LWW is the 2005 film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ beloved 1950 eponymous book. It’s the first of the books he wrote concerning the world of Narnia. And PL is a 2006 film of an original screenplay by Guillermo del Toro. I need to be clear I have no problem with either film’s plot, although I do find PL quite horrific at times, in ways not lending themselves to my tastes. No, it’s the endings I quibble with.
LWW has our four protagonists, the Pevensie children, pass through a wardrobe which is a magical portal to Narnia. Once there, they must overcome the evil White Witch Jadis. which they do. As a reward, they jointly rule Narnia for years… before stumbling over the wardrobe entry and being unceremoniously dumped back in our world, seconds after they left, and the same ages they were at the moment of departure. In the sequel, Prince Caspian, we discover they were seriously bummed about this, and no bloody wonder: after being supreme rulers of an entire kingdom for at least a decade, they have to go back to being very non-descript, anonymous kids? I’d be bummed, too. (Famed science fiction author Frederik Pohl once noted power is like cocaine: it’s addictive, and it rots the mind.) So yeah, I’m really not in love with LWW’s ending. Come on, Jack, why return these kids to our own mortal and rather drab world? They were obviously happy enough in Narnia.
PL had a different type of irksome ending. Ofelia, PL’s 11-year-old female protagonist, is told (by a very tall and truly creepy faun --- not at all like LWW’s Mr. Tumnus, by the way) she is really a fairy princess and needs only to complete three tasks to rejoin her true folks in the fairy underworld. (Right… and that white van parked over there with ‘free candy’ written on it seems legit, too, kids.) The only wrinkle is that this course of action pits Ofelia against her stepfather, a murderous Falangist officer with a penchant for torture. At the film’s climax, Ofelia flees with her newly born brother into the labyrinth which the faun claims is the gateway to the underworld. Stepdad pursues and shoots her (before taking baby bro and leaving the labyrinth, where he in turn meets justice and is summarily shot). As she lies dying, she finds herself in the fairy underworld, congratulated by her real parents for completing the tasks. We think. Or is it merely some dying fantasy her brain engages in? Because back up in our world, she’s still lying there, dying. So… was the whole narrative, with faun, tasks, and fantastic, grotesque creatures… was it real? Or did she imagine the entire thing?
I think Del Toro meant for it to be real… but there’s that doubt. And I, for one, hate it.
Now, ambiguous endings don’t have to be bad. In class, I use a short story titled The Lady or the Tiger by Frank Stockton, a great tale about a ‘semi-barbaric’ princess whose boyfriend has run afoul of her dad, who happens to be king and possessed of very peculiar notions about justice. Transgressors against the king’s laws (which evidently include some variation on that favourite of all dads everywhere, Thou Shalt Not Play Fast and Loose With My Daughter’s Affections) are placed in an arena and compelled to choose one soundproofed door to open. Behind one is a tiger that will messily and publicly eat said transgressor, while behind the other is a beautiful maiden who immediately marries the guy (some cynics would claim both fates are eerily similar). Boyfriend looks to the princess for guidance; she subtly indicates one door to open. Which he does. And then Stockton stops cold, asking: which came out of the door, the lady, or the tiger? And that’s it. Delightful. My kids hate it.
(When I casually mention Stockton wrote a sequel, The Discourager of Hesitancy, which addresses the unanswered question, they clamour to read it. Which we do. And they hate it, too… because Stockton sets up a similar situation and ends the story identically, asking people to choose an alternative based on their perception of human nature. Absolutely no resolution. Like I said, kids hate it. And I may express some amusement over their displeasure.)
But that’s very different from making us wonder whether the entire story actually occurred. (Life of Pi does the same thing, by the way. So do Lewis Carroll’s tales.)
It’s also different from ending on a cliff-hanger. I do that in my novel, Gryphon’s Heir (to a friend’s annoyance, although she admitted she knew why I did it). But at least, with a cliff-hanger, there’s the promise of resolution… it’s just punted down the road a ways.
So… don’t toy with me, Writer. Don’t make me question whether what I’m told happened, really happened. And don’t cheat your protagonists with totally unsatisfying conclusions. Your stories are more real to me than some theoretically real people I have to deal with every day, and I care about your characters.
Above all, don’t trifle with my affections.
Because, to paraphrase Will, ‘tis not a consummation devoutly to be wished.