If there’s one thing guaranteed to make me immediately lose interest in having a film-based conversation with someone it’s when, if asked what their favourite film of all time is, they reply ‘the Shawshank Redemption’. Now, don’t get me wrong: the film is entertaining enough, but experience has taught me that anyone who cites it as the best of all time is in fact using it as a shorthand way of telling you that they are a person of inferior intelligence and imagination, and that their outlook on life is, to put it mildly, desperately pedestrian. They’re invariably the same people who say Angels by Robbie Williams is their all-time favourite song, and if you can convince them to visit an Indian Restaurant they think that even Chicken Tikka Masala is a bit too spicy and exotic and invariably ask for omelette and chips.
I should probably clarify I don’t actually dislike the film; I haven’t seen it in years but seem to remember I quite liked it but, come on, you have to take it with a pinch of salt large enough to induce a heart attack. I mean, at the end it’s revealed that Andy Dufresne has spent some twenty years carving his way through a stone wall several feet thick with nothing but a nail file (or whatever) and during that time he was not only never transferred to another cell or even subject to a cell inspection? I mean, really? That’s the ending of your all time favourite film?!? Frankly, I’d have found it more plausible if he’d been rescued by aliens travelling in the trail of the Hale-Bopp comet.
Still, it’s fair to say that it’s the uplifting ‘triumph of the human spirit’ (oh, how I hate that phrase) ending that leads so many people of limited imaginations to cite it as their favourite of all time. I’m pretty sure that fewer people would say that if the final scene was of Andy bleeding to death on the floor in the shower after a gang had subjected him to a particularly vicious bout of bumming. It does, however, raise an important question: films frequently have endings that stretch credibility to breaking point, but what are the worst film endings of all time?
I think the most unforgivable crime where movie endings are concerned is changing a dark or ambiguous ending found in the source material to a clichéd happy ending, a common crime where adaptations from books or foreign language films are concerned. Perhaps the most infamous is the Vanishing; in the original, a man’s girlfriend disappears and after he tracks down the man responsible is offered the opportunity of finding out what happened to her by having the same thing happen to him. All he has to do is drink some coffee laced with sleeping pills and when he wakes up he’ll have his answer. Sounds pretty tempting, huh? So he agrees and wakes up to find he’s been buried alive. It’s often cited as one of the most chilling endings to a film but, in all fairness, when you watch it you tend to think the guy deserved it. I mean, where was he expecting to wake up? Disneyland?!
The remake, however, has a ‘happy’ ending where he gets rescued. Whilst that’s one of the worst cases of making a pointless happy ending in Hollywood history, I find the original version to be the better ending because I find the guy so annoying. Still, that’s just me. (Similarly, the film version of Roald Dahl’s the Witches unforgivably changes the ending. In the original, the boy is turned into a mouse and accepts his fate. But in the film, he is turned back into a boy. For no reason other than to placate cinema goers of a simple nature.)
I’m not really that big on the ‘twist’ endings, either; the usual suspects – the Sixth Sense, Fight Club (or, indeed, the Usual Suspects) to name a few – invariably initially seem clever but as you make your way home after you’ve left the cinema you start thinking ‘hang on… That bit didn’t make sense… And neither did that bit… Hmm…’ (Of course, in the case of Prometheus, you went home thinking that about every part of the film).
Perhaps the most disappointing ending in film history is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, simply because you expect so much better from them. It was sort of trying to be clever but didn’t really work. Just as it seems to be building up to a climax, it stops dead when a load of policemen arrive and shut down the production. The first time I saw it was on a video (which is what we called DVDs in the olden days) recorded off TV and I was left wondering if the video had stopped recording early. (That really did happen to me once; I set my video to record the Richard Burton/John Hurt version of Orwell’s 1984 but didn’t record the end, as the film started late due to the previous programme overrunning. And what was the previous programme? Big Brother! The irony was murderous.)
Still, the Pythons certainly redeemed themselves: at the other end of the spectrum is Life of Brian, quite possibly the greatest ending to a film ever. I mean, when you’ve been mistaken for the messiah and sentenced to die a slow, horrible death on the cross, what better way to see out your final hours on this mortal coil than by having a chirpy Cockney coax the collected throng into singing a catchy, melancholic yet ultimately uplifting song? Also, their final film, the Meaning of Life, managed to succeed where the Holy Grail failed by having an anticlimactic ending but still making it funny. After a tumultuous journey that delves into the very nature of being, we finish with Michael Palin (dressed as a woman, of course) opening a book purporting to contain the meaning of life and announcing, somewhat disappointedly, that there isn’t really much to it, and that you should be nice to people and read a good book once in a while.
(But perhaps the worst anti-climax of a film is War of the Worlds; whilst I can’t remember how the Tom Cruise version ends, I imagine it’s like the book. Instead of a climactic battle for the future of humanity, the aliens catch colds and die. It’s as if HG Wells was coming to the end of writing it, having plotted out a fiendishly clever ending, only to hear his mum telling him his tea was ready and hastily going ‘er… I know! The aliens all caught the flu and died. The end.’)
Run Lola Run manages to outdo a lot of films in that it manages THREE rubbish endings.
Once again, it’s a film where the sheer stupidity of its protagonist means you have very little sympathy for them: its starts with a small time drug dealer leaving a large bag of money on a train. Obviously gang bosses don’t look too favourably on that sort of thing, so you can imagine his criminal career was going to be shortlived anyway. But why was he on a train? Well, his equally hapless girlfriend was meant to give him a lift but decided that on the way to the HIGHLY IMPORTANT DRUG DEAL, the failure of which would almost certainly lead to a grisly end for the pair of them, she had time to pop into a shop for some cigarettes, during which time her moped was stolen. So, within a few minutes of the film starting you’re actively hoping that their fate will be some sort of Long Good Friday punishment involving them being hung upside down and brutally beaten.
The film then offers us three possible endings. To be fair, the first one is good because, having tried to rob a bank, Lola gets shot. Hurrah! Justice for her stupidity. In the second version Lola robs a bank but shortly afterwards her boyfriend gets run over. Result! But the film then stretches credibility so thin that it becomes transparent by giving us not so much a happy ending as a crappy ending: Lola goes into a casino and buys a single chip, then wins two consecutive bets. And, if I remember correctly, whilst she loses at one point, the casino takes pity on her and gives her a free bet (because obviously that’s what casinos do) which leads her to win untold riches.
And as if that were not ridiculously unbelievable, her boyfriend bumps into the man who picked up his bag of money (because in Berlin – population: three million – you do, of course, just bump into people) leaving them with not only enough money to pay off the crime boss but plenty more besides.
So, there you have it. The runaway (ha!) winner is Run Lola Run because whilst many films settle for just one rubbish ending, this cinematic abomination gives us three! And to really rub salt into the wound, we’re supposed to go away thinking that the final ending (the ‘happy’ one), despite being so utterly implausible that a foetus could see through it, is how the film ends. Cinema, hang your head in shame.
I’m not saying that all films should have bleak or abstract endings. But how many times have you watched a film and had a very good idea of how it would end when you’re only half way through? All I’m saying is that if you want a happy ending every time you read a book or watch a film then it’s highly likely that you’re a simpleton with no standards and you view creative endeavours as things that should be lighthearted and temporary distractions from your humdrum life. After all, what did Oscar Wilde say? ‘The good ended happily, and the band unhappily. That is what Fiction means.’ And I don’t think he wrote that as a recommendation for all future works of fiction.
Still, there are a couple of films where, whilst there may be nothing wrong with their endings per se, there are alternative ways I would like to have seen them concluded. You remember the end of Silence of the Lambs, where Hannibal Lector says to Clarice Starling ‘I’m having an old friend for dinner’, insinuating he’s about to return to his cannibalistic ways? Well, why stop there? They could have removed the ambiguity by then cutting to a scene where Hannibal is greedily carving up and gobbling down his unfortunate victim in noisy Homer Simpson style, slurping and burping as he does so, perhaps with a side order of fries, stopping only occasionally to glug down some Chianti, and probably spilling some of it in his efforts to stuff his face. Who says you should leave things up to the viewer’s imagination? I say you definitely shouldn’t. Viewers don’t have imaginations. After all, that’s why they’ve gone to the cinema instead of reading the book.