WARNING: This post discusses the endings to Weeds, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and The Graduate, but come on, the statute of limitations is up on three of the four. Either way, ye have been warned.
Imagination is the reason books will always be superior to movies. Like everyone else, I know myself better than any other person. I alone know in totality my wants, fears, anxieties, desires, and hopes. Because they are always with me and they determine how I see the world, while reading, my imagination helps tell the story in the most effective way for me personally. Even as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling writes a description of a dragon, my imagination fills in all the blanks and that dragon becomes unique to me, and is just the way I want it. The quidditch stadium or Hogwarts or Voldemort or Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies will always be inferior to the versions I helped create. That’s not to say the movies did a bad job, they did a great job, but I have part ownership in the world from the books. I helped the author make the world exactly the way I wanted it to be—something a movie can never do.
In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud calls this process of filling in the blanks closure. Closure can be a powerful tool for an author or visual media creator. Closure is what helps us perceive movement and action while reading a comic book even though the pictures are still. It’s why we see Seurat’s paintings as more than dots. It’s how I picture a dragon in my mind just by reading words. Closure allows (if not forces) the reader to collaborate in the telling of the story. Since the reader is allowed to participate in this way, the relationship between reader and author is based on intimate conversation.
Like any intimate relationship, trust is essential. The author trusts the reader to put in the work. The reading experience is more rewarding than the viewing experience, but also takes more time and effort. The sights and sounds of the big and small screens are mostly given whole, so there are fewer blanks to fill in. The viewer doesn’t have to be trusted as much, because the imagination is not hard at work. Closure does happen constantly as our minds transform light on a screen into a story, but the viewer still just passively watches while dropping popcorn into the wormhole that seems to exist between every human’s mouth and lap.
This is not to say that movies and TV are without their great moments of closure. The effective use of closure is what turned the Blair Witch Project into a phenomenon. That movie forced the viewers to collaborate and create the evil with their own imagination. Closure is what made this scene from Watchmen much more intense then the previous scene where Rorschach breaks a guy’s head on the toilet and then watches as the toilet water makes contact with an exposed wire electrocuting him. It’s not as shocking as other violent moments from the movie, but it feels more personal and darker because we all did the killing in our heads. The movie made us do it. We’re “an equal partner in crime” as Scott McCloud puts it.
However, movies and TV do require a lot of trust directly following the closing shot. At this moment we can imagine what the characters will do now that they’ve been to hell and back. Take The Princess Bride for example: Did Inigo Montoya become the Dread Pirate Roberts? Perhaps he found love to fill the empty hole in his soul where revenge used to reside? Did he even survive the last horse ride? [note]I watched the last two minute of Princess Bride while writing this. Why aren’t we all just watching that movie constantly? It’s so good.[/note] I don’t want to be told the answers to these questions. I want to save them for myself. The answers to those questions are not required for an effective ending.
Once in a while writers don’t grant the viewers[note]Time jumping in a book has the same imagination ruining effect. The endings of the Hunger Games and Harry Potter books also time jump, but as this is a movie site I will be talking about movies specifically.[/note] trust and the end of the story suffers for it. Instead of giving the viewer a trajectory and trusting the imagination to do its part, the narrative will time jump into the future to show the viewer what happens after the end of the story. A time jump is different from a flash-forward because the flash-forward will eventually end and the narrative will return to the story’s present day. After a time jump on the other hand, the narrative is in the future to stay. Time jumping at the end of the story shows a distrust that the viewers’ imaginations will not be adequate, or that the happily ever after needs to be seen to be believed. During the closing moments of a narrative, all that the imagination needs is a general trajectory to move forward: that’s what the phrase “happily ever after” does. Time jumping sets the imagination on a specific course effectively ruining the imagination along with the ending to the story.
In addition, time jumps often skips over what would’ve been a great ending and undercuts what could’ve been a powerful moment. Writer Sol Stein talks about a principle called the “one plus one equals one-half” rule. Essentially the rule means less is more. One adjective is more powerful than two, and ten strong scenes are more powerful than ten strong scenes and two weak ones, because a weak scene is not only weak on its own, but it weakens the other scenes as well. In this case, by lessening the amount of closure entrusted to the viewer, the time jump weakens both endings at the same time. This is why the rule is not 1+1=1.3.
The endings to Weeds, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter are three examples of one plus one equals one half.
This series begins a short time after the death of Judah Botwin. In order to maintain the family’s standard of living, Judah’s widow Nancy takes to selling marijuana. She turns out to be a talented drug dealer and hijinks ensue for eight seasons.
Judah’s ne’er-do-well brother Andy shows up at Nancy’s house in the fourth episode of the series. As the story progresses Andy ends up professing his love for Nancy. Nancy does not return his love, but continually takes advantage of his feelings so that he will stick around to help with the family and the business despite his own eventual ambitions.
The episode “Boomerang” (season 6 episode 5) contains a line that sums up their dynamic perfectly. Andy asks Nancy to release him of any hope that they will end up together. Nancy initially refuses because she’s afraid of what will happen if she takes Andy’s hope away. She calls him later on and releases him, but makes him promise to stay with the family, which he does. Andy ends the conversation with “You’re an evil succubus. I’ll see you soon.”
In the third to last episode of the series Andy decides to leave Nancy behind for good. In a last ditch effort to keep him from leaving, Nancy has sex with him on the side of the road (which also happens to be the location of Judah’s death). It is a painful moment. They kiss one last time and then Andy runs away. Nancy cries and yells for Andy, but is left alone on the sidewalk as the episode ends.
I was sad and shocked. It felt good to have no idea what would happen after that moment. It turns out the writers didn’t know either because the two part series finale jumped seven years into the future.
Andy running away was the true end. There should’ve been nothing after that scene—that ending cannot be improved upon and anything after it only weakens the story.
This proposed ending spot to Weeds is a sad and happy one. Andy was at last able to break away from Nancy and was finally off to live his own life, but Nancy had been abandoned. As the episode ended I was proud of Andy for continuing his life without Nancy holding him down, but still felt sorry for Nancy as the person she grew to depend on literally ran away from her. It’s a thought provoking place to end the series, one where the imagination can roam free, but instead we time jump seven years into a weird and depressing future where Nancy’s youngest son Shane is now a mustachioed alcoholic cop, her older son Silas married a girl that hadn’t been seen on screen since season two, Andy shows up after seven years, but since the viewer saw him two episodes ago and it doesn’t feel like a big deal, and a happily ever after is forced onto the viewer. That powerful image of Andy moving on while Nancy sits still is now diluted. One plus one equals one-half.
If I ever watch Weeds again, I will put the series away after watching Andy heroically escape the clutches of the evil succubus.
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
Like Weeds, the ending to the Hunger Games series would’ve been perfect it weren’t for the pesky time jump.
Peeta is captured by the capital at the end of Catching Fire, the second installment of the series. He is subsequently brainwashed and used as a tool against the revolutionaries, specifically Katniss.
After being rescued, Peeta has trouble discerning which of his memories and feelings are real and which were implanted. Throughout Mockingjay Part 2 Peeta asks “Real or not real?” about certain aspects of his relationship to Katniss and his own personality.
After the war ends Katniss moves back into her Victor’s Mansion in District 12. One day as she returns from hunting she finds Peeta planting primose outside the mansion. Katniss is happy to see him and they begin life anew together. The scene before the time jump shows Peeta and Katniss lying in bed. Peeta asks “You love me. Real or not real?”
“Real,” Katniss responds.
Done. Great ending. Bravo. My imagination is on a fine trajectory… except the story gets greedy and wants to prove that Peeta and Katniss did indeed live happily ever after. The narrative zips years into the future where Katniss and Peeta have children. The ending backfires though by making the happily ever after too real. Instead of imagining a serene life where Peeta cooks what Katniss catches as the district is rebuilt, I worry about their kids having parents with extreme cases of PTSD in a land seemingly void of any therapists.
This ending feels like pandering to fans who were Team Peeta while trying to prove to Team Gale and the unaffiliated that Peeta, who is not a good match for Katniss—at least compared to Gale[note]You know, until he effectively kills her sister.[/note]—ends up making Katniss happy. I understand the need/want to include all those things for the fans, but doing so results in a sum of .5. Katniss had to originally lie about her love for Peeta, and they had to play the part of a loving couple while Peeta knew it was fake, but wanted it to be real. No ending is as effective as permanently fading to black directly after our hard-nosed hero finally admits true love.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2
One of the most well-known time jumps occurs at the end of the Harry Potter series. After Harry defeats Voldemort the narrative jumps nineteen years into the future as Harry’s son boards the train for his first year at Hogwarts. I maintain that the sole reason this time jump exists is because J.K. Rowling thought of the name Albus Severus Potter, and she had to get that into the story somehow. This scene also bashes into the viewer’s skull that Snape was a good guy, just in case we lack an aptitude for narrative.
Unlike Weeds and The Hunger Games, what comes before the time jump here isn’t a great ending. Harry breaks the Elder Wand and then, without any significant dialogue, Harry, Hermione and Ron just … stand there. A couple of lines of meaningful dialogue here would’ve made for an ending. One suggestion could’ve been calling back to the end of The Goblet of Fire, the fourth movie in the series. It is in this installment that Voldemort truly arrives and as the movie ends Hermione says “Everything is going to change now, isn’t it?” Harry responds with a resolute “Yes.” This dialogue bookending Voldemort’s arrival and departure would’ve had significant meaning while allowing the viewer to imagine answers to the question what now?
The moment after the time jump when Harry tells his son that Snape is the “bravest man I’ve ever known” is admittedly emotion inducing, but it’s a darling that Rowling should’ve killed. Instead of imagining that Harry continues his adventures as the greatest auror that ever was, and that Hermione goes on to become headmistress at Hogwarts, I’m left thinking that they’re normal boring people. After dropping off the kids, Ginny probably had to make a stop at the credit union. Ron looks depressed as hell and I can’t help but picture him on the couch drowning his sorrows with butter beer and chocolate frogs because he’s not handling his life as a stay-at-home-dad very well. He just sits there dreading the moment Hermione comes home from her 77¢ on the dollar job and reprimands him for not contributing, when in truth she’s just angry at her own lost potential.
All these time jumps weakened the end of the story by taking our closure and setting it on a very specific path, instead of giving it a general trajectory and allowing it to run wild. I don’t believe there is any ending that can be improved upon by adding a time jump. I don’t want to see Nancy and Andy or Peeta and Katniss or Harry, Hermione and Ron after the story’s end. I want to imagine it, because my imagination won’t screw it up.
One more ending:
I understand that all stories can’t have one of the most classic endings in the history of cinema, but watch this and then imagine it jumping forward to Elaine and Ben arguing in their kitchen over bills, or even with two kids and happy as can be. The magic would be gone.
As we are ejected from the moving bus, the feeling of worry mixed with hope is overwhelming. We are given a small trajectory and are trusted to walk it from there. We each create what comes next influenced by our own complicated love stories. Each path we take will be different, but each them will be perfect.