by Gar Anthony Haywood

The other night, the wife and I caught the last forty minutes or so of the classic film THELMA & LOUISE on television.  The story of two BFFs on the run from the law after a weekend getaway from the troublesome men in their lives turns deadly, it’s a movie I greatly enjoyed when it was first released in 1991.  The late Callie Khouri’s script is fantastic and the two leads, Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise, are simply brilliant (not to mention gorgeous).

Iron-willed feminist that she is, I expected my wife Tessa would be a fan, but just before fade-out, she surprised me by demanding we turn the movie off.

Turns out she can’t stand how it ends.

If you’ve seen the film yourself (or have just watched the clip above), you know that its big payoff is a flashy suicide: With the law fast closing in, and facing an almost certain future behind bars, the girls decide to show all the men who’ve ever wronged them one final, giant-sized “Fuck you!” by taking a flying leap (actually, it’s a driving leap) into the Grand Canyon.  Better to die in a blaze of glory than go on living as a second-class citizen under the oppressive, sexist thumb of the Man.

Those who have found this ending to be extremely satisfying — and there are many — would probably describe it as a happy one.  After all, aren’t Thelma and Louise breathlessly fist-pumping as the curtain falls, having left Harvey Keitel and a small army of lawmen holding nothing but dust in their wake?  Haven’t they escaped the injustice of going to prison for a crime they committed only in self-defense?  In driving off that cliff, rather than surrender and submit for the ten-thousandth time in their lives, aren’t they realizing the ultimate dream of oppressed people everywhere: self-determination?

Well, yes . . .

Except that they fucking die!

That’s your happy ending?  Victory in death?  Really?

Oh, hell, no.  There’s nothing “happy” about that ending at all.  Suicide under any circumstances is an act of desperation; it’s a capitulation to forces making life too unbearable to hold on to.  And yet, this is not to say the ending to THELMA & LOUISE is not a perfectly fitting one.  In fact, one might argue it’s the only ending to the film Callie Khouri could have written that would have been true to all that came before it.

But was it?

Were there other, equally authentic but far less tragic ways to bring the saga of Thelma and Louise to a close Khouri could have devised instead, had she been motivated to try?  Or was this a story that simply demanded the downer ending it was given?

I don’t know.

For all the love I have for Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (actually, I prefer to think of it as Robert Towne’s CHINATOWN), the ending to that film has always left me asking the same question: Was that really the best Towne could do?  Was there really no other way to bring Jake Gitte’s conflict with Noah Cross to a satisfactory conclusion other than to have Cross — as evil and twisted a villain as has ever darkened the silver screen — win?

Again, I don’t know.  The only thing I do know is that, had Towne not chosen to take the path he did, he might never have written one of the greatest last lines in movie history: “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.”  And that would have been a tragedy.

Personally, I think both Robert Towne and Callie Khouri nailed the endings to their respective films, whether viable, more upbeat alternatives were available to them or not.  But I don’t believe the same can be said for every screenwriter (or novelist) whose film (novel) ends on a similar, fatalistic note.  Sometimes, a writer runs his ladies off a cliff, or has his private eye taste the bitter taste of defeat, simply because finding another way out of the jam he’s placed them in is too terrible a thought to contemplate.

Readers call authors to task all the time for slapping happy endings on books that don’t logically point to one, and with good reason.  But affixing sad endings to stories that don’t necessarily require them is just as egregious in my opinion.

Like the old saying goes: “Tragedy is easy.  It’s comedy that’s hard.”

Questions for the Class: Can you think of a book or film that ended badly more out of obvious convenience than necessity?

16 thoughts on “THIS CAN’T POSSIBLY END WELL . . . (OR CAN IT?)

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The story I've heard from multiple sources is that Towne did write an up (relatively) ending for Chinatown: they all got away. It was Polanski who pushed for the tragic ending and filmed it against the wishes of producer Robert Evans (even though Evans had hired Polanski precisely because he thought an American director couldn't be as dark about the material as a European could be.) Then when Evans saw the ending, he knew it had to be that way.

    On Thelma and Louise – I think it's true to the fact that many people never, ever get over the soul-killing thing that rape is.

    Personally I think there are many more contrived happy endings out there than unhappy ones.

    This is a great topic – since I write not so happy endings I'm going to be checking in to see what people say.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Interesting question, Gar. According to some of the emails I receive, one of my books has an ending that makes people cry. It wasn't done intentionally to achieve that effect, but it was the only logical way for the story to end – there wasn't wasn't going to be a Happy Ever After conclusion to the story.

    I can think of one or two books where I felt the happy ending was at the expense of the rest of the story, but I'm too polite to name and shame them in public 🙂

    As for movies – the ending to the Timothy Dalton James Bond film, LICENCE TO KILL. Felix Leiter has had his wife brutally murdered on their wedding day and he's been fed to the sharks, losing a leg in the process, but come the end of the movie he's sitting up in his hospital bed all happy smiley …

  3. Thomas Pluck

    The Mist.


    Because it lacks thematic purpose. The cavalry showing up at the end after he executes his family is piss-poor irony. If he had made bad decisions to protect his child that hurt everyone around him throughout the story, okay. He did not. I would have had Thomas Jane drop the empty gun and walk into the mist, knowing he would be eaten, and end with a white screen.
    Oddly enough the Stephen King story ends ambiguously, without a murder-suicide pact.

  4. Fran

    The movie "Gallipoli" reminds me a lot of "Thelma and Louise" in the unhappy-but-perfect ending way. If either movie had come up with a happy ending, I might have been satisfied on some level, but I wouldn't remember them nearly as well. I'm a fan of happy endings, but sometimes the truth is better.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great topic, Gar.
    I can't think of any films with an unnecessarily "down" ending, since Hollywood hates a down ending. Mostly films have unnecessarily "up" endings.
    It makes me think if Robert Altman's "The Player," which had the "up" and "down" endings as a major motif. The film within a film – the film that the film makers are making in The Player – is supposed to have a dark ending, according to the passionate film director character. They hold out until the very end, and finally agree to having an "up" ending after the audience at the market research screening in Granada Hills hated the "down" ending.
    If you haven't seen The Player, it's a must.

  6. Gayle Carline

    The War of the Roses leaps to my mind. They could have reached a happy, or comically happy, ending, but they pushed the couple's hatred to the bitter and most final end. I think some people were unhappy with it, but I thought it was a brave choice.

  7. Allison Davis

    Ok, since we are talking about endings, everything is a spoiler. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Good ending. I hated it when I was a kid (crushes on both Paul Newman and Robert Redford).

    All the endings for Bladerunner: which one is best? I heard there is yet another cut coming out….(I have them all.)

    Corbett's Done for a Dime, while I agree it needed to end that way, I still didn't like it. I wouldn't watch Thelma and Louise because I knew how it ended. Not sure what that says about me, but if I know everybody dies, what's the point?

    Not unlike Melancolia, which we just saw this weekend…traveling into the abyss. Now that was effective, those allegories, and I liked how that worked.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    HEYA FOLKS- – Gar has been trying to post comments all morning, but the system won't let him in. He'll either succeed soon, or he'll pass the comments on to me and I'll post them for him.

  9. Pari Noskin

    I really feel that way about THE LOVELY BONES. I loved the first 2/3 or more, but the 'happy" ending — the neat conclusion — left me feeling like some editor somewhere wanted it . . . or worse, that the write just copped out.

    The lyricism and beauty of the piece got wiped out, IMO, by convenience.

  10. David Corbett

    Alexandra has it right — Towne's CHINATOWN ending had Evelyn shooting her father dead and then she and Jake kiss as the drought ends with a pouring rain. Nicholdson wasn't crazy about it (to be kind), and told Polansky, who supposedly said, "Don't worry. That's not the ending." He and Towne fought bitterly over it, with Towne calling Polansky's ending, "The tunnel at the end of the light." They didn't speak for years, but now Towne admits it was the right ending. (The ending evokes Oedipus, down to the ripping out of an eye — and both CHINATOWN and OEDIPUS THE KING are about a man who fundamentally cannot see the truth, and the consequences are deadly.) Polansky had too great a sense of tragedy to cheapen Sophocles' ending. And that's what makes CHINATOWN not just a very good film, but a truly great one.

    I found the ending of THE TOWN too conveniently poignant, and I thought it either had to own the sense of personal destruction it created or find a more credible way to give McRay the way out he got. I just didn't see Frawley, the FBI agent (Jon Hamm) walking away from Claire when he clearly believes she tipped McRay off. His character was a switchblade throughout the film — an improvement on the book, imho — and suddenly just shrugs and says, Oh well, another day. Don't buy it.

    And Allison — thanks for spoiling the ending of a book that's getting reissued later this year. (I'll see you soon, my pretty, and give you the other half of my mind.)

  11. Allison Davis

    Hey, David, I didn't say what the ending was, just that I didn't like it. Now everyone will read the reissue to see if I am a punk or not. (And if you haven't read it, you should y'all.)

  12. Reine


    "On Thelma and Louise – I think it's true to the fact that many people never, ever get over the soul-killing thing that rape is." Yeah. And other things that rape the soul.

    "This is a great topic – since I write not so happy endings … ." Why I love your books. As surreal as they might seem at times, in their other-worldliness, the emotions in relationship and survival in community are very real.

  13. Gar Haywood

    Alex: There's no question CHINATOWN ended on the right note, whether that was Towne's original choice or not. The story he wrote had firmly established the fact that the Chinatown Jake knew was a dark and cold place where absolutely nothing ever went right. If the film's conclusion was going to take place there—and of course, it had to—having things work out well for anyone would have violated all the rules of the universe Towne had just spent two hours establishing. I hate that ending—but I understand it, and respect it for its honesty.

    Allison: I suspect it was BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID that Khouri had in mind when she wrote her ending to T & L, but the former film had a reason to go that dark that the latter didn't: historical accuracy (or some semblance thereof).

    David: That "alternate" ending to Chinatown sounds absolutely dreadful, and very un-Robert Towne-like. But it does sort of explain why, free of Polanski's influence, his script for THE TWO JAKES was such an unmitigated disaster.

    Stephen: Thanks for the assist. And you're right, the ending to THE PLAYER is a heartbreaker — but what story about filmmaking in Hollywood could realistically end any other way?

  14. Susan Shea

    Just saw "The Grey," with Liam Neeson. Won't say much since it's a new movie and I am against spoilers. I'll just say there might be worse things than driving over a cliff….

  15. Reine

    Hi Gar,

    I liked Thelma and Louise and, except that I didn't want them to do that – to drive off the cliff and die, I don't remember not liking the ending. Maybe I thought it fit the story?

    What I recall most is their closeness and willingness to let go of the situations and people who were most problematic for them. I believe I saw their suicide as metaphor rather than something two characters did.

  16. Gordon Harries

    David: I heard a podcast with Affleck where he said that moment (looking out across the lake) was added at the last moment, in editing. It didn’t make sense to me either. The whole thing about “I’ve got a long road ahead of me” and I, as an audience member, just think ‘Hey, bully for you. You’ve got an arc. Meanwhile all these other people, including your best friend/brother are DEAD.’ Also, you’re quite correct, the way Jon Hamm plays that guy almost nothing would make him disengage once he’s got the scent. Made no sense.

    Gar (and everyone)

    I hated the ending of THREE KINGS (although apparently the whole film is a shadow of its intent, as it was originally about three soldiers stealing gold and the redemptive angle ‘evolved’ during the studio notes/rewrites process.) which manages to mitigate the horror of much of what’s come before with a ‘and then we all go to Disneyland scene’. By which I mean the point at which the Iraqi’s are let inside rather than the pointless epilogue.

    Bellman and True has a happy ending that’s a remedy to much of what’s come before too, but it works in the context of the story and is earned. This one doesn’t and isn’t.

    L.A Confidential continues for a couple of scenes past its endpoint. (Which for my money is when Guy Peirce shoots Dudley in the back and then holds up his badge “so they know you’re a cop” at which point, his journey – which is the dominant one of the film, if not the book, is over.) I was also not a fan of Bud surviving, seeing as he clearly didn’t.

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