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In storylines where the protagonists are in physical danger, a happy ending mainly consists in their surviving and successfully concluding their quest or mission. Where there is no physical danger, a happy ending is often defined as lovers consummating their love despite various factors which may have thwarted it. A considerable number of storylines combine both situations.
A Times review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold strongly criticized John le Carré for failing to provide a happy ending, and gave unequivocal reasons why in the reviewer's opinion (shared by many others) such an ending is needed: "The hero must triumph over his enemies, as surely as Jack must kill the giant in the nursery tale. If the giant kills Jack, we have missed the whole point of the story."
A happy ending is epitomized in the standard fairy tale ending phrase, "happily ever after" or "and they lived happily ever after." (One Thousand and One Nights has the more restrained formula they lived happily until there came to them the One who Destroys all Happiness (i.e. Death)). Satisfactory happy endings are happy for the reader as well, in that the characters he or she sympathizes with are rewarded. However, this can also serve as an open path for a possible sequel. For example, at the end of The Lion King, Simba defeats Scar, becomes king, marries and has a daughter, Kiara, thus giving way to The Lion King II: Simba's Pride.
The presence of a happy ending is one of the key points that distinguishes melodrama from tragedy. In certain periods, the endings of traditional tragedies such as Macbeth or Oedipus Rex, in which most of the major characters end up dead, disfigured, or discountenanced, have been actively disliked. In the eighteenth century, the Irish author Nahum Tate sought to improve Shakespeare's King Lear in his own heavily modified version in which Lear survives and Cordelia marries Edgar. Most subsequent critics have not found Tate's amendments an improvement. Happy endings have also been fastened to Romeo and Juliet and Othello. Not everybody agrees on what a happy ending is.
An interpretation of The Merchant of Venice’s forced conversion of Shylock to Christianity is that it was intended as a happy ending. As a Christian, he could no longer impose interest, undoing his schemes in the play and ending the rivalry between him and Antonio, but more importantly, contemporary audiences would see becoming a Christian as a means to save his soul. (Cf Romans 11:15)
Similarly, based on the assumptions about women's role in society prevalent at the time of writing, The Taming of the Shrew's concluding with the complete breaking of Kate's rebelliousness and her transformation into an obedient wife counted as a happy ending.
A happy ending only requires that the main characters be all right. Millions of innocent background characters can die, but as long as the characters that the reader/viewer/audience cares about survive, it can still be a happy ending. Roger Ebert comments ironically in his review of Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow; "Billions of people may have died, but at least the major characters have survived. Los Angeles is leveled by multiple tornadoes, New York is buried under ice and snow, the United Kingdom is flash-frozen, and lots of the Northern Hemisphere is wiped out for good measure. Thank god that Jack, Sam, Laura, Jason and Dr. Lucy Hall survive, along with Dr. Hall's little cancer patient."
Since the ending is the point at which a narrative ends, a "happy ending" is constructed in a way so as to imply that, after the conclusion of the narrative, the lives of all the "good" characters will be filled with happiness and that any unpleasantness they encounter will be negligible. However, as is often demonstrated through the creation of sequels, it is conceivable that the characters' happiness will be ruined after the "curtain falls." (Alien 3 begins with the revelation that most of the survivors of Aliens had died.) This means that a storyteller can create a happy ending to a sad story (or vice-versa) merely by ending the story before a horrible tragedy occurs or, if the tragedy is reversible, by continuing the story on after its original end so that the characters can overcome it. Either way, the "ending" is changed without altering the story's canon.
In the modern world, happy endings have sometimes been viewed as an American specialty, and the fact that the English-language words happy ending (or happy end) have been imported as-is into other languages make this point. In the 1928 Austrian operetta Die Herzogin von Chicago, the two lovers who are too proud to speak to one another are finally brought together by a Hollywood producer who explains that he plans to make a movie of their love story, but that he cannot until it has the required happy ending.
A preference for happy endings is manifest in various film adaptations of literary works where the original does not have such an ending. For example, Hans Christian Andersen's classic "The Little Mermaid" ends with a tragic, noble sacrifice in which the Mermaid must see her beloved Prince marry another girl—but in the Disney version, the Mermaid does get to marry her Prince and live with him happily ever after. A Disney sequel—obviously impossible for the Andersen original—centered on the daughter born of this marriage. Similarly, the original Truman Capote novella on which Breakfast at Tiffany's was based ended with Holly Golightly's going off to Brazil and disappearing from the protagonist's life—while in the film it was changed to her accepting the love he offered her and their famous kiss in the rain.
Some works of fiction, such as Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's operetta The Threepenny Opera or F. W. Murnau's film The Last Laugh, have intentionally implausible happy endings. The P. D. Q. Bach opera The Stoned Guest originally ends with all of the cast strewn about dead on the stage (similar to the ending of Hamlet). However, as the residents of the town would be disappointed with such a gloomy conclusion, Bach is urged to rewrite the opera. Thus, he has all of the cast suddenly spring back to life with no explanation whatsoever and sing a piece entitled "Happy Ending!" (P.D.Q. Bach albums are satires created by musicologist Peter Schickele).
Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction novel Podkayne of Mars, as originally written in 1962, ended with the protagonist's death. However, the publisher refused to accept it and pressured Heinlein to change the ending and let her survive—which he did, though under a strong protest. In a letter to his literary agent, published only many years later, Heinlein wrote that revising the story was "like revising Romeo and Juliet to let the young lovers live happily ever after" and that "changing the end isn't real life, because in real life, not everything ends happily." The 1995 Baen Books edition includes both endings, as well as a collection of readers' essays giving their opinions about which ending is better. The issue is still hotly debated, nearly half a century after the book's publication (See Podkayne of Mars#Two versions of the ending).