Dark and Cynical Stories? Not a Fan

Despair Or Hope Directions On A SignpostBe forewarned. I’m on a tear. Again, or maybe it’s the same one. I never considered myself one who believes in, or expects, the proverbial happy ending, at least not all of the time. (Although I do love one.) Admittedly, as a child, The Lucy Show frustrated me because it always ended with Lucy, Ethel frequently at her side, mired in some horrible predicament of her own doing. I wanted it to all be better before the ending credits ran, for her to be forgiven, the awful mess cleaned up, everyone happy with her again. Never happened.

I couldn’t  make it all the way through She’s Come Undone, by Wally Lamb. Oprah made it one of her book club picks and a friend raved about it. But I just couldn’t take any more of the protagonist’s misery and abuse and I finally quit. Maybe it had a good ending but I just couldn’t drag myself there.

Lately I seem to be on a bad streak when it comes to movies and books. Is it me, or is Hollywood & Company hell-bent on making us depressed or angry and leaving us there? No light at the end of the tunnel, no resolution in sight. For me, it started with Blue Jasmine, which I found distasteful and actually left the theater annoyed. Then I read Gone Girl, and now, in my annual race to see all the films nominated for an Oscar, subjected myself to Inside Llewyn Davis. (I know, it’s the Coen brothers, like Woody Allen, what did I expect?)

It’s no secret that Hollywood typically praises movies depicting characters who are fatally flawed and in the throes of despair. If you read through the list of Best Picture awards you’ll find many fit this category. Personally, I fell asleep twice during Unforgiven. I never saw No Country for Old Men, because I didn’t think I could bear it. Of course, it’s an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, and it’s common knowledge that he has an affinity for post-apocalyptic stories. I accept that these tales offer the opportunity for actors to show off their acting chops. I get that Cate Blanchett deserves a best actress award for her betrayal of Jasmine and Matthew McConaughey probably deserves the best actor award for his incredible transformation in Dallas Buyers Club. I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t say how positive the ending is, but it does seem to have a message regarding the change in how HIV drugs were made available to the public. And it is a true story, so you can’t rewrite history.

I understand these stories are essentially allowing us a glimpse into the life of a tortured soul, and I appreciate that, but must it always end with the character in the same place, or a worse one? I thought the purpose of storytelling was to show some growth or transformation in your protagonist, usually for the positive. On occasion, I can appreciate that a character is worse off after their experiences, but what I really dislike is when they remain stagnant.

I read and go to the movies to escape the everyday trials and tribulations of life, not to feel depressed after a fictional experience. It’s one thing when it’s a true story, you cannot remedy that, and I can bear it under those circumstances. Even Titanic, which we all knew had a horrific ending, gave us the viewpoint of a survivor through the eyes of Rose. A writer can choose to give a historical recounting through the perspective of someone who still has a smidgeon of optimism. But for fiction? I don’t get it. Give us something to take home with us. Watching a character try their hardest to succeed or overcome terrible circumstances is cathartic, but let us believe that their hard work and passion will eventually lead to something positive. If nothing else, then at least leave us with a question mark. He can do it if he just… or, He didn’t get what he wanted but instead found…

The other night, I finally received some validation on this point. Colin Farrell was being interviewed, promoting his new movie Winter’s Tale. It’s the story of a burglar who falls for an heiress as she dies in his arms. When he learns that he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her. (IMBd) The interviewer asked what drew him to the project. Paraphrasing, he said, It seems Hollywood is in this dark, cynical period and I wanted to make something that had a positive message, something heartwarming and lovely. I nearly jumped up and kissed the TV screen. Thatta boy, Colin! It’s not just me! (Unfortunately, other than Mr. Farrell’s apt performance, it got a terrible review.)

Watching or reading a story about life’s horrors, like slavery, rendition or the genocide in Rwanda is important, but help us to understand it through the eyes of someone who has at least a scrap of optimism left. As Walt Disney, via Tom Hanks, tells Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, (again I’m paraphrasing) I believe storytelling is fundamental for human beings to understand the world, but the compulsion to tell a story, even a terrible one, should offer a glimmer of hope. Otherwise, what is the point?

Okay, maybe I’m just a die-hard romantic Disney fan. Maybe I should find that depressing.

Up Next from Caryn…. Dream a Little Dream: Should Novels Start With Dreams?



Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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