Ending Lessons From a Couple of Movies

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So the other day I watched Pretty in Pink, the 1986 Molly Ringwald film, written by John Hughes.

Why was I, a thriller author, watching Pretty in Pink? Because of James Spader. I’m a Spader fan, and I had been listening to Rainn Wilson’s memoir, The Bassoon King. Wilson (who played Dwight Schrute on TV’s The Office) was talking about his odd upbringing and high school days, and made a passing reference to being around rich kids who were like James Spader in Pretty in Pink. I didn’t recall that Spader was in the film.

So I went to the library and got the DVD and watched it.

I can see why Molly Ringwald captured hearts back then. She’s adorable and spunky and irresistible. The movie …

… okay, here netiquette demands that I insert a ***SPOILER ALERT***. I will be talking about the ending in detail, so if you want to see the movie fresh, now’s the time to go pour yourself another cup of joe.

As I was saying, the movie is about a high school girl, Andie (Ringwald), who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s in school with a lot of rich kids, who look down their imperious beaks at her. Chief among these privileged snoots is Steff (Spader) who can’t stand that Andie won’t give him a tumble. When Steff finds out his best friend Blane (Andrew McCarthy) likes Andie, he tries to shame him out of it.

Andie is attracted to Blane, which is a cause of serious heartache for Andie’s friend, “Duckie” (Jon Cryer). Duckie loves Andie with a passion, but Andie loves him only as a pal.

Perfect John Hughes formula, eh?

Prom is coming, and no one’s asked Andie. She doesn’t expect it. But of course Blane does, and Andie is in heaven. Duckie is in hell.

But then Steff steps up his campaign to break up Blane and Andie. He tells Blane he’s got to choose. If he insists on seeing Andie, they will no longer be friends.

Blane is conflicted, but decides to break it off with Andie. He doesn’t return her calls. When she corners him at school, he makes up a lame excuse about having invited someone else to the prom and that it slipped his mind. Andie doesn’t buy it, calls him a liar, and runs out in tears.

Prom night comes. Andie decides to take a pink dress and do some of her quirky design work on it. She gets all ready to go to the prom, alone. When her dad asks her why, she says “I just want to let them know they didn’t break me.”

She gets to the hotel but is scared to take the final step inside the ballroom. She looks up. And sees Duckie. He has also shown up alone.

They run into each others’ arms and enter the ballroom together.

Blane, who is also sans date, sees them. He gets up to go to her. Steff tries to stop him. Blane tells him off (finally).

Blane goes up to Andie and Duckie. He apologizes. He says he always believed in her, he just didn’t believe in himself. Then he says, “I love you,” kisses her on the cheek, and walks out.

Duckie, the noble friend, says, “If you don’t go to him now, I’m never gonna take you to another prom again. This is an incredibly romantic moment, and you’re ruining it for me.”

Andie thanks him, runs out to the parking lot. She and Blane kiss in the rain.

The End.

Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. I felt the ending was not right. I thought:

a) Andie shouldn’t go running after Blane. He acted like a jerk. He gave her up over a measly threat from James Spader! Come on! He deserved to suffer for being so spineless.

b) Andie running after him so quickly brought her down in my estimation. She owed her loyal friend at least a dance.

c) Duckie deserved that dance, seeing as how he saved Andie’s dignity by walking into the prom with her.

d) The dialogue line “I love you” is almost always manipulative and lazy (see The Art of War for Writers, Chapter 39).

So as I’m thinking all that, I look at the Special Features menu on the DVD and see that there is a segment on “the original ending.”

And guess what? My instincts, and indeed those of John Hughes himself, were correct. In the ending that was in the script and which they shot, Andie and Duckie do dance together and then it fades out.

Which was, as they say, justice. But apparently test audiences weren’t so happy. A majority said they wanted the cute girl to end up with the cute guy!

An internal battle broke out over the ending. Most of the creative team wanted it to stay as shot, but the suits with the purse strings feared a negative audience reaction. Guess who won that fight?

So six months after the movie had wrapped, they got the cast back together to film the ending that’s in the movie.

And got negative reaction anyway! Even now, people are split on the ending. The stars (Ringwald, McCarthy, and Cryer) who were being interviewed on the DVD (these interview were filmed in 2006, twenty years after the release) talked about the controversy. Cryer remembered feeling robbed when they changed things. And he says people still come up to him, sometimes quite livid, insisting Andie and Duckie should be together at the end!

Why would they think that? Simply this: Justice was not served!

But, the other side insists, there was no sexual chemistry between Duckie and Andie. Molly Ringwald herself is of that opinion.

Ah, but there was another way it could have gone!  Andie and Duckie enjoy the prom together, then Duckie tells Andie to go to Blane. And when she goes to Blane it shouldn’t be to fall into his arms. Let it be left that they may end up together, so long as Blane proves he’s not shallow. The ending can therefore be hopeful, but not wrapped up in a pretty pink bow.

What’s the lesson here?

a) Don’t listen to the suits.

b) The best endings are about justice, not necessarily about the cuties getting together. Exhibit A: the most famous ending of all time, Does Rick end up with Ilsa? No! But justice is done, and Rick does gain “a beautiful friendship.”

Next, I watched Big Jake, a later John Wayne western. I watched Big Jake to balance out Pretty in Pink and restore order to the universe.

Big Jake is a straightforward rescue plot. Jake McCandles (Wayne) learns his grandson has been kidnapped for ransom. With his two sons, an Indian friend, and a loyal dog named Dog, McCandles sets out to get the boy back.

Dog is trained to attack bad guys when prompted by the command, “Dog!” (John Wayne films are not complex). There’s a big showdown between Wayne’s group and the bad guys, one of whom wields a machete. Dog, wounded by a gunshot, nevertheless puts the bite on the machete guy. There’s a struggle. Machete guy breaks free, and hacks the heroic Dog to death!

Here’s my lesson from Big Jake: Don’t kill the dog!

And those are my random thoughts about two ending in two films.

So now it’s your turn: Do you have any lessons you draw from disappointing endings?

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29 thoughts on “Ending Lessons From a Couple of Movies

  1. First: “I watched Big Jake to balance out Pretty in Pink and restore order to the universe,” was my best laugh this week. Thanks.

    I’ve never seen Pretty in Pink, but your description of it made me groan as that’s exactly why I don’t watch that genre. I was not familiar with the controversy behind it but for me, no matter which way they went, there’s just no way to make that storyline fresh.

    As for Big Jake, glad I never saw that film. I go by the quote I saw on a T-shirt to the effect of: “I don’t care who else dies in the movie as long as the dog is ok.”

    I concur with endings being about justice. My favorite novel ends not with everything tied up neatly, but with the hero saving the day, yet losing a friendship and a partnership and their combined goals and dreams (though there is a sequel where part of this is restored).

    I was never much of a movie but more of a TV watcher, but when I think of favorite TV shows, regardless of genre, it is typically more along the lines of justice and not cutsie endings. Cutsie endings do not reflect real life (maybe the odd occasion).

    • I agree, BK. Between “cutsie” and “justice,” the latter is always stronger. There can also be some ambiguity, but most of the time justice ought to be one of the possibilities. That’s also the basis of tragedy, isn’t it? Just desserts!

  2. I never knew there was so much controversy over the ending of Pretty in Pink, but it makes sense. Always hated the way they left things. Which brings me to my point. When I read or watch a bad ending, it ruins the entire story. Even if I loved the book or movie, if the ending isn’t satisfying in some way, I’m left feeling cheated.

    • Completely agree, Sue. I can think of several examples of this. I always say in my workshops, “Beginnings are easy. Endings are hard.” We owe it to the reader to leave them with some sort of emotional satisfaction (which doesn’t necessarily mean “happily ever after.” Just the sense that the ending was RIGHT).

  3. The movie with an ending that bothers me is The Talented Mr. Ripley.
    SPOILER:
    I loved the movie for the excellent actors, suspenseful and twisted plot, and even for the ending slant where Ripley gets away with murder. What I disliked was the fact that Dickie Greenleaf’s father rewards him with half of Dickie’s trust fund. It boils down to the justice angle you pointed out. I would have liked it much better if the one prize, Ripley did not win was Dickie’s money. (At least he didn’t win Gwyneth Paltrow.) Maybe it’s also because I think it’s a movie without a hero.
    I have not read any of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, so perhaps she meted out justice to Ripley in the final novel. Maybe Hollywood planned movie sequels—I don’t know.

    • Patricia Highsmith is an interesting study, an American living in France and writing with a European sensibility. The two best adaptations of hers, IMO, are Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock), and Rene Clement’s Purple Noon, with Alain Delon as Ripley. Both of those have satisfying, and just, endings.

      • I like the ending of the film “Ripley” better than the book. They are similar in that Tom gets away with killing Dickie, assuming his identity AND getting the Greenleaf inheritance. In the book, Highsmith ends with Tom sailing off to Greece but wondering if he will always be looking over his shoulder…

        The film drives this point home more chillingly with the final scene on the ship where Tom and his lover Peter are in bliss until Tom discovers Meredith is on board with her family (She Tom has deceived her into believing he is Dickie). Peter sees them kissing and questions Tom. Tom, knowing he can’t escape the scrutiny of Meredith’s family, murders Peter to silence him and preserve his secret. But what lies ahead? Tom has lost his one true love and can never be Tom again. But he never really was, was he…

  4. I agree the ending of Big Jake was a let down. As you say, “Don’t kill the dog!”

    My guess is that the deaths of Dog and Jake’s old Indian buddy were supposed to symbolize the coming of civilization to the West. Jake’s reformed now, is ready to return to civilization, and will reconcile with his headstrong wife.

    That, and the movie gave John Wayne’s drinking buddies (Richard Boone and Bruce Cabot) paying roles.

    • Another letdown is that Big Jake ends so abruptly, without Jake having a last scene with Maureen O’Hara. She starts off the film, estranged from Jake, looking lovely as ever, and with that fiery inner strength of hers. Then she disappears. As this was the last pairing of Duke and O’Hara, we are robbed of a final reconciliation. Unjust!

  5. I hated the ending to “Pretty Woman.” I thought it was pure fantasy that Julia Roberts went off with her prince of a guy. Turned out I was right. In the original “Pretty Woman” script, the ending was realistic — Julia Roberts died a drug-addicted hooker. But the studio had been bought by Disney and they wanted a princess story. Unfortunately, that’s what viewers seem to have wanted, too, since the movie is considered a classic.

  6. I saw Pretty in Pink when it first came out. All I remember of the movie is her tearing apart her dead mother’s prom or wedding dress to make herself a prom dress, and thinking that was a terrible thing to do. Yes, she was making it her own and she was going to wear it to her prom in memory of her mother, but… I was not impressed. I don’t even remember the ending. So I suppose I didn’t find that as memorable.

    I don’t watch television unless I’m at someone else’s house. Which means I don’t usually get to choose what I’m watching. Last week, I was watching something – I can’t even remember what, some kind of a crime show – but one character, a lower bad guy, did something I didn’t like (again, I can’t remember what, just that I decided I did not like this guy). I thought that, by the end of the show, the guy should wind up dead. He was arrested with a bunch of others. Nothing specific happened to him.

    And I was thinking, “Is that it?” Because, as you said, justice. It was a violent show. A death would not have been out of place. Even a specific punishment of some kind for this guy would have been good.

    I’ve got a story where the bad guy has caused a lot of pain for the heroes. One hero has a chance to kill him. And in my books, killing is not uncommon. But he doesn’t kill him. Why? Because I’ve set up, throughout the book, that this hero thinks that captivity is worse than death. And so, he thinks it’s worse that the bad guy go to prison than die.

    One reader told me he thought the hero should have killed the bad guy. Again, justice. But to the hero, justice is served simply by having this man confined to one building for the rest of a very long life. He was sending him to a life of hell, not to Hell itself.

    The TV show I watched didn’t have any of this background. And I was disappointed.

    (And no. Killing the dog is rarely a good thing, even when done by a particularly evil guy. People don’t like that and will stop reading/watching. Many people I know will ask – if there is a dog in the movie – whether the dog dies. If the dog dies, they are not going to watch it. No matter how good it is. Me, I get very angry at that sort of thing.)

    • (That is, I get angry at the dogs being killed. Not at the people who won’t watch a movie where a dog dies. I need more caffeine to write more coherent answers.)

    • I teach “pet the dog,” not “kill the dog.” Ha! I suppose in very rare circumstances it might be allowed. There is A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck. And I recall a movie when I was a kid, The Biscuit Eater. I cried my eyes out. I cannot bring myself to watch it again.

      • I read the novel, A Day No Pigs Would Die. There was also Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows… but there is a difference between heart-wrenching and what seems like needless violence. The dog becomes a character in the novel or the film, and has to be treated as such. But it’s a special kind of character – it’s similar to a child character, but not quite the same. People who will accept a child being killed for the sake of a plot may not feel the same way about a dog. Dogs have to be handled differently.

        I haven’t seen this newer movie out – John Wick – but it seems he goes out to get revenge on the guy who killed his dog. I know several people who won’t go see it because of the dog. Me, I’d want to know how it’s handled. Actually watching a dog get killed can be very upsetting. If it’s done off-screen and I don’t actually see the dog get hurt, scared, or die, I might watch it. Done on-screen? See the body? Nah. Probably not for me.

        • To ease your fears, the dog does not die on-screen in John Wick. And, to add a bit of depth to the revenge aspect of the story, he exacts revenge not just because the dog died but what the dog represented. Despite the violence, John Wick is an excellent movie. Plus…Keanu Reeves. Also, John Wick – Chapter 2 is now out, which also has interesting themes. It’s nice to see action/thriller movies with more than just a high body count.

  7. Have to agree with you on the ending of Big Jake. Wayne and O’Hara had a great chemistry. We were robbed in this film. And I hated the fact the dog was killed. Not cool!
    I’ve never watched Pretty in Pink and after reading this, I’m glad I didn’t waste my time (plus it’s not really my genre). I do like your proposal about the third ending.

    Also had to laugh about you watching Big Jake to balance out the universe. 🙂

    • It would be a fun exercise to balance out two movies.

      SIXTEEN CANDLES v. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

      THE BREAKFAST CLUB v. FIGHT CLUB

      EAT PRAY LOVE v. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

      Etc.

  8. I really like your third solution to the ending of Pretty in Pink. I don’t like the one they went with, but I also didn’t want her to end up with Duckie…there simply wasn’t chemistry between them.

    One ending I didn’t like was No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers are incredible filmmakers and the movie was fantastic, but the ending petered out. The film focused on Llewellen, a young hunter who finds some drug money, and the assassin who hunts him down. To use a cliche: the tension in this movie could be cut with a knife! Anyway, Llewellen dies a strange and anti-climactic death where I wasn’t even sure he had died. I had to scroll back to check. Then the assassin just….walks away with an injury. I could have dealt with this ambiguous ending except that the movie kept going. The ending was of the sheriff talking about a dream he had of his father. If the movie had ended with the assassin walking away, I would have liked it much better. As it was, I was left with a sense of let-down. Not a good way to end any kind of story.

  9. One of my all-time fave movies is “Cinema Paradiso.” Is there a better more bittersweet ending in all of moviedom? An Italian director Salvadore — nicknamed Toto — has returned to his childhood village for the funeral of his beloved mentor, Alfredo, the father-figure who made him fall in love with film. But the director, for all his fame and money, has never had a woman to love. Why? He has never forgotten his teenage flame, the beautiful and elusive Elena, from the village who moved away. There is a sad scene where Salvadore sits in his boyhood room and watches the first “film” he ever made — blurry footage of Elena that he shot on the sly. His heart has never healed.

    The ending is lovely: Salvadore returns to Rome with an old film canister from Alfredo. When he watches it in the dark screening room, he realizes it is a spliced montage of every love scene that the village priest had ordered cut from every film that had ever played at the village theater. The joy on Toto’s face is beyond poignant. Yes, he can still believe in love. Fade to black. THE END.

    But…there is a director’s cut alternative ending. After watching the montage, Toto is compelled to search for his old love. He finds the middle-aged Elena again, who is married to an old friend of his. Turns out that all those years ago, Alfredo reluctantly manipulated Elena into leaving Toto just so Toto could follow his dreams and become a film director.

    Bah. Not only does it spoil the magic of the lost-love ending, it diminishes the Toto-Alfredo relationship. Also, I am more for open-ended endings. I want to fill in my own blanks.

    And while we’re speaking of director’s cuts…

    I did NOT want to see Richard Dreyfuss inside the alien ship in Close Encounters!

    • Kris, you reminded me of F. W. Murnau’s classic silent film, The Last Laugh. That movie is so dang sad, and Emil Jannings so dang good in the role, that I’m sure Murnau added the “twist” ending because even Germans couldn’t take the original. Ha!

      I’m still conflicted about it, but I’ll take the added scene, because a) it’s justice, not fatalism; and b) Jannings is so dang good in THAT scene as well!

  10. One more comment and then I’ll shut up…

    One of my fave endings is from my fave western The Professionals.
    And it has one of the all-time great final lines:

    Ralph Bellamy: You bastard.
    Lee Marvin: Yes, sir. In my case, an accident of birth. But you, you’re a self-made man.

  11. Aww, don’t ruin Pretty in Pink for me! I loved that movie. Of course, I was a teenager when it came out so it was all about Molly and the cute clothes and the music rather than the story. I rewatched it recently with my daughters and realized how much I HATED how quickly she ran back to Blane. I told my girls, “Never do that.” However, there was no chemistry with Duckie so she couldn’t have ended up with him. I guess not ending up with either wasn’t an option with the studio.

    I love Spader, too. I binge-watched Blacklist on Netflix once I realized he was in it. Great show.

    • Great advice to your daughters, Cheryl. At least the movie accomplish that much!

      Glad you’re a Spader fan, too. He has a totally unique vibe about him. Like in that Seinfeld episode where he wouldn’t apologize to George.

  12. I have a feeling about “Pretty in Pink”. In real life she probably wouldn’t have ended up with either of them. She would have graduated high school, gone to college, met someone there, and not even gone back to high school reunions. However, if it had been a fifties or early sixites movie, she probably would have married one of them. If made today, forget it. She would have graduated high school, then college, gone to a big city, got a good job, had several boyfriends, and be in her forties and not yet married. How times change. 😀 — Suzanne

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