Endings are important. I have to admit, I am a sucker for a happy ending. When I finish a book, or a series, I like to know that all that effort (on the part of the characters) wasn’t wasted. I like to see Good triumph over Evil.
How a book ends defines the message the book gives to the reader. If the hero succeeds, it might be ‘good triumphs over evil’ or ‘love conquers all’. If he fails, it’s more like ‘nice guys finish last’ or ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.
Storytelling, at the deepest level, can always be seen as allegorical. Some books are obviously allegorical (Voltaire’s Candide, for example) and the allegory is more important to the author than the story itself. For most books, though, it’s the other way around. Terry Pratchett (yes, I know I keep banging on about Pratchett, but he’s a brilliant author and I can use his work to illustrate so many points) is a prime example of the hidden allegory. His books work as ‘just stories’, but if you start thinking about what you’re reading, you realise that most of them – especially the later ones – have a hidden message (or three). The first hidden message is usually satire – Pratchett poking fun at some aspect of society or conduct – but deeper even than satire, is allegory.
In Carpe Jugulum, on the face of it, it’s a fairly straightforward (though humorous) vampire novel: vampires invade Lancre and need to be fought off by the witches (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat Garlick and Agnes Nitt).
If you look a bit deeper, you get the satire – Pratchett poking fun at the desire for change and ‘modernity’ for change’s sake, vampire novels, goth culture (in this book, young vampires stay up till noon, dress in bright colours, and adopt names like ‘Pam’ and ‘Gertrude’ if they’re trying to be trendy) and evangelical religion.
Go deeper than the satire, and you have an allegorical tale of the many faces of evil and the duty to fight it at any personal cost.
With Pratchett, because he has presumably deliberately written at least the later Discworld books with a serious message, it’s not that difficult to identify the allegory once you decide to look. But you can identify an allegorical message in pretty much any book if you look hard enough.
I suppose you could say that it’s a bit like imagining shapes in the clouds – if the message is not intended, does it really exist? Or is it a literary-criticism conceit? One can say this about Shakespeare – the man wasn’t writing great literature; he was a working playwright and poet writing to get bums on seats. But does the one necessarily exclude the other? Just because the clouds were not designed by an intelligent hand, is it necessarily true that there are no patterns?
Hot Fuzz, for example, a police comedy film, is basically about Nicholas Angel, a hotshot London policeman who is transferred to a sleepy town to stop him showing up his colleagues who are less efficient. He soon finds that his new town – Sandford – is under the control of the psychotic Neighbourhood Watch who kill anyone who gets in their way. With the help of Danny, his fat, dozy new partner, Angel defeats the Neighbourhood Watch and breaks their hold on the town. If, however, you change the focus from Angel to Danny, the film becomes an allegory for the fight to stand clear of one’s parents and forge an independent life, and the necessity for taking responsibility for one’s own actions and destiny. I have no idea whether the film-makers actually intended this message, but it’s there nevertheless. At least, it is for me.
Another example. In the televisation of Tanya Huff’s Blood books, in one episode Vicki Nelson and Henry Fitzroy are watching a vampire film together – Nosferatu, directed by Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the vampire, Count Orlok. In the film, the hero’s wife, Ellen, has read that the only way to defeat the vampire is for a beautiful woman to distract him all through the night so that he will be caught unawares by the dawn. Ellen courageously performs this role, and Count Orlok is duly caught by the rising sun and turned to dust. Watching the film, human Vicki thinks it’s romantic that Ellen was so devoted to her husband that she was willing to risk her life to save him (and everyone else). Vampire Henry, however, sees the film differently. He is no less affected by the romance and self-sacrifice portrayed on screen, but for him, Orlok is the hero – he is so much in love with Ellen that, even though he can feel the dawn coming, he stays with her until the sun rises, thus dying for love.
Meanings of books (and films) are therefore tricky things. If you look hard enough at even the most trashy novel, you can find an underlying message – even if it’s only that ‘love conquers all’, which, actually, isn’t a trivial message at all. To some extent, the meaning of your book – unless it’s so deliberately written in that it’s unequivocal – may be different to different people. However, it will certainly be there. Have you ever read what was otherwise a pretty decent book, but somehow felt unsatisfied? I would guess that this might be because the underlying message of the book was something you did not agree with.
Take Little Big Soldier, for example. This is a very good film; Jackie Chan at his best. It’s the story of a cowardly peasant soldier who manages to capture a young warrior prince, and is intent on taking him back to his home province to collect the reward so that he can buy a farm. Obviously, comedy ensues and the two end up having to work together to survive. The young prince learns humility and the value of human life; the peasant learns courage. The peasant then releases the prince to go back to rule his province, and the prince gives the peasant a reward so that he can still start his farm. The peasant then arrives back in his home province – only to discover that the enemy have overrun it. He is still carrying his province’s banner, so he unfurls it and thus dies a soldier’s death, shot by the invaders of his province. There is a text coda to the film, explaining that this was during the unification of China; the prince is based on a historical character who, when the soon-to-be-ruler-of-all-China invaded his province, he surrendered without a fight, thus preserving the lives of his subjects (presumably due to the influence of the peasant soldier who taught him that all lives, even the lowliest, matter).
This was a film where I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach at the end. For Jackie Chan to go through all that turmoil and privation, only to be killed at what should have been his moment of triumph… Well, that sucks. It was a good film – well written, well acted, etc. However, I won’t be watching it again because it’s just too depressing. The overall message is You can’t win. Even when you think you’ve succeeded, life will just turn around and kick you right in the nuts.
Have you ever read a book, or watched a film, like that?
So, what does this mean? If you’re a reader, figuring out what the underlying message is might tell you why you didn’t warm to an otherwise technically excellent book or film. If you’re a writer, you’d better see if you can figure out what message your writing is giving. And is it the one you want?