I spent last weekend camping with friends in Big Sur, California. Beautiful views, spectacular weather, campfire tales … it really was a wonderful holiday. It took an awfully long time to get there (almost five hours from San Jose—normally a two-hour drive), presumably because we weren’t the only ones with the idea, but it was supremely worth it.
When we arrived at the campsite we discovered we would be sharing a fire pit with our camping neighbors. We bought some extra wood, just in case, and after dinner settled in around the fire. The marshmallows had gone sticky in the bag (I can still feel them on my fingertips), but the company was excellent. It wasn’t long before our neighbors showed up, and naturally we invited them to join us by the fire.
There’s something exceptionally pleasant about getting to know people over a couple of beers around a camp fire, and the talk went on long into the evening (well past the campsite’s ‘curfew’). It turns out our neighbors were from L.A., worked in IT, and were exceptionally well-read. Before long the conversation turned to literature, discussing favorites books, where authors went wrong, and what on earth Marvel was thinking making Captain America a bad guy.
At some point someone brought up Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and how there is now a movie in the works to try and capture some of the hideously epic story on film. This ultimately led to a somewhat heated debate over the ending of said series, some claiming it was the epitome of Stephen King’s writing, others feeling that it was a cop-out of the highest degree.
Spoiler alert: endings are about to be discussed.
What Makes a Good Ending?
One of the first books that introduced me to the bittersweet ending was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. As a child I remember enjoying the rollicking tale of a boy and a girl who quickly become best friends, learning about literature and life, and then … it happens. Completely out of nowhere. What the hell, Katherine Paterson? What were you thinking? And as I slowly recovered from the reeling shock, I came to learn that it could have been no other way. And when Jesse starts to teach his sister about the incredible world of fantasy, I realized that it was—as outraged as I was—a perfect ending.
There are countless other endings in literature and film that I find special, and most of them involve some form of tragedy, major or minor. I remember being taken aback at the end of How to Train Your Dragon (the film, that is to say) when Hiccup loses a leg. I wasn’t expecting permanent physical trauma in a kid’s film. But it made for an incredibly touching moment where Hiccup’s father finds it in himself to forgive a dragon, even though in saving his son it also mutilated him. This is echoed brilliantly in the sequel, whose ending I still don’t want to talk about.
This isn’t to say that the only good ending is a sad one, and think this is part of the cause for debate; the extend to which a person might enjoy a book—ending and all—is entirely a matter of personal preference. For me, I rather enjoy the sad and dismal. For others, the fairytale ending may be the ideal one. But it leads to the question, of course, of what makes a bad ending (personal preference notwithstanding).
The Unending EndingI think one of the things that frustrates readers more than anything is when an author takes an exorbitant length of time to address the ending of a series, favoring other projects or simply giving up. I think this is second only to the author choosing to die before finishing it (Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you).
However, it can be equally irksome when an author can’t leave well enough alone, and chooses to continue a series well past its originally-intended ending. Perhaps the most recent (contentious) example of this is J.K. Rowling’s extensions of the Harry Potter universe, through a play (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the release of said play as a script, and the upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This isn’t to say that sequels and prequels don’t have their place, but sometimes a series ends so perfectly that it really doesn’t need any further tinkering. Am I looking forward to Fantastic Beasts … ? Of course. Did I need it? No.
Sometimes, of course, the author intended an ending, but the successors refuse to let go. This is where a beloved series turns into a franchise, and franchises often have a way of cheapening the original material. Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of my favorite science-fiction novels of all time, and I enjoyed his own sequels almost as much. But after his death in 1986, it seems, his son couldn’t quite let it rest. Not only did he turn a few scraps of notes into not one but two further successive novels, but expanded the Dune universe into over a dozen other stories, none of which were in Frank Herbert’s original thoughts (presumably).
This is the unending ending: when a story just can’t be let go, either by the authors themselves or their followers. The franchise phenomenon is particularly difficult when it gets passed on to other authors and writers, only to be reclaimed by the original author at a later point. Star Wars is a fine example of this: in 1983, we knew how Star Wars ended. The empire was defeated, the Jedi had returned, and all was right with the universe. Then, in 1991, George Lucas allowed Timothy Zahn to continue to story—and thus was born the Star Wars extended universe. This isn’t to say that Timothy Zahn’s books were bad; in fact, in many ways they surpassed the original three movies in their scope, depth and character development. But the books that followed, written by numerous other authors, were nowhere near as sophisticated. And then, of course, Lucas decided to revisit his beloved series, release three prequels, sell out to Disney, and all of a sudden everything that was published between 1991 and 2015 was suddenly and utterly invalidated. Star Wars Legends, indeed!
After being struck by a car in 1999, Stephen King nearly retired. As outraged as his fans were by the thought that The Dark Tower would never be finished, I personally can’t help feeling that King let his own thoughts of mortality overly influence the direction of the series. He returned to the series in 2003, releasing the last three books over the course of eleven months. Collectively totaling nearly 2,000 pages of text, this is an enormous amount of writing for even Stephen King, and I believe the story suffered as a result.
To put it plainly, what started as a delightful, if dark, fantasy that inspirationally blended the real world with the fictional one turned into a vehicle for King to exorcise his fears about death and mortality. And while at first it seems novel, it quickly becomes tiresome. Perhaps he had planned it from the very beginning, but it seems unlikely that he would have considered the dark tower itself (literally, a big black tower) to be emblematic of himself as the author of the series. I’m not kidding: Stephen King wrote himself into the novel, literally to the point where his accident directly influences the plot and direction of the story. Try to conceptualize that for a moment: the author of the book, named in the story as the author of the story, ends up being rescued, essentially, by his own characters. Beyond meta, it’s like Deadpool on steroids.
Of course, this in itself is one thing, but it’s the final ending that seemed to frustrate our campfire guests. Having hunted down the Dark Tower and finally arrived, to the loss of every one of his companions, the gunslinger climbs the tower, arrives at a door, opens the door … and literally starts the whole thing over again. To the extent that the last words of the final book are the first words of the first.
For me, this wasn’t necessarily a bad ending—certainly unexpected—but I can see that for some, it felt like Stephen King took one of their most beloved series and turned it into a kind of self-help therapy. And of course, this begs the question: should he have left well enough alone? Are some series better left unfinished, rather than finished poorly?
As a former musician and composer, I often liken literature to music: the process of writing and publishing both are remarkably similar. Beethoven is the Tolkien of the classical era, taking past influences and using them to create a whole new genre. Mozart is like Stephen King: churning out enormous quantities of music, some of which is spectacular (and some of which is less so). Brahms is like George Lucas: he couldn’t resist tinkering with his music, often revisiting existing works decades later and rewriting them entirely. To make matters worse, he would often burn the old manuscripts, so there was almost no record of the original. Try finding yourself a non-special-edition of A New Hope.
When Should It Be Left Unfinished?
And sometimes, I think of musicians who left their last works unfinished—sometimes because they gave up, but more often because they died. Mozart is a fine example: he died before completing his requiem. Listening to it in completion (it was later completed by a student of his), it’s evident that Mozart wasn’t the person to finish it—the final few movements recycle old material from earlier on in the work, rather than expanding into new territories. I’d even suspect Mozart of combining multiple themes at the final ending, à la Jupiter symphony. But the ending is still satisfactory, and works.
Then there’s Schubert, who left his eighth symphony unfinished as well, though he didn’t die for another six years. In some ways, the two-part symphony stands as a work in its own right, and although part of a third movement exists, it’s almost never performed as anything but the first two. There have been competitions to complete the symphony, but none have entered canon.
Who’s to say what’s best? Should Stephen King have left the Dark Tower alone, or completed it as he did? Should David Lagercrantz have continued Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series? As frustrating as it is to not know how something was intended to end, perhaps it’s better to have something half-finished and wonderful, than to have something subpar but compete.
What do you think? Should an artist be obligated to complete a project they start on for the sake of their audience, or is it acceptable to leave things incomplete—by force or by choice? And if they do choose to write to the end, does that make the ending better, or worse?
Let me know in the comments!
Chris, features writer. Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris' creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of Erâth. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgement that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com
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