately and they root themselves in your heart, and suddenly the story becomes yours forever.

And that’s the kind of author I want to be. I want to tell the full story: the beginning, the middle, the end, and even the “after end” if necessary. Ultimately, I strive to make each ending equal in weight to the themes and climax. I don’t want to play tricks on my readers. I want to give them a full story that they can participate in- a story that they want to re-read because it is like going on a journey with friends.

 

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