Last week I went to the cinema and watched Lala Land, a film that has caused a huge amount of excitement on both sides of the Atlantic, and beyond. A musical staring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and directed by Damien Chazelle, on first site the film promises to be a traditional, frothy musical in the style of old Hollywood but set in the modern day. The cost of production was huge, the prizes have been rolling in and it feels as though everyone has been talking about the film.
Now, spoiler alert, I’m going to talk about the ending!
Lala Land did what it said it would do for the first hour or so. The opening scene with its long line of traffic turned into a huge musical number, the romance began between a waitress who was actually an actress and a slightly jaded jazz musician who wanted to keep the history of jazz in Hollywood alive. The scene was set and in my mind I was thinking, well I know how this is going to end…
Boy, was I wrong!
Things begin to go wrong, the couple want different things, neither is willing to compromise because they are both focused on their big, Hollywood dreams. Still, I was certain that in the last moments they would be reunited.
Five years later and Mia (played by Emma Stone) is married to someone else, she has a daughter. She is on a night out with her husband, she’s a successful film star, she got everything she wanted. And then. By chance. She goes to a jazz club and stumbles upon Sebastian, running the jazz club as he had always wanted. But when he takes to the stage and catches a glimpse of Mia amongst the crowd, as he plays the song he wrote while they were together, they are both drawn into a what-if. For a good ten minutes we see the previous five years rewritten and the audience believes that everything will be all right, the husband and the daughter were a cinematic trick, Mia and Sebastian will be together in the end.
And then the music stops. The images evaporate and we are left with Mia and Sebastian and their two separate lives.
In the audience I was shocked. Even as they smile to each other, knowing that they could have had that other life, I was somewhat annoyed, I felt a little cheated out of the happy ending I had craved. I felt melancholy as I left the cinema, because this film shows that life is all about choices, taking a different path, the wrong one perhaps, can lead us to a completely different life.
But, with time to digest I realised that this was the best ending there could have been. I was left thinking about the ending to this film for days to come. Still now, I keep thinking about Mia and Sebastian, the lives they could have had and the ones they ended up with.
As a writer, endings are always going to be tricky. We get to know our characters, get to love some of them and we find ourselves wanting the happily ever after. It is a myth within commercial fiction that a happy ending is necessary to draw in the big publishers and be certain of commercial success. However, some of the best novels have sad endings, designed to leave readers thinking rather than flushed with happiness, barely able to remember what the book, or film, was about a few weeks later.
Atonement, The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights, to name just a few, do not offer the reader a neatly packaged, happily ever after. Instead, they speak of real life, they speak of the messy little almost-endings that make up human existence. Some of the endings I have been most disappointed with over the past few years have happened when the writer has forced a happily ever after – the bad guy is dead, the hero is celebrated and then allowed to live a happy existence, trotting into the sunset.
Although I was momentarily disappointed with the ending of Lala Land, it’s ending has imprinted itself on my mind. I would recommend to all writers; look at your endings. Don’t just settle for a happily ever after because you think that’s what the reader wants, or because you feel like it’s the right thing to do. Should your characters really end up together? Should they get the dream job? Marry the right man? Should they even survive beyond the story?
As William Faulkner put it, ‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’ and sometimes those darlings aren’t just over-written sentences or bizarre and unruly plot twists, sometimes, they are the characters themselves.