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Friday, 29 April 2011

Happy Endings

There’s no denying that the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton is straight out of a fairytale. The story of a normal girl marrying her handsome prince has captivated the world with its magic and romance, as millions gathered round their televisions, camped out on the streets of London, and organized street parties and communal celebrations – a show of national spirit and goodwill seen all-too-rarely these days – to watch and celebrate as the happy couple took their vows before sailing off in their horse-drawn coach (and later a convertible Aston Martin) to their happily ever after. 
A fairytale come true.

As children, all our stories had similarly blissful fairytale endings – the heroine always married a prince and the bad guys were always punished. We needed a happy ending to our bedtime stories in order to drift off to pleasant, peaceful dreams. But what about as we grow up, enter our teens, become young adults? Do we still need our stories to end happily?
Should reading continue to be a form of escapism? A chance to get away from the humdrum problems of our own lives for a few hours and enter a world where everything is happily resolved, leaving us feeling good?

Or, as the settings of our books leave fairyland and enter the real world, is it actually more realistic if they don’t end quite so neatly? Indeed, even the original versions of many of our most beloved fairytales have much grizzlier ends – the Little Mermaid ends up committing suicide when her prince marries another, and Sleeping Beauty finally wakes to find herself raped, and the mother of twins – so as we grow up is it time to stop sugar-coating our stories, and leave the cocoon of happily-ever-afters and false expectations behind, and instead read fiction which better prepares us for the complexities and rollercoasters of real life?

After all, current teen and YA fiction deals honestly and unflinchingly with real, gritty, issues – knife crime, murder, rape, abuse and abortion to name but a few – so shouldn’t the endings be equally realistic and honest? We know that the justice system isn’t infallible, that bad guys are not always adequately punished (if at all), that good people are not always rewarded, that actually people are seldom either all good or all bad, and that even a fairytale wedding does not guarantee a happily ever after. So shouldn’t fiction reflect the real world we live in?

I don’t mean that books should leave you feeling utterly depressed and despairing at the state of the world, but can an ending be satisfying without being “happy”? Indeed, is it sometimes more fulfilling to read a story that doesn’t end quite so neatly and predictably – perhaps the hero doesn’t get the girl, a bad guy gets away, or the heroine dies – but instead leaves us with food for thought and a new perspective on our own, real, lives?

Certainly, some of the most memorable and impactful modern teen novels have endings which are not conventionally “happy”: Before I DieBefore I FallNoughts and CrossesThe Lovely Bones, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and after all, the greatest love story of all time is about two teenagers who end up dead.

Would Romeo and Juliet be as romantic if they’d both survived? What about if Titanic hadn’t sunk, or if John Coffey had got a stay of execution in The Green Mile? Would those stories have had the same impact? What about CasablancaLove StoryGladiatorThelma and Louise, The Crucible or Gone with the Wind?

Are happy endings in fact stories that just haven’t ended yet? Have you ever wondered what happens to the characters after their happily ever after? Do they live blissfully forever more? How realistic is that? And actually, how boring? Even if the heroine ends up with her dream guy in a teen romance, how many of us end up marrying our first love?

And in hindsight, how many of us are actually glad we didn’t…?

What do you think? Do you prefer more realistic conclusions to the books you read? Or do you like your endings happily ever after?

After all, as today proves, every once in a while some of us do end up marrying our handsome prince…

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