A few years ago, the American Film Institute (AFI) compiled a list of 100 romantic films, called ‘America’s 100 greatest love stories.’ A cursory look into the list and what surprises you is that more than 90 per cent of these love stories end in a tragic note, with the lovers either dead or parting ways. They hardly live happily ever after.
'Happily ever after’ is probably the most romantic of all romantic ideas and strangely, it does not work in most romantic films. This oxymoron needs explanation.
The logic of a love story is very simple. Boy meets girl (or man meets woman), cupid strikes, and the lives of these two individuals are altered forever. So far so good! What’s next?
Ideally, the lovers should settle down in marriage and live happily ever after. A fairytale situation; Cinderella meets her prince charming!
But life isn’t a fairytale. There’s death lurking, there’s society at large which is hostile as usual, and most importantly, there are choices to make. Walking with the lover to the sunset is not always the right choice.
Fairytales are a different story. Unlike romance, fairytales demand a forced happy ending, where, in most cases, the female protagonist must shed her past to embrace her lover’s world in order to achieve that much-lauded happily ever after prize. Little Mermaid, Ariel, must leave her ocean and ‘grow’ legs if she wants to be with her prince charming. Princess Fiona must turn into a full-time ogre to live happily ever after with Shrek. In Shrek 2 when Shrek has a chance to continue as a handsome prince, it is Fiona who protests and lets her hero be what he is. In short, fairytales demand unfortified sacrifice from one or the other of the pair of lovers.
Romantic stories usually fail to fulfil this.
Fairytales consider the pair of lovers as one entity, whereas in romantic stories they are separate individuals. Except for ‘love’ that binds them, they have their own dreams and whims, and choices. In the clash between love and individual identity, love is always the loser.
Take for example, Gone With the Wind, the second film in the AFI list. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman with her own biases. So is Rhett Butler. Problem begins when Rhett wants Scarlett to behave the way he wants, whereas Scarlett cannot forget her love for Ashley. Both want to make the best of their lives and none is ready to make sacrifices.
In the very first film of the AFI list, Casablanca, each lover is faced with a choice, which they make, even at the risk of spoiling their own lives. Elsa leaves Rick for Victor in Paris. A sick Victor needed her then. Now, it is Rick’s choice whether to keep Elsa or let her go. Rick chooses the latter. Love is not about retaining the lover. It’s about letting go. That’s why Casablanca is such an endearing and classic love story, let’s say love triangle.
The English Patient, on the other hand, is a love quadrangle. The English patient loves Katherine, Hanna loves him, and Kip loves Hanna, each one losing their love in the end.
Another phrase dear to all romantic stories is, 'till death do us apart.' In Titanic, Jack of the ‘I jump, you jump’ pair dies only to let Rose live, and she lives, feeding on the memory of her long-lost love. In Love Story the opposite happens. Jennifer dies, but not before teaching Oliver the most important lesson of love, ‘love means never having to say you're sorry’.
In The Bridges of the Madison County, love starts and ends within a span of four days. Robert Kincaid meets Francesca, married with husband and kids. They inevitably fall in love and everything is changed. Robert invites Francesca to leave her family and go with him. She agrees until the reality strikes. She just cannot leave her family to pursue her own happiness. She makes her choice. And Robert has no option but to respect it.
In Roman Holiday, Ann chooses to return to her princely palace. After all, ‘loss‘ itself is a romantic idea. ‘Gain’ is materialistic.