Great Endings Step 1: Hero shouldn’t get what they wanted

by on November 18, 2013

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Casablanca Ending Rick Says Goodbye Ilsa

Since a lot of people think that audiences want a happy ending, screenwriters often feel compelled to have their protagonist get what they set out to get at the start of the film. Sure, giving the protagonist what they want can sometimes deliver a commercially successful film but it will rarely deliver the profoundly moving transcendent ending.

Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana wants to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark of the Covenant, and, at the end of the film, that’s what he gets. By the end of Act 1 in Jaws, Sheriff Brody wants to kill the shark, and, at the end, he blows that thing to smithereens. In There’s Something About Mary, Ted (Ben Stiller) sets out to get the eponymous female and, after the odd bad hair moment, that’s what transpires.

These are all hugely popular films and I like all of them, but are these endings profoundly moving? And, by “profoundly moving”, I mean, do they move you to tears? I’ve never seen anyone sobbing when I turn up the lights after watching the end of Raiders. These films are satisfying, they are cathartic, but they lack this transcendent quality I’m talking about.

In an earlier post, I challenged this idea that audiences want happy endings. Or unambiguously sad endings. What I argued was that what really tends to move us is an ending that reminds of both the exquisite pleasure and the unendurable pain of life. I called this feeling “Ecstatic Agony“.

It’s going to be difficult for you to produce the melancholy dimension of this ending – the Agony in Ecstatic Agony – if the Hero gets what they set out to get. On the contrary, it generally means they must lose – or, better still, relinquish – this thing that was most precious.

At the start of Dead Poets Society, Todd wants to be small, insignificant and unnoticed, and his wish plainly doesn’t come to fruition.

At the beginning of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, R.P. McMurphy wants to be released from his prison term for statutory rape and he foregoes that opportunity.

For a good hour in Schindler’s List, Oscar wants to become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams and he does, but then trades it away for the lives of the workers.

In Casablanca, Rick gives up two things he previously sought – his detachment from the war and the love of his life, Ilsa.

In Tootsie, Rocky, The Apartment, Strictly Ballroom, Lars and the Real Girl, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Lives of Others, similarly, the protagonist does not get (or does not retain) what was absolutely vital to them earlier.

And yet all of these films have moving endings. Why does the hero NOT getting what they want work our emotions?

It could be because most of us know, or are starting to suspect, that we won’t get the things we’re seeking, and we need to get comfortable with that.

Or – and I think this is closer to the truth – we know that achieving goals in the external world – titles, fame, money, success, glory, sexual conquests – very rarely delivers the feelings we hope for. If we’re lucky, the thing we’ve hotly pursued – the championship, the job, the award, the car, the cute girl/guy – will deliver some pleasure on attainment, but its satisfactions rarely endure. We’re left wanting something more …

Which leads us to my next post …

Great Endings Step 2: Hero should get something more valuable

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron Bierman November 19, 2013 at 4:35 am

Nice piece but I would suggest Rocky is one of the few protagonists that gets both what he wants AND what he needs — self respect — AND it is spectacularly powerful ending.

Allen Palmer November 19, 2013 at 6:06 am

No, I would not agree that Rocky gets his Want and his Need. And in a post shortly I will explain why.

Chris November 19, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Indiana Jones’s aim is to find and study the Lost Ark. The Nazis are a device used to stand in his way. Sure, he finds the Ark but he doesn’t get to keep it or study it and the film ends with Indiana on the steps of the government building with Marion, bitterly disappointed that the Feds have denied him access. He doesn’t get what he wants. And we are left with the iconic final shot of the Ark being wheeled into storage among thousands of other boxed items. A thoroughly satisfying ending to one of the greatest action films of all time.

Allen Palmer November 19, 2013 at 9:55 pm

When we talk about Want, we’re talking about what’s driving the story. What is the goal the protagonist chases that makes the audience (unconsciously) pose a dramatic question. Will the protagonist … ?

While they’re watching Raiders, I doubt there are many people sitting on the edge of their seats thinking, “Will Indiana Jones be able to study the Ark?”. Most of them are thinking only, “Will he get to the Ark before the Nazis?”. His Want is the Ark. Indiana gets what he set out to get.

I agree that the final shot of the Ark is a good one. But, is it an emotionally powerful climax? No, it’s not. And, that’s not just my opinion. It’s a question I’ve posed my students innumerable times. I didn’t come up with a theory, decide that Raiders doesn’t fit it, and conclude that the climax isn’t the film’s best point. I was underwhelmed by the climax, and sought to understand why.

Chris November 19, 2013 at 11:46 pm

Yeah I wasn’t suggesting that people were on the edge of their seats desperate for Indy to study the Ark. We want him to find the Ark full stop. He does, but ultimately he doesn’t get what he wants. That it is the Nazis he has to beat to get it is irrelevant. Beating them to the Ark is not Indy’s ‘want’. The Ark is Indy’s ‘want’. The Nazis are Raiders’ rent-a-baddies. Paul Freeman’s character, Belloq (Indy’s true adversary), says as much in the film.

Whether or not the climax provides a satisfying conclusion is, I think, subjective. The opinions of every one of your students aside, the fact that you found the ending underwhelming is fair enough but the argument that Raiders doesn’t deliver a ‘profoundly moving transcendent ending’ is underdone. And to use it as an example in the context of your blog post, plain wrong.

Your title states: ‘Great Endings Step 1: Hero shouldn’t get what they wanted’. Hold Raiders up against this and it absolutely meets the criteria. Great ending and the hero doesn’t get what he wants. Hence its enduring popularity.

Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman knew what they were doing.

John November 22, 2013 at 5:00 am

Hello Allen and Chris,

May I interject, because I think you both bring up excellent points.
Allen, yes I fully agree with you, that when we compare Raiders, with a film like Dead Poets Society, between the two, Raider’s ending is “not even in the same league, not even in the same sport” – to borrow some famous words from Pulp Fiction…

Dead Poets Society was the main film that got me interested in screen writing – in the hope of one day coming to realize something as magnificent and beautiful as this film… ‘ecstatic agony’ as you put it Allen. I’ve watched the film more than a dozen times, and from the moment that Todd Anderson drops to his knees in the snow, I’m sobbing all the way through, each and every time.

With that said, Chris does have a good point to make regarding Raiders. What makes Indie a great character is his contradiction. He’s a ‘selfish altruist’ in a sense, a playboy with high ideals, who does the right things, for the wrong reasons… From the opening scene, when others run back from danger he risks his life just to recover a recover a statue, so that he may place it in a museum and fulfill his ambition of being a great archeologist.

Indie is driven by glory and beneath that, pride. He wants to go and do what others are not willing to go and do. And to enforce the point, we soon learn that he steps over his great love relationship in order to pursue his ambitions. So when he has the opportunity to find “The Great Ark” – his ego is all over it and what this would do to his reputation as an archeologist.

So in the conclusion, when that Greatest of Prizes where upon his whole career reputation could have been established, is left ‘ingloriously’ in the warehouse, Indie learns to humble his ego and to value relationships instead. Indie does not get what he wants, he gets what he needed – particularly the appreciation of life’s mysteries and what symbols truly stand for, which may not and should not be dissected in university classrooms (or museums for that matter). In short, he learns humility.

So although that ‘ecstatic agony’ is not clear in distinct as DPS, there certainly is a flavor of it. If the film ended with the fact that Indie found the ark, and now it’s touring the world with his face all over it as the great archeologist who dared to find it – that would have been a commercial and emotional flop. Indie would have learned nothing.

Well that’s my two cents anyway on the matter and thank you Chris for brining it up. Good lesson here…

And thank you Allen for this great website and great articles – I just wished your classes would be sooner – I’m so ready to join… 🙂


John November 22, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Oh, and one more comment about what does make Raiders actually a ‘transcendent’ movie – and why after more than 30 years it still is referenced. (After all there were plenty of action blockbusters in the 70s and 80s which today get no mention whatsoever…)

And it has everything to do with the symbols that it played with – namely, The Ark of the Covenant. This is probably the most powerful material symbol of a transcendent order of all time – the meeting point between Heaven and Earth, the embodiment of moral order as directly formulated by God, the most Holy of Holies as the Jews saw it.

Raiders, as in Tomb Raiders (which is a synonym for Looters, Plunderers, Invaders…) were on one hand the Nazis. They wanted to steal this object, to tap into this transcendental order and to basically have God on their side. For them it was just an object of power they wanted to control – a means to an end – where they wanted to see if they could exploit this artifact in bringing about their New World Order/ the Fourth Reich. The Nazis were basterdizing the sacred.

Yet Indie too was a Raider, and was also a secondary character weakness of Indy. In some ways, he too was like the Nazis, who initially perceived the Ark as nothing more than an artifact he could bring into a museum and have tourists gawk at it, (for a modest fee). As a scientist, he saw nothing more in this Ark, than a ‘thing’ to be rationalized, classified, objectified. He was the lesser of the two evils that’s for sure, but his intentions were similar – in wanting to make the sacred, profane – to control the transcendental – in taking away the substance of faith, in order to make it rational…

He got saved, when he wizened and humbled himself to the transcendental. The Nazis thought they could look God in the face, because they were “righteous”. (And were instantly brought to justice for it.) Indie and his girl closed their eyes, and they were spared.

It’s exactly the same parallel moral in the third film with the Holy Grail, and a similar message with the stones. Why the fourth film lacked (and there were many more flaws in it besides this) is because the ‘crystal skull’ really meant nothing… While the first three films were giving form to the dimensions of rational vs faith or the ‘hyper-rational’, the fourth was just “a fantastical adventure”, with lots of special effects and little substance…

Allen Palmer November 25, 2013 at 9:37 pm

The “Transcendent Story” I talk about is not synonymous with “classic film” – which Raiders clearly is. I define a Transcendent Story as one that profoundly moves us. By that, I mean it moves us to tears. Whatever you might claim for the ending of Raiders, I have never known anyone to sob at either the climax or the denouement of this great action/adventure. It’s a brilliant Cathartic Story. Just not a Transcendent Story.

John December 7, 2013 at 7:22 am

It seems there one critical piece you may be missing.
Raiders is an action/ adventure, with fantasy elements and unrealistic heroics. All the films that you mention as profoundly moving (and I fully agree they are) are also in a different genre. All these transcedent films are in the drama genre, with realistic characters and plausible scenarios that even you and I may face, given different times/ environments.
That is a BIG reason for why you/ we find these films very moving. You can directly identify with the people. You can’t with Indie, or Batman, or Thor.. etc.

Raiders or any other action film can never get as dramatic as Dead Poets, or any others you list because the genre doesn’t allow for it.
Can you name an action film that makes you actually cry at the end? Or even more intense, ‘Ecstatic Agony’?

I can’t think of one and to ask of Raiders to perform an EA is an impossibility..
No exciting adventure/ action movie can ever achieve the EA standard because we can never truly believe the story/ realism. Furthermore, in an action movie we’re implicitly in a different mode of mind – more reactive, less empathetic. More primal, less spiritual.

Raiders or Empire Strikes Back is as close as the genre allows to an EA moment. And they have incorporated the hero’s journey nevertheless – quite explicitly.

Allen Palmer December 7, 2013 at 10:41 am

Hi, John,
Star Wars moves me to tears. It’s action/adventure. But, you seem to miss my point.

I am trying to discover what moves us and what doesn’t move us – without necessarily making any criticism of the films. Raiders doesn’t move me to tears and therefore isn’t a Transcendent (capital T) Story – by my definition. Doesn’t mean it’s not a great film. Just means it doesn’t move me as say, Star Wars does. I can look at each film and see why that’s the case. There are elements to the Star Wars story that give it a chance to move us. There are elements of the story of Raiders that make it unlikely that it will move us. I have learned something in my analysis that helps me in my writing. And that’s what this site is about … exploring story … what moves us … what doesn’t move us.

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