Writing the Personal Tragedy
The combination of success with unresolved emotional states creates this bittersweet narrative.
Feeling good about losing out is one thing, feeling miserable about winning is something else. Like the personal triumph, the personal tragedy straddles the emotional bridge between an all out rejoicing and an overwhelming depression.
But whereas the former emphasizes the good, this kind of ending focuses on the bad. It's the bitter half of a bittersweet ending, an ending that far too many of us have experienced in our own lives.
Success often comes with a price. That's the overriding message of this kind of ending. These stories focus on the internal turmoil a Main Character suffers through in their endeavors to achieve success in the story as a whole. Often the Main Characters in these stories have pushed themselves to such an extreme that they have forgotten or buried their own personal issues. Victory, it would seem, is no salvation for one's personal demons.
The Personal Tragedy
The following clips are examples of stories where the good guys win, yet the Main Character goes home sad.
Besides being great films, what each of these clips have in common is an overwhelmingly gloomy soundtrack. In fact, they're so similar that they almost become interchangeable. Dark and ominous minor chords support what should otherwise be a joyous occasion. The Joker's vile scheme to plunge Gotham into chaos has been thwarted. Perky Marge brings the murderous wood-chipper operator Grimsrud to justice. And Buffalo Bill will never finish his custom suit. These are fantastically great endings. Then why is the music so depressing?
Shouldn't Batman and Commissioner Gordon be jumping up and down with joy like Mav and his buddies did back on the aircraft carrier? After all, in addition to stopping the Joker, they did manage to thwart Two-Face's attempt at dastardly revenge. Where's the all-out celebration? As it turns out, this downer is all Bruce's fault.
Throughout the The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has struggled with the impact he has had on the public and whether or not his presence is a good thing or a bad thing for the people of Gotham. He wants to be the hero, but realizes in the end that the only way he can save them all is by becoming the bad guy. He assumes responsibility for Harvey's murders and tells Gordon to let loose the dogs. In doing so, he secures Gotham's future, but at the price of his own. The good guys win, yet the Main Character goes home sad (or better yet, unfulfilled).
The Batman has seen himself live long enough to become the villain.
Similarly, in Fargo, astute car salesman Jerry Lundegard (William H. Macy) finds himself a victim of his own best laid plans. His scheme to ransom his own wife carelessly unravels into a triple murder, calling the attention of the headstrong local pregnant police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDorman). As with the structural split in King Kong, Fargo is an atypical story where the Main Character is not the Protagonist. Jerry is our personal "in" to the story and thus can be considered the Main Character. As charming as Marge is, she still is simply the character leading the crime investigation against the bad guys, and thus is labeled the Protagonist.
Marge succeeds and captures one of the baddies (she was unfortunately too late for the other). But as you can clearly see in the image to the right (and in the clip above), Jerry is not faring as well. The good guys win, but the Main Character is definitely not going "home" happy.
Another character not going home happy is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs. Graduation ceremonies are supposed to be happy celebrations of important milestones in one's life; they signify meaningful growth. But Clarice has not yet grown to a spot where she can rightfully claim the right of transformation. As Lecter's phone call belies, the lambs are still crying, regardless of Clarice's recent success in the field.
Buffalo Bill may have been stopped, but Clarice will still go home haunted by those screams.
Feeling Awful About Winning
Winning isn't everything, and these stories are meaningful representations of that reality. But serving up a downer ending should not be considered something to avoid. Looking beyond the success explored through character and plot in these stories is the success these films experienced when released to the general public. Two of them won Oscars for their masterful writing, while the third made over half a billion dollars at the box office. While the Main Characters of these films may have gone home sad, the filmmakers certainly did not.
Audiences appreciate and embrace these kinds of stories because they shed light on why things are the way they are. People crave these stories because they crave meaningful conclusions to their endeavors. The drive to win at any cost is something every audience member can recognize and empathize with and is one of the reasons why these films remain so powerful.
Simply put, a story with a meaningful ending helps to explain why.