Throughout history, humans have found a way to record their lives and adventures; whether it is in cave paintings, stories and myths passed down from generation to generation, or even the written word. As societies have continued to grow and evolve, the function of stories and storytelling has evolved with it. While some functions like recording life for posterity and wrapping lessons and warnings in more palatable terms have remained the same, other functions have continued to emerge. What hasn’t changed is the basic structure of the story: once upon a time, there was a … who… but… which led to… finally, after much fighting and struggle, they overcame by… and they lived happily ever after.
Even movies and books that claim to escape this narrative trap find themselves falling into the same pattern. The most glaring example I have found is He’s Just Not That Into You. While claiming to have had an epiphany after speaking to Alex the bartender (Justin Long), Ginnifer Goodwin’s character Gigi tells Jennifer Connelly’s Janine that women should stop listening to stories of exceptions whose relationships started out with infidelity and fear of commitment but ended up turning into ‘happily ever afters’. In one of the final scenes of the movie, after apparently having his own epiphany, Alex shows up at Gigi’s door and declares, “You’re my exception.”
The swelling score and kiss are supposed to denote Gigi’s happy ending, despite the fact that Alex has spent the entirety of the film telling her off, and convincing her he is not interested. In spite of this, a lot of people cheered while watching the post credits scene where they describe how their relationship started.
The way I see it, it’s not conflict that makes a story worth reading; it’s triumph. Obviously, they both go hand in hand, but the true star is triumph, because just a cursory look at the thing most changed by test audiences is the ending. For example, Pretty Woman, which started out as a realistic portrayal of sex workers in Los Angeles. Instead of ending with Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) throwing Vivian (Julia Roberts) out of his car, it ends with Edward riding up to Vivian’s house in a limousine, with the sunroof open, and a huge bunch of roses to present to her. They ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. The reason behind it? The test audience didn’t like the darker ending.
If we were honest, we would admit that we like that Gigi didn’t give up when she was rejected. We like that her persistence paid off. Every girl wants to be the exception to the rule and to find that the object of her affection was just slow in realizing their connection. So, we gleefully watch all the sappy films that reinforce our feelings of exceptionalism while making fun of them later on for not being true to life.
Art and literature are an escape from the realities of mundane existence. We want to see movies that tell stories about people like us, but with better lives and nicer things, and none of the tragedy we face in our own existence.
We want to see our favorite actors fighting against the odds and winning; even though we know for many of us, that is as close to victory as we shall ever come. We like reading stories of underdogs turning their lives around by the sheer force of their willpower. It allows us to be the boy-wizard that will save the entire magical universe, or the stormtrooper with a heart of gold; it even allows us to be a brave young woman, unafraid of shaking up the status quo.
Finally, while it is easy to argue that conflict provides the audience with schadenfreude and in some cases the unique camaraderie of a rare affliction, I would argue that the joy and anticipation of watching a character beat the odds reminds us of the strength of the human spirit, and I can think of nothing more worthwhile.