Why do we sacrifice themes in favor of happy endings?

There is a long history of adaptation between theatre, books, and film. Plays and books to movies, movies to musicals, etc. When adapting something from one form to another, there is (hopefully) something gained, but more often than not there is also something lost in translation. It is my opinion (as well as the opinion of many of my wonderful colleagues and teachers) that a piece is a good candidate for adaptation when it’s almost perfect, and changing the form can add something. This is not exclusive to high brow works of art - I think Legally Blonde is one of the most successful movie --> musical adaptations ever. Unfortunately, adaption often comes out of one simple goal: make $$$$. This is why Broadway is flooded with jukebox musicals and movie adaptations.

Griping about the state of theatre is not the point of this post though. My main question is in the title: why do we sacrifice theme in favor of happy endings? I recently came across this Vanity Fair article about Pretty Woman’s Original Dark Ending. The original script (entitled “3000) “ends with Kit and Vivian on a bus bound for Disneyland...with Kit anticipating a fun day financed by Vivian’s week with Edward, as Vivian stares out emptily ahead.” I admittedly haven’t read the script, but WOW what a different tone and message. Dare I say I like it better? The idea of a transactional relationship ending poorly and resulting in a feeling of emptiness sounds much more real (and less misogynistic) than the idea that “that some nice guy will come along and give you nice clothes and lots of money and make you happy” (quoting the Vanity Fair article). Of course, it could never become a romcom hit with such a dark ending (nor the Broadway musical which recently opened, and I hear is...well, let’s just leave that to Ben Brantley).

There are plenty of examples of adaptations stripping source materials of their original themes as well. May person favorite is the story of the Little Shop of Horrors movie adaptation. In the original musical (as well as the 1960s B-movie that inspired it), the flesh-eating plant whom Seymour exploits for fame ultimately ends up destroying him. That ending tested poorly to film audiences, so it was changed to have Seymour and Audrey live happily ever after, even though they only got together because Seymour fed the plant a bunch of people throughout the movie. The theme no longer is about an unbridled quest for power ultimately destroying you; now it’s close to “the ends justify the means”. How is that happy? Sure, we get to cheer and sing when Audrey and Seymour end up together, but are we really cool with ignoring that message? I guess?

Another that infuriates me is My Sister’s Keeper. In the book, parents of Kate, a daughter with cancer conceive another daughter, Anna, so she can donate blood and organs to her sister. Woah! Makes you think - how wrong is it to have a baby just to take pieces of her body? On the other hand, how can we fault parents for wanting to save their first daughter? The book ending is  heartbreaking - after Anna sues her parents for medical emancipation so she doesn’t have to donate a kidney, she gets into a car crash and dies. Her organs end up being harvested for her sister, so Kate lives, but man how do those parents feel? The movie switched the sisters’ fates - with Kate refusing to take Anna’s organs and Kate dying of her illness. Not exactly happy, but much less upsetting and debate-worthy in my opinion.

There are so many other adaptations that change the original ending to make it more palatable, and maybe that is better for box office numbers, but it completely changes the essence of the source material. That is not to say source material cannot be changed when it is adapted - details must be changed both for story and practical reasons. But the adaptation has to at its core feel true to the original. But more often than not, we write what will appeal to the widest audience. And why shouldn’t we? If it doesn’t sell, less people will see what is there from the original. Such a dilemma!

I guess this became a commentary on adaptation as well as themes and happy endings… I swear I don’t only like dark stuff!