Last night we watched The Pirate Movie, a 1982 adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, which (Spoiler Alert!) ends with Mabel demanding and receiving her happy ending, both in her dream and when she wakes up washed up on the beach to her fantasy Frederic-without-a-K kissing her, for no apparent reason. Cue Happily Ever After Song and Dance:
Oh, silly Mabel, also without a K.
Anyway, this got me thinking about how liberally the sappy ending is applied for entertainment purposes, even in those works that aren’t intended to be farcical, and wondering why the general public prefers stories that leave a saccharine numbness on the brain to those that tell the truth in all her glorious despair, forcing us to accept life as difficult as it is, and acknowledge that all heroes die, most lovers grow bored and tired and some turn into miserable drunks, the money runs out far too quickly after a windfall leaving only destitution, the guy who survives the shark attack inevitably gets hit by a bus on his way home from the hospital… You get the picture.
I’m hardly the first person to question why we prefer our candy-coatings and rosy spectacles, and Google turns up an expert for just about every explanation, so I’ll spare you my musings where that’s concerned, except to say that the geek in me did find fascinating the idea that commiseration with fictional characters may cause a similar release of neurochemicals in the audience, as if when watching a film or reading a book, we are actually experiencing the lives of our favorite protagonists and antagonists as people we know and have legitimate feelings for. Oh, and I would be remiss not to mention it is a well-known, scientifically proven fact that giddy pirate song and dance numbers assure the survival of the species, ranking right up there with water, food and shelter as necessary to our very existence, but I’m no expert, so don’t quote me. (Okay, so it’s not a fact, but some of those experts should definitely do a study.)
While I, too, enjoy prancing pirates on occasion, I won’t deny that I’m truly a cynic at heart, one who enjoys harsher tales that force us to examine ourselves. When I watch stories like The Pirate Movie, I can’t help but see the catastrophe beyond the Happily Ever After, which to me is really just another happy beginning right before the next tragedy strikes and must be overcome. Silly Mabel, also without a K, will surely discover, soon after the credits roll, that her darling Frederic-without-a-K sees she is one who falls in love far too quickly, that she is a girl who will give him whatever he wants in the interest of continuing in this thing she believes is love, however she will not see it for what it is until Frederic has thoroughly taken advantage of her, leaving her broken and used up, probably singing on a beach somewhere, desperate for her next romance, because that is the way life works. I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels this way, I mean, look how Frozen ended. And even my sixteen year old daughter (who only a few hours before watching the movie read to me an open letter from another teenager to adults who read articles about teenagers, basically requesting that they stop treating teens like some strange beings to be stereotyped and categorized, quantified and explained away) couldn’t help pointing out that Mabel and Frederic’s relationship was “just like every relationship” at her high school, and we all know that the vast majority of those end in tears and bloodshed, usually not too long after the young lovers have professed their eternally dripping, syrupy-sweet, twoo wub to one another and refused for an hour and a half to be the first to hang up the phone.
As an author and a cynic, I’ve set out to tell hard truths in my writing. Though the story is set in present day and wrapped up in the real world, which will become more apparent in future works, The Eleventh Age is largely mythopoeic, and as such there is always the temptation (and plenty of opportunity) to take the easy way out, to fall back to some deus ex machina, or miracle event, to save my favorite characters from their fate, or resort to unrealistic devices to explain away inconsistencies, simply because the world is magical, like Mabel simply deciding that it was her dream, so she could have her happy ending, and Viola! Happy Ending. But in The Eleventh Age, Fate itself is a living, breathing character within the tale, a character very much at odds with our heroine at times, and let me tell you, Fate will not stand for too much divine intervention from the lowly writer, not even if it involves dancing pirates. Meanwhile I’m fairly certain the cynic in me would baby-vomit if I cheated and rescued someone I’ve known must die from the very beginning or had someone unreasonably fall in love just to play to a chemical reaction my audience expects to receive. I get great pleasure from forcing myself to think logically from so many perspectives at once, keeping in mind what all the major players and most of the minor players are doing and all of the whys and hows going on in the background, while Elli walks on the surface of the story and we see in the reading only what she sees, and the things that unfold are only seen as she unfolds them–oftentimes mistakenly and clumsily, because the fact of the matter is she is just a teenage girl. To me, writing is an extraordinary puzzle of human interactions, every character should be deep, and if they aren’t deep from the beginning, then it should only be because their depth has yet to be uncovered. Of course, I’m not going to pretend that I have some superior moral incite that justifies my work, I don’t, or that I am the most exceptional author, I’m not, but I do like for stories to be realistic, even my fantasies. And I love a large dose of bitter to cut through the sweet.
Needless to say, this means happily ever after might always be just happy enough for the time being, where Elli Foote’s concerned, but the poor girl can’t help it that her author’s jaded and a little cruel at heart.