All’s well that ends well, so don’t mess with the classics
Of all the parts within a book, the ending is most sacred.
For the reader it’s the ultimate reward for perseverance. A gift for linking the sub-plots, visualising the setting, believing in the characters and piecing it all together.
While for the writer, the ending of a book is consummate power. The end of months, even years of work, and surely the most satisfying part of the whole writing process.
You’d like to think that a good ending, done right, helps an author sleep at night. Mess with it and you’ve ruined a crucial part of somebody else’s creative experience and changed its meaning.
So it was nothing less than shocking to read this week that several great books have actually had their endings re-written to placate the whims of an audience, or better fit the directions of fussy film producers. According to The Daily Beast, at least ten real, great and classic books have their endings altered by novelists and Hollywood producers who decided the original versions just weren’t up to scratch.
First up, the revised edition of Ernest Hemmingway’s 1929 A Farewell to Arms, that’s due to hit American bookstores next week with 39 different endings. Ok, so most of these re-writes are believed to be Hemmingway’s draft editions, but even still, the man decided on the ending of that classic love story for a reason, leave it be!
Next, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Apparently the ending with which we’re all familiar was actually the directive of his friend, the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He said Dickens’ original ending, where the lovers remained estranged, was too depressing and insisted that Pip and Estella end up together.
Producers of the film adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, decided leading man, the debonair Cary Grant, would not be a believable wife murderer, so they blurred the ending enough to leave a question mark over the once gruesome final scene.
And in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster adaption of Titanic, the older Rose character was intercepted before dropping her Heart of the Ocean necklace overboard. This differs from the original version, which had her clambering over the great ship’s rail and chucking it straight in.
So what, some particularly one-dimensional people will say: if the book, or film adaption of a book entertains, then it’s a job well done.
But not me, uh, uh, no way. Changing the ending of other people’s books should never be allowed. Ever. Write your own book if you want to control another person’s story, and preferably with your own idea. Otherwise, stay the hell away.
As the author Gideon Haigh wrote this week, writing the ending of a book is like a love affair, a journey of obsession, depression, fascination, fear, longing, anger and lust. In other words, a deeply personal experience that shouldn’t be messed with:
“Did I ever lose the urge to continue? No: the guilt would have been too profound, and the pre-existing investment too great to write off. Besides, I’m a journalist, and journalists are conditioned to regarding publication as integral to the writing process and deadlines as much a matter of life and death as the word implies. Towards the end, nonetheless, I was experiencing feelings equal but opposite to those I had experienced at the beginning, like symptoms of depression that envelop you at the end of a soured relationship: sleeplessness, lethargy, loss of appetite, sensations of worthlessness, anxiety, agitation… Where was that note? Who was that bloke? I grew, quite frankly, to hate everything I had done to the point that I could barely look at it… As the book neared publication, I could feel only a vague sense of relief seasoned with regret and anticlimax. Rumer Godden was right to observe that ‘for a dyed-in-the-wool author nothing is so dead as a book once it is written’.
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