Sometimes romantic conflict is overrated

While watching Romancing the Stone (1984) this weekend, I began thinking——unfortunately but inevitably——about the much-less entertaining sequel, Jewel of the Nile.
Romancing the Stone, if you don’t know, stars Kathleen Turner as a shy romance novelist plunged into adventure in Colubmia alongside seedy but charming rogue Michael Douglas. At the end, Turner gets the happily ever after she writes into her books.
In the sequel, the happily-ever after isn’t working out so well; the relationship’s straining before they wind up in another adventure and of course, get the old feelings back.
The whole thing of having their relationship on the rocks never sat well with me. Nor do any of the countless sequels to classic works in which the happy ending turns out not so perfect (I think Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy have gone through that in several non-Austen sequels). It’s true the happy ending in many cases isn’t really plausible: Are a few days in the jungle together, even with healthy sexual chemistry, really a basis for a long-term relationship? But so what? For me this is part of the suspension of disbelief, or maybe even close to what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe, the miraculous triumph against the odds. In other words, if I like the movie and the couple, I’ll accept that yes, this couple will live happily ever after.
Shattering my suspension, on the othe rhand, rarely produces good results. How can it? If the first happy ending isn’t real, why should I believe the next one? But writers still keep doing it——possibly because they can’t think of anything else.
Sexual tension and romantic conflict are, after all, one of the basic tools. Almost any sort of story——fantasy, SF, mystery, action adventure——has a romantic/sexual element these days. And it’s so much easier to generate conflict if the romance isn’t going well.
I suspect the canceling of the happy endings is the same impulse that makes TV shows stretch out sexual tension to infinity——because OMG, if everybody is intrigued wondering when they’ll get together, then we can’t ever get them together because then they won’t be intrigued! And so the relationship stretches out long, long after they should plausibly have hooked up (see Moonlighting, Remington Steele). Of course, relationships have their own share of problems and challenges (as the producer of the Jamie Lee Curtis series Anything But Love noted when he had her and the male lead finally get together), but it does limit your range. Seeing other people, wondering what the other person feels about you, all that stuff vanishes from the writers’ toolbox the more committed the couple gets.
In comics, both Superman’s and Spider-Man’s decade-plus marriages have been erased recently, Superman’s by DC’s reboot and Spidey’s by a pact with the demon Mephisto (to save Aunt May’s life Peter canceled out his wedding to Mary Jane——and believe me it was a lot dumber than it sounds). Part of this is just nostalgia on the part of the creators involved (Marvel top-kick Joe Quesade was quite clear he wanted to bring back the single Peter Parker he remembered reading in his youth), but lots of other creators have objected the marriages just didn’t work: Peter Parker’s happy relationship didn’t fit the idea of him being the character who gets the short end of the lollipop time after time, for instance (several fans did suggest that Peter could take on more adult challenges——raise a kid, buy a house, cope with work problems——but that’s not the way Marvel opted to run it).
The trouble is, if you never resolve sexual tension, if you never get to the marriage, nothing ever changes, really. And if we can’t believe in the ending, there’s no satisfaction.
Sometimes happily (or reasonably happily) ever after’s the best solution.

3 Comments

Filed under Movies, Reading, Writing

3 responses to “Sometimes romantic conflict is overrated

  1. Pingback: Fictional Books Blog and Review

  2. Pingback: Single forever? (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Watching movies in South Carolina | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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