Writing eucatastrophe

JRR Tolkien defined a eucatastrophe as the miraculous happy ending he thought fantasy required—“a sudden and miraculous grace, never counted on to recur.” A triumph that makes the heart catch in the throat, that gains power not because it denies defeat and despair, but because it comes in spite of them.
This is tricky to write (I’d also argue it isn’t essential to fantasy, but that’s another topic). If you don’t set it up in advance, it comes off as deus ex machina. If you do set it off in advance, readers may see it coming. Watching the first season of The Twilight Zone on Netflix last week (I’ve been streaming it, episode by episode), I found two textbook examples of how to do it—and how to not do it.
In Mr. Denton on Doomsday, Dan Duryea plans a drunken ex-gunfighter, a man who crawled into a bottle after killing too many people who tried to make a name for themselves by out-shooting him. As local bully Martin Landau knocks him to the ground, a shabby old peddler pulls up into town … and a gun materializes by Duryea’s side. His hand falls on the gun, he gets to his feet and the gun fires itself, blasting Landau’s gun out of his hand (from the point of view of the characters, it looks like Duryea snatched up a gun and recovered his fast-draw skills). He regains his self-respect, stops drinking—and then learns Doug McClure is riding into town to challenge him. It’s all going to happen again.
The peddler, Professor Fate, offers a solution: A potion that will make Duryea the fastest gun alive for just ten seconds after he drinks—enough to guarantee a win. Desperate, Duryea accepts; McClure rides into town, Duryea down the vial—and sees McClure doing the same. Next second, both men (or rather, their guns) shoot, both crippling each other’s hands: Usable for everyday stuff, but they’ll never have the motor skills for a fast draw. Duryea gets to hang up his guns, and so does McClure.
It works because even though it’s obvious Fate is up to something—the ending’s no deus ex machina—it’s never clear what (I expected a much nastier twist). And also because Duryea plays a good guy in a no-win situation, someone who needs a eucatastrophe.
Not so Ida Lupino in the next episode, The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine. A Hollywood star in the 1930s, she’s become a recluse, sitting in her mansion, watching her old movies (back when you had to rent 16-mm copies and run them on a home projector), dreaming of her glory years a quarter-century gone (the resemblance to Sunset Boulevard is not coincidental, I’m sure). Unable to deal with growing old and no longer getting great romantic leads (supporting parts are not for her) she finally walks into the movie screen by the power of her longing, there to meet all her old co-stars (or rather the characters they played) and dwell in glamor, unaging, ever more.
It’s a good concept: Robert Bloch did well with it in The Movie People. And it fits Rod Serling’s fondness for stories of people recovering their lost past. But it doesn’t work. Partly because it comes out of the blue—until we see Lupino onscreen at the end, it’s a straight drama.
And partly it’s because I can’t see any reasons she gets a eucatastrophe. In other Serling stories in this vein, the characters are regaining a lost love (Static), tragically losing everything (Night Gallery: They’re Tearing Down Tim Reilly’s Bar) or suffering the hell of sitting around a nursing home waiting for death (Kick the Can). Lupino’s problem is simply that she doesn’t like being in her fifties. When her former romantic lead shows up—now a fiftysomething manager of a supermarket chain—she throws him out because he’s not the heartthrob she remembers.
She’s not miserable because her life sucks. Her life sucks because she’s miserable. Like the brooding protagonist of another episode, The Trouble With Templeton, she needs a eucatastrophe that adjusts her attitude, not her life.
And that’s how to make a eucatastrophe ending fail.


Filed under TV, Writing

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