Realistic Fiction vs Happy Endings
In Tim Keller’s wonderful book Hidden Christmas he points out that just before the first film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy released there were a host of literary critics who came out with articles arguing against the popular appeal of fantasy stories that are not true to real life. They said these stories - ones like Lord of the Rings - are too black and white with their portrayal of good and evil. In reality things are much more gray. Happy endings, they argued, are actually cruel to the reader/viewer because life is not actually like that.
I felt this strongly in my early twenties. I’ve always been really into movies and in the early 2000’s Hollywood was putting out a litany of top-notch films which portrayed the gray areas and the darker sides of real life. Movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood resonated with me. I felt drawn to films which caused you to root for the bad guys like The Godfather, or films where the line between good and evil was a bit blurry like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I found myself being extremely dismissive of the idealism of productions like The Andy Griffith Show, which made it seem like the worst thing that could happen to you in life would be if someone at school called you a “doodie-head.” But it didn’t take anything more than a simple apology to return life to being perfectly comfortable. That’s not real life. Why do people find it attractive?
But in the last eight years, which just so happens to be the time ever since my wife and I had our first child, I have noticed a trend in my media consumption. Now I find myself drawn once again to the black and white, happy-ending stories. I read through the Lord of the Rings books about once every two years. I can’t wait to start them up again. I’ve rediscovered and fallen in love all over again with Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. I can’t get enough of the idealism of Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove and Open Range. And of course, like any man, Rudy makes me cry like a baby. What has happened to me?!
Tim Keller helped me to see it. In that great book, Hidden Christmas, he writes, “The great fairy tales and legends… did not really happen of course. They are not factually true. And yet they seem to fulfill a set of longings in the human heart that realistic fiction can never touch or satisfy. That is because deep in the human heart there are these desires - to experience the supernatural, to escape death, to know love that we can never lose, to not age but to live long enough to realize our creative dreams, to fly, to communicate with nonhuman beings, to triumph over evil. If the fantasy stories are well told, we find them incredibly moving and satisfying. Why? It is because even though we know that factually the stories didn’t happen, our hearts long for these things, and a well-told story momentarily satisfies these desires, scratching the terrible itch.”
That terrible itch. I vividly remember times when it has been scratched. I wasn’t alive when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, but I cry every time I watch the ESPN Sports Century doc. Why? I mean seriously, what kind of self-respecting grown man cries from a horse race? Am I having a mid-life crisis? No. It’s just that for a brief moment, God reached into our world and scratched that terrible itch we all have. For a moment he gave us a glimpse of the perfection we were originally meant to experience every day. Tons of grown men cried when they saw that race. They couldn’t help it.
These black and white, happy ending stories are so attractive to us because deep down we long for a world in which they could actually happen. In fact, it’s more than that. Deep down we’re trying to get back to Eden. Deep down we know the possibility actually exists. God put that desire inside of each one of us, and when he blows on the embers of our hearts through a well-told fantasy, it’s like getting a whiff of a delicious meal when you haven’t eaten for days. The closer you get to Jesus the more your heart will long for him to fix this broken world. Consequently, I believe, the more attraction you will feel toward the happy-ending stories.