Do Hollywood Films Always Need A Happy Ending?

In the days of yore, Hollywood movies demanded a happy ending. That is what audiences demanded. How times have changed. Cinema goers are no longer that easily categorized. Their tastes are more fragmented and nuanced. A cookie cutter ending will not cut it for every Hollywood movie these days.

Here are 5 endings often seen in Hollywood movies:


This is perhaps the simplest of endings. Nice and upbeat.

The protagonist achieves their “outer” and “inner” goals. In other words, the hero gets the gold and becomes a better person. This is almost a given in romantic comedies. In “The Back Up Plan”,  Zoe has her baby (twins) and a man who’ll stand by her.


The tragedy harks from ancient theater and often involved great sacrifice, even death.

The protagonist achieves neither their “inner” nor their “outer” goal. “Leaving Las Vegas” was a tragedy because he drank himself to death. Hollywood avoids such endings like the plague. Audience desire some sense of achievement in their films. Perversely, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Thelma and Louise” technically don’t qualify as tragic endings because Romeo and Juliet ended up together (albeit in death) and Thelma and Louise were emancipated from their dreary lives.


This is a mixture of happy and sad. It is perhaps the most realistic type of movie ending.

The protagonist achieves their “inner” goal, but fails to achieve their “outer” goal. In “Rain Man”, Charlie doesn’t acquire “ownership” of his brother, but he does grow from a self-centered narcissist to a more selfless brother (metamorphosis). In “Little Miss Sunshine”, Olive Hoover doesn’t win the beauty contest, but brings her family closer.


Technically, these come under tragedies, albeit not as extreme. There is a certain level of discomfort such a loss, but no great sacrifice.

The protagonist achieves their “outer” goal, but fails to achieve their “inner” transformation. In “Citizen Kane”, Charles Foster gets the power and wealth (outer), but dies empty and unfulfilled. Fables are moralistic tales warning what happens if you don’t follow a certain moral code.


These are more stylistic endings in ice films, which simply without making either a positive or negative judgement about the central theme. They end on a “just because” note. Life happens.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. “Back Up Plan” sucked regardless of the ending.

    In LLV, Ben’s outer goal was drinking himself to death. Ben and Sera did ultimately achieve an inner peace together before he died, so the tragicness is no different from R&J or T&L in that respect.

  2. redcarol57 says:

    The problem with unsatisfactory endings is when you spend 2 hours (and at the theater more than 10 bucks and gas to get there), you better like the characters, or end up liking something about them. And if you do find any or all characters sympathetic – you want something emotionally satisfying to a degree for them as well. Two movies that come to mind with unsatisfactory endings were “Smokin Aces”, and “I Melt With You.”

    I found myself asking, “Okay? What was the point?” The fact that both movies have tragic and almost pointless endings indicated that 1.) Either the director and/or the writers didn’t have a point, in which case — why did I just watch this? or 2.) The direction and/or writer weren’t making themselves clear.

    For instance, the main character of “Gran Torino” wasn’t particularly a likeable character, but the ending had a point and the character some redemption. The writer and director seemed to know what they wanted to say.

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      not seen smokin aces. Loved melt with you. Granted ending was downbeat and weird but congruent to movie. Not all endings must be neat to be satisfying

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