Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Worst Ending Of Anything In The History Of Ever

"The Mist" has always been my favorite Stephen King story. In it, a lakeside New England town is engulfed in a mysterious mist, which turns out to contain all manner of terrifying--and evidently alien--creatures. The protagonist is a man (in typical King style, he is an artsy type with working class roots) who is trapped in a supermarket with his son and a couple of dozen other people, as the monsters roam outside, occasionally picking off one or another of the minor players. Class conflicts play themselves out in the supermarket; a crazy religious nut gets everybody all riled up, and a small group of cool-headed folks manage to escape to the parking lot and the protagonist's car. They drive off into the mist, hoping to get out of it. At the end, the progaonist reveals that they are still on the run, still in the mist, and that he is writing the story down for anyone who may find it, in case they don't survive.

Rhian and I just finished watching Frank Darabont's movie version. It's very faithful (and features a very fun performance from Marcia Gay Harden, as the religious nut), right up until the end. I'm going to tell you how it ends, now, OK? Are you ready?

The car runs out of gas, so the protagonist takes a pistol and kills everyone else in the car, including his own son. You know, to spare them from the monsters. He wants to kill himself, too, but he's out of bullets. So he gets out of the car to wait to be eaten. Instead, the mist clears, the sun comes out, and rescuers arrive. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!! He murdered his only child for no reason!

It's a quarter past eleven, and we have to be fresh tomorrow for our big family Thanksgiving, and here I am, wide awake, trembling with rage at this awful, manipulative movie. Rhian's comment was typically incisive: there is something wrong with the state of American narrative. How could this have happened? How could anyone have thought this was a good ending?

Let me lay this out a second. The point of a horror movie, if I'm not mistaken, is not to force you to contemplate the greatest horrors imaginable, and make you miserable. The point, rather, is escapism. When people get killed in horror movies, they're fools. If people in horror movies are shrewd, kind, and hard-working, they survive. Because a horror movie is big dumb fun. It's not about death. It's about abandon. It is supposed to be entertaining.

And this one was, for almost its entire length. It was really entertaining! We even stayed awake all the way to the end. But it turns out it's all a ruse, all this emotional investment that it asks you to make in this band of brave ordinary citizens. It decides to make you empathize with a man who shoots his son in the head and is rescued moments later. Viewer, this movie says: fuck you. Because we hate you. You stupid fuckers, who are so fucking stupid that you can be seduced by a narrative--we hate you. We wish we could shoot you in the head, but then you wouldn't buy popcorn and Coke. Instead, we will work super hard to make you care about characters, and then take them away from you, in a marvelous and highly implausible little act of insane brutality.

Here's something that people should think about--something that comes up in my fiction workshops often. Trick endings are inherently idiotic. Even ones that don't enrage and disgust you. They are cowardly sleights of hand, for writers who lack the confidence to make their books and films be about human beings, and what it means to be one. The trick ending writer would rather burn the theater down than risk making a fool of himself on stage.

A story whose lesson is that life is pointless is not, in fact, a story. It's nihilist propaganda. Inherent in the very concept of narrative is the idea that life is, in fact, worth living. This does not mean that all narratives should have happy endings. It's that those endings, happy or not, should mean something. The ending of "The Mist," the movie, has no meaning. It's the product of some idiot at some script meeting saying, "Awww, all those movies end with the good guy gettin' rescued. Let's be different! Let's be hardcore! We're gonna take this one all the way!" In other words, it's the product of insecurity, of the writer's fear that his ideas are inadequate, that they must be gratuitously subverted, to prove how original he is, how he's not like all those other people, the people who write scripts people enjoy.

If you want a great movie with an very unhappy ending, check out Thomas McCarthy's wonderful The Visitor, a film about injustice, mourning, and human misery that makes you glad to be alive. It is a narrative that is proud to be a narrative, and doesn't feel the need to piss on your shoes as you leave.


Anonymous said...

**Zachary Cole here--struggling with OpenID"

Ugh. Two previous replies purged by Internet tube-trouble.

Here's the 30 second ad of my previous thoughts:

* Ending a gut punch
* But I don't view it as mean-spirited
* It felt logical, to me, considering what had been seen before
* In some ways, it ties up the loose "big bad Army" thread left dangling in the novella.

My original post(s) were much, much, more organized, but I hope the mess above did the job.

5 Red Pandas said...

I read an article a few years back where someone in the movie biz commented unfavorably about a movie because a child died in it. I often wondered about that because he basically said that any movie where a child dies is a terrible movie. Maybe it's because I don't have children, but I didn't quite get his rage. Why is it ok for adults to die, but not children? I don't want either to die, but both groups die every day. Is it because when children die in movies it's often a manipulative move?

Is your anger about this ending because you don't think it's possible for someone to have killed his own child to "spare" him?

I've been trying to teach fairy tales to a 6th grade enrichment group I have at my job and we've been exploring Hansel and Grethel. One thing I've been trying to get them to examine is the fact that the stepmother is willing to sacrifice their lives for her own survival. I also want them to think about the fact that it's the stepmother, rather than the biological mom or dad who's willing to do this. Perhaps way back then it was understood that most parents would never sacrifice a child (though child abuse seems to run rampant in fairy tales, and our modern culture as well- so it must happen.)

But I do agree- trick endings do not make serious literature. At most they entertain, but are generally hollow.

jrlennon said...

Well, most viewers seem to agree with Zachary Cole, with maybe ten percent in my camp, judging from internet comments. There are maybe two reasons for my feelings. One, narrative is my religion, and this ending is blasphemous. Its moral illogic is an offense to my sensibilities.

The other is possibly that, yes, as a man with an 8-year-old son, I am angered by a movie that works very hard to earn my sympathies, with a couple of hours of aggressive character development, then makes me watch a man murder his 8-year-old son. Pointlessly. In a "bitter irony" of that sort that you'd give a junior high student a C- for thinking up.

It's silly to say that children shouldn't die in stories--they do all the time in real life. But in good stories, the deaths have real consequences, they cause characters to change and grow, or alternately to fall apart. But there was none of that here. Just a big middle finger before the credits roll.

Of course it's possible for a parent to "sacrifice" his child's life this way. "Beloved" is a favorite novel of mine, and that's exactly what happens there. But "The Mist" isn't "Beloved." "Beloved" shows how this act reverberates through the life of a family over many years. It is the horror that determines how their lives are lived. It's about the legacy of slavery, and the domination of some human beings over others.

"The Mist" is a scary B picture about alien tentacles breaking through plate glass windows. It doesn't get to turn into "Beloved" at the end. It is slight, and should have stayed slight. It's the work of mildly intelligent people of conventional mores who suddenly decided, at the end, that they were Primo Levi.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, by the way.

gcm said...

"One, narrative is my religion, and this ending is blasphemous. Its moral illogic is an offense to my sensibilities."

Sorry, but this quote - and most of post - comes off as wrong, and astonishingly self-righteous.

The ending, while gimmicky, doesn't sound at all illogical. It's horrific, but - remember - that was a horror movie that you were watching. How many stories have we read of men dying on the field of battle days after an armistice was called? Or, hell, what about the fucking end to Romeo and Juliet?

Oh, no! Let's get in our time machine and tell Shakespeare that he can't end it with such a "trick ending"! Both Romeo and Juliet die "pointlessly"? It's an offense to John's moral sensibilities!

Oh, gosh! Children and innocents are killed in Blood Meridian - "pointlessly", without causing characters to "change and grow, or alternately to fall apart"! Let's fly down to Santa Fe and waterboard Cormac McCarthy until he agrees to a full revision!

This is what I think:

The problem here isn't that the film was an offense to your artistic sensibilities. The problem is that it was an offense to your personal, your moral sensibilities, your idea of how a story SHOULD comport itself - and yet you disingenuously veil that paternal outrage behind an objective aesthetic: you claim that "good stories" are only those which champion a system of clear ethics; that correct narrative has built within itself a propensity for moral righteousness.

That, dude, is dogmatism. It's wrong.

You unknowingly take hands in solidarity with Jerry Faldwell and other moral crusaders: both you and he agree that art should be constrained by a morality that they and their followers see fit.

Narrative is a tool of the author, like perspective is to the painter. It's not - and should never be - bound by moral convention.

Anonymous said...

Although I sympathize, I'm tempted to quote Hitchcock: "It's only a movie, Ingrid!"
How do you feel about King's "Cujo"? (spoiler alert)
If memory serves, the child dies in the book, but lives in the movie.

Zachary Cole said...

To gcm: What the hell, man? I don't know what your relationship w/ JRL is, but it seems a little rude to assault a guy on his own board. It'd be like JRL storming Darabont's web forum (if he has one) and chastising him about the film. Why get so wound up about a disagreement about, of all things, *pop culture*? Also, not to suck up to JRL, but his ending to "Mailman" was briliant, IMO. I think it gives him some authority on the subject.

To JRL: I get where you're coming from. No matter how you feel about the ending, it is gimmicky. And I completely understand how killing a child in film, for shock value, would argue a dad. It reminds me of an old interview I read where a scriptwriter (?) said, in affect, "I hate my older work now that I'm a dad" because of his stories that exploited crass child endangerment.

Have a great Turkey Day (or, if you're a commie vegetarian like me, Pueblo Pie Day) ;)

Hugo Minor said...

Maybe this will cheer everyone up:

Kevin said...

Well, I hope the people responsible didn't get their hands on "The Road." That would be a serious downer.

jrlennon said...

Come on, gcm, Jerry Falwell? Because I can't stand a movie? And you think I'd like to torture Cormac McCarthy, a writer I'd admire. So now I'm, who, Alberto Gonzales?

I'm not a moral crusader. I'm a guy who cares about art, and yes, art grows from morality, conventional or not. But there's no need to call me a right wing torturer, Grant.

jrlennon said...

Rhian, from across the room: "OK, what if there was a child rape scene at the end, and you hated that. Would you still be Jerry Falwell?"

jrlennon said...

And, at the risk of belaboring my point, I don't recall saying that I think people should be stopped from making art I don't like. I'm merely saying I think it sucks.

rmellis said...

Perhaps one needs to preface everything with, In my humble opinion...

I don't know, I thought that the IMHO thing was understood on a blog.

Seriously, I hardly ever see John waterboarding screenwriters.

It was a lousy ending, and one Stephen King would never have written. You have to think about what the purpose of a piece of art is. It's just dumb, dumb, dumb to write an exciting, basically fun movie filled with flying bug creatures and then decide you're actually writing a serious movie that has somehow earned a child sacrifice.

My post on dead children will come later.

zoe said...

Dead children in films and books! Hang on, that sounded like a fun thing with the exclamation mark. I meant as an "oh horrors!" exclamation mark. I know this is somewhat off-topic and I know that this isn't why John didn't like the ending of the film, but I would like some sort of warning on book and DVD advertising about dead kids. I just can't cope with that as a subject now. If I mistakenly start reading a book or watching a film that has that in it, it has to be an amazing piece to keep me reading or watching.

That said, I'm trying to write about a guy who discovers his estranged son (a child) has died. I keep putting it off, but at some point I'll need to get on with it. The thing is, it's central to who the character is and where his story is going.

I think I agree with JRL. If it's relevant and correct - write it. Otherwise it's just attention-grabbing, cold and irritating.

I sort of wound round to be on topic.

E. said...

In my opinion, the endings that satisfy cleave to that familiar but elusive standard, inevitable yet surprising.

It sounds like it's the inevitable part this flick missed out on, because it hadn't done the work of prepping the viewer for such a drastic turn from B-grade horror movie to... what?... something that strained toward "high art." (The mist dissolves why? Is it supposed to be metaphorical?)

The screenwriter (or director, or marketer) sets the audience's expectations in any number of ways: tone, voice, mood, realistic vs. fantastical elements, pacing, casting, cinematographic style, etc. Shoot, even the rating, and the blurb on the back of the DVD box. If those expectations are violated, it's infuriating because of the investment the audience has made; it's a violation of trust, of time.

To me, it's this inconsistency that makes for the crappiest fiction. If the first few chapters of a novel set a realistic tone, and halfway through there are suddenly magical elements cropping up, it blows the writer's cover, calls attention to itself, and pulls me out of my dream.

I hate that.

Writers "teach" readers how to read their work. Romeo and Juliet die in the end, but we are prepared for it, because Shakespeare laid the foundation for it in Act I, and kept pulling that horse all the way through the play. Their deaths were the surprising yet inevitable result of all that came before. Horrible, but dramatically satisfying because of the shared humanity between playwright and audience.

In my opinion.

jrlennon said...

I think it's true that every good book teaches you how to read it; perhaps the same is true of a good film. I'm willing to accept all manner of formal, emotional, and moral experimentation in books and movies, but often do bristle when they appear to violate the rules they set for themselves. Such rules might well be extremely unorthodox, of course. But there must be some kind of order, some coherence on some level. In the case of this movie, it was perfectly coherent as a fun B-grade thriller, and I would have liked it a lot if it had stayed that way.

jon said...

What do you think of the ending of Night of the Living Dead?

jrlennon said...

I don't remember it...what happens?

James (Mr. 5 Red Pandas) said...

I was going to bring up Night of the Living Dead myself.

"When people get killed in horror movies, they're fools. If people in horror movies are shrewd, kind, and hard-working, they survive."

This is not necessarily true in some of George Romero's best films, including Night of the Living Dead (and some of his other zombie films). There's a reoccuring theme in Romero's work that even the shrewd, kind and hard-working characters do not survive, because they are felled by the ignorance and crass behavior of others (and, yes, sometimes the "wrong" characters survive as well). The inability of people to come to a mutual understanding that will ensure their survival is a major theme of Romero's. And even the noble hero of Night of the Living Dead comes up with a reasonable plan of survival that, as it turns out, was not the best one. But I consider George Romero a considerably better director than Frank Darabont.

jon said...

Oh yes, I don't think Night of the Living Dead contradicts what JRL is saying necessarily, but it is a counter-example. It's a great film, and the fact that the hero survives only to be shot by a posse of humans because he is either 1) black or 2)mistaken for a zombie (the second possibility is unsustainable given the film) shifts the whole movie from the horror of getting killed and eaten by zombies to the very real horror of living in America in 1968. But it was not a trick ending, just an unexpected one given the usual narrative structure of a horror movie, which would have the good, sensible hero survive.

jrlennon said...

I may have to watch it again...

kiwi said...

Hi. First time poster.

It seems to me that the ideal ending is one where you say, hey, I didn't see that coming, but now that I've seen it, I realize I should have seen it coming - it was subtly foreshadowed here and here and here.

King strikes me as a typical writer who starts from a strong premise and sees where it takes him. It can't always be to an ending which is inevitable from the outset.

jrlennon said...

Well, this ending was not in the King story. I don't know if he wrote it for Darabont, but I kind of hope not.

McCloskey said...

It wasn't written my King, but he said, according to Darabont, that he wished he had thought of it when he wrote the novella.

I had the same reaction when I saw the film. I wish I had turned it off ten minutes before the end.

I loved Shawshank, and I enjoyed The Green Mile, so I thought, "hey, Darabont will do a great job with this story that I love so much." At the end of the novella there was ...hope. Darabont's ending was the opposite.

After watching it, my wife and I had to listen to the commentary to see if he could explain what the hell he was thinking. Darabont said he got the ending from an earlier passage in the text; then he talked to King about it, and King said he wished he had written it that way.

jrlennon said...


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