Once upon a time our stories ended in happily ever after. Dragons were slain, damsels rescued, glass slippers found, and eternal bliss achieved—usually thanks to a combination of wealth and marriage. Things have changed. While “happily ever after” holds on in a variety of forms, audience expectations have shifted. Readers not only accept but often prefer endings that aren’t entirely happy. Why, as readers and writers in the 21st century, do we shy away from the old expectations of eternal happiness?
Hollywood vs the Unhappy Ending
***I’m talking about endings, so it should go without saying that spoilers will abound. Read on at your own risk.***
To say we no longer have “happily ever after” would be misleading. Some markets want that happy ending. Some genres demand it. Hollywood has certainly gone to great lengths to provide happy endings in the bulk of its stories; even books written with a mixed or unhappy ending often find a new conclusion in the film rendition.
Perhaps the best example comes from The Princess Bride, where the film gives us a concretely happy ending and the book gives us a happy ending only to tell us that’s not how it really happened:
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