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In storylines where the protagonists are in physical danger, a happy ending mainly consists of their survival and successful completion of the quest or mission; where there is no physical danger, a happy ending may be lovers consummating their love despite various factors which may have thwarted it. A considerable number of storylines combine both situations. In Steven Spielberg's version of "War of the Worlds", the happy ending consists of three distinct elements: The protagonists all survive the countless perils of their journey; humanity as a whole survives the alien invasion; and the protagonist father regains the respect of his estranged children. The plot is so constructed that all three are needed for the audience's feeling of satisfaction in the end.
A happy ending is epitomized in the standard fairy tale ending phrase, "happily ever after" or "and they lived happily ever after". (One Thousand and One Nights has the more restrained formula "they lived happily until there came to them the One who Destroys all Happiness" (i.e. Death); likewise, the Russian versions of fairy tales typically end with "they lived long and happily, and died together on the same day".) Satisfactory happy endings are happy for the reader as well, in that the characters he or she sympathizes with are rewarded. However, this can also serve as an open path for a possible sequel. For example, in the 1977 film Star Wars, Luke Skywalker defeats the Galactic Empire by destroying the Death Star; however, the story's happy ending has consequences that follow in The Empire Strikes Back. The concept of a permanent happy ending is specifically brought up in the Stephen King fantasy/fairy tale novel The Eyes of the Dragon which has a standard good ending for the genre, but simply states that "there were good days and bad days" afterwards.
A happy ending only requires that the main characters be all right. Millions of innocent background characters can die, but as long as the characters that the reader/viewer/audience cares about survive, it can still be a happy ending. Roger Ebert comments in his review of Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow: "Billions of people may have died, but at least the major characters have survived. Los Angeles is leveled by multiple tornadoes, New York is buried under ice and snow, the United Kingdom is flash-frozen, and lots of the Northern Hemisphere is wiped out for good measure. Thank god that Jack, Sam, Laura, Jason and Dr. Lucy Hall survive, along with Dr. Hall's little cancer patient."
The presence of a happy ending is one of the key points that distinguish melodrama from tragedy. In certain periods, the endings of traditional tragedies such as Macbeth or Oedipus Rex, in which most of the major characters end up dead, disfigured, or discountenanced, have been actively disliked. In the Seventeenth Century, the Irish author Nahum Tate sought to improve William Shakespeare's King Lear in his own heavily modified version in which Lear survives and Cordelia marries Edgar. Tate's version dominated performances for a century and a half, Shakespeare's original nearly forgotten. Both David Garrick and John Philip Kemble, while taking up some of Shakespeare's original text, kept Tate's happy ending. Edmund Kean played King Lear with its tragic ending in 1823, but failed and reverted to Tate's crowd-pleaser after only three performances. Only in 1838 did William Macready at Covent Garden successfully restore Shakespeare's original tragic end – Helen Faucit's final appearance as Cordelia, dead in her father's arms, became one of the most iconic of Victorian images and the play's tragic end was finally accepted by the general public. Most subsequent critics have not found Tate's amendments an improvement, and welcomed the restoration of Shakespeare's original. Happy endings have also been fastened – equally, with no lasting success – to Romeo and Juliet and Othello.
There is no universally accepted definition of what a happy ending is; such definitions can considerably vary with time and cultural differences. An interpretation of The Merchant of Venice's forced conversion of Shylock to Christianity is that it was intended as a happy ending. As a Christian, Shylock could no longer impose interest, undoing his schemes in the play and ending the rivalry between him and Antonio, but more important, contemporary audiences would see becoming a Christian as a means to save his soul (cf. Romans 11:15). In later times, Jews (and non-Jewish opponents of anti-Semitism) strongly objected to that ending, regarding it as depicting a victory for injustice and oppression and as pandering to the audience's prejudices.
A Times review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold strongly criticized John le Carré for failing to provide a happy ending, and gave unequivocal reasons why in the reviewer's opinion (shared by many others) such an ending is needed: "The hero must triumph over his enemies, as surely as Jack must kill the giant in the nursery tale. If the giant kills Jack, we have missed the whole point of the story."
George Bernard Shaw had to wage an uphill struggle against audiences, as well as some critics, persistently demanding that his "Pygmalion" have a happy ending, i.e. that Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolitle would ultimately get married. To Shaw's great chagrin, Herbert Beerbohm Tree who presented the play in London's West End in 1914 had sweetened the ending and told Shaw: "My ending makes money; you ought to be grateful. Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot." The irritated Shaw added a postscript essay, "'What Happened Afterwards", to the 1916 print edition, for inclusion with subsequent editions, in which he explained precisely why in his view it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting married. Nevertheless, audiences continued wanting a happy ending also for later adaptations such as the musical and film "My Fair Lady".
In numerous cases, Hollywood studios adapting literary works into film added a happy ending which did not appear in the original.
- Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein, ended with the deaths of Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza. In the 1931 film adaption they survive and marry.
- C. S. Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen has a British couple, stranded in Africa during the First World War, hatch a plot to sink a German gunboat; they make an enormous, dedicated struggle, with boundless effort and sacrifice, but at the last moment their quest ends with failure and futility. In the 1951 film adaptation they succeed, and get to see the German boat sink (just in time to save them from being hanged by the Germans).
- Truman Capote's 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's ended with the main character, Holly Golightly, going her own solitary way and disappearing from the male protagonist's life. In the 1961 film made on its base she finally accepts the love he offers her and the film ends with their warmly embracing, oblivious of a pouring rain.
- Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid ends with the protagonist mermaid making a noble sacrifice, resigned to seeing her beloved prince marrying another woman. In the 1989 Disney adaptation, the mermaid does get to happily marry her prince. Disney later added a sequel, obviously impossible for the Andersen original, focused on the child born of that marriage.
- Ebert's review of The Day After Tomorrow
- The Times, September 13, 1968.
- Evans, T.F. (ed.) (1997). George Bernard Shaw (The Critical Heritage Series). ISBN 0-415-15953-9, pp. 223–30.
- "From the Point of View of A Playwright," by Bernard Shaw, collected in Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Some Memories of Him and His Art, Collected by Max Beerbohm (1919). London: Hutchinson. Versions at Text Archive Internet Archive
- Shaw, Bernard, edited by Dan H. Laurence. Collected Letters vol. III: 1911–1925.
- Shaw, G.B. (1916). Pygmalion. New York: Brentano. Sequel: What Happened Afterwards. Bartleby: Great Books Online.