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Why Do We Crave Happy Endings?

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Courtney wants to know whether films should be realistic or escapist and why audiences need for things to end optimistically.

[WARNING: spoilers for ‘La La Land’ ahead.]

In those blissful 128 minutes, we separate ourselves from the world.

We splurge roughly £10 to see a film then spend two hours of our lives immersed in the trials and tribulations of fictional characters, then dwell on the fact it didn’t go our way. Furthermore, we have no one to blame but ourselves. But what I want to know is why? Although, the whole experience is romantic… First, we see the trailer – let it flirt with us and tease, falling in love with the actors in their new roles. Next, we mark its release date in our phones and diaries, followed by the organising of a cinema trip. Then finally, the day arrives when we take the trip to our escape. Buy popcorn, get comfy and indulge.

In those blissful 128 minutes, we separate ourselves from the world. We no longer worry about the deadlines due next week or the fact we haven’t had a text back in days. We belong to the film. The protagonists tell their story and we listen intently and within moments the audience decide how they want the story to end. We follow their journey and with each twist and turn we ultimately trust in the screen that everything will turn out okay (or at least, the ‘okay’ we had hoped for).

From the get-go, ‘La La Land’ showed the potential of fulfilling our cinematic expectations of an easy-breezy ‘life is fantastic’ film. There was music, dancing, bright colours and a love interest, complete with a charming title that suggested a sense of naivety. Thus, filling our minds with false assumptions that everything would play out swimmingly. Dreams would come true, everyone falls in love, everyone is happy… right? Not quite.

Perhaps the yearning after a happy ending comes from a place of nostalgia.

Perhaps the yearning after a happy ending comes from a place of nostalgia. Where all our favourite Disney films, most often, would end in the best way possible (minus the obvious heartbreak of ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Bambi’). Disney wouldn’t have let Eric actually marry Vanessa, or allow Shan Yu to kill the emperor and rule over China. There’s no chance you’d find such an ending in Disney, but what effect did this have on the audience? We grew up believing that everything will be okay and work out for the best. We became ignorant to the harsh reality of what the world has to throw at us. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, jazz and synchronised spontaneous tap, we forget that life gets in the way of love and dreams.

If it isn’t nostalgia, then perhaps we’re facing a desire to escape. Films become this small window for us to crawl through and walk in the lives of others. Is real life so bad that we’d rather immerse ourselves in some fantasy world? The answer is yah, probably. The actress probably has flawless hair, a wardrobe to die for and is dating the fittest guy we’ve ever seen (most likely). They’re off on some magical adventure and when we leave the cinema, we’ve got either work to go to or an essay to write. So in comparison, we can’t really be blamed for wanting to escape our reality for a short while…

The film industry revel in our involvement and how caught up we get in the lives of people who don’t actually exist, whilst trying to stir up emotions and contradict our expectations. Though ‘La La Land’ isn’t the first time we’ve been led down a path that ended in turmoil. Let’s recall ‘Romeo And Juliet’ for example, the first time I encountered the play I was certain the families would resolve their differences and the future would see a Montague/Capulet hybrid child. Alas, we were disappointed once more. Not to mention the heart wrenching moment when we saw Leonardo DiCaprio re-enact Romeo’s devastating demise. The issue with ‘Romeo and Juliet’’s ending, however, is that it wasn’t happy nor was it realistic (sorry Will, but I’m not the only one to think this). The issue with more modern tales is the relationship between the ideal ending and the one that is more realistic. Further stirring conversation between those who do actually hope for the happy ending and those who may side with practicality.

Witnessing a realistic ending will only toughen us up and prepare us for what we have waiting in store.

This brings me to debate the ideal against the rational. While I personally believe it to be more comforting to see all loose ends tied neatly in a bow, I can understand why a realist would be more in favour of the protagonist choosing their job over love. These things happen, and we do need to be conscious of the fact that things won’t always go our way in life nor in the films. Witnessing a realistic ending will only toughen us up and prepare us for what we have waiting in store.

We’re lucky enough to live amongst so many different kinds of people… cynics, realists, enthusiasts, idealists and so many more. I happen to be one of the suckers, a hopeless romantic. I will always, without fail, root for love (which is ironic as my love life is completely, entirely, non-existent). I suppose I feel empathy for the characters, when things aren’t going right I can really relate. Also, if the film is a romance/romantic comedy/ involves any sort of romantic connection, I will expect those involved to end up together (as so they should). If they don’t, then it has been a bad film, and I have had a bad day and I am leaving the cinema sad. Though for the realist, this kind of ending makes perfect sense and is probably more suitable for them anyway, so please get a grip Courtney.

Although for many people, perhaps the happy ending means hope. I’ve already referred to the film as an escape but maybe it’s more than that? After 2016, a year that was universally recognised as an awful year in history (sleep well Bowie, Alan Rickman and Prince. Obama we’ll miss you) perhaps people are relying that little bit more on their escapes and on the big screen, where anything is possible. So when our lives are falling to pieces, we pray that the roles that have captured our hearts and minds for those two magical hours, can make everything better. We pray that things will work out for them, and if it works for them, why can’t it work out for us? And besides, who wants to think about their own love life (or lack of) when they can focus on that of someone else?

Do you think films should be escapist or realistic? Let us know: @rifemag

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