A Wish, Not a Promise: My Favorite Love Stories Without Guaranteed Endings

For Valentine’s Day, I recap some of my favorite love stories in books and film: happily ever after not guaranteed.

I can’t help it.

I like love stories that aren’t so neat and dry. Maybe two people love each other but may have to wait for another life. Or the story goes imperfectly and they have to gather up what’s left then find a way to be thankful for it. But the love is irrefutably there… somewhere.

Sometimes they end up in love but not together. Sometimes they stay together, but it doesn’t mean they’re happy. And sometimes they have to be permanently changed and compromised, not always for the better, to get to the only ending they get to have.

I like when there’s a yearning for things to have happened differently: whether it’s in the beginning, the middle, or the end. I love romances without the capital R, where the Happily Ever After comes with several question marks, if it comes at all.

In the spirit of that, and in defiance of a recent post that snarked on non-fans of promised happy endings, let’s talk about some of my best beloved love stories (including relationships as a subplot) that don’t guarantee a happily ever after. ๐Ÿซถ

The titles are listed in chronological order of their release.

๐Ÿ“• Rebecca (1938), Daphne du Maurier

Mood rating: ๐Ÿฅฒ happy, but at what cost?

Rebecca is about what happens when you have narrow ideas of love or happiness, but you chase it and build your life around it anyway, letting it change you because you see no other path. Whatever the book listings tell you, Rebecca is not a romance novel.

It’s about a young and naive protagonist who marries a wealthy widower, and has to live under the shadow of his well-loved, deceased wife Rebecca. That’s right, the story is named after the ex, and the protagonist-narrator’s name never actually gets told. Take that as you will.

Many of my friends know that Rebecca is my all-time favorite book, but fewer know it’s also on my writing wishlist as a retelling.

There’s a 2020 film adaptation of the book starring Lily James and Armie Hammer. I don’t quite recommend it, but I think the film has an… interesting take on the ending. Maybe a better method would be to read the book and then watch only the ending of the 2020 film, just to compare it. If you like, there’s also a 1940 film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock, which has better reviews but which I haven’t seen myself.

๐Ÿ“• Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), Gregory Maguire

Mood rating: โ˜น๏ธ sad ending guaranteed

Wicked famously creates a backstory for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz‘s villain, with Elphaba the Wicked Witch as the protagonist. It goes on to be adapted as a Broadway musical, which I love, and which will be adapted into a two-part film this 2024.

If you know the original story of Oz even remotely, you already know the fate of the Wicked Witch. Which is why, when Maguire’s Elphaba falls in love, you already know it’s doomed one way or another. One of my favorite numbers in the musical is “I’m Not That Girl,” where Elphaba dissuades herself from falling in love because she “wasn’t born for the rose and the pearl.”

Don’t dream too far / Don’t lose sight of who you are / Don’t remember that rush of joy / He could be that boy / I’m not that girl

๐ŸŽฅ Jeux d’Enfants (2003), dir. Yann Samuell. (English title: Love Me If You Dare)

Mood rating: ๐Ÿ˜ถ happy, but what the f***?

I watched this film sometime in college, a recommendation from either my sister or a dormmate. Either way, they had me expect that French films might be a little weird, and I’m glad I got the warning. I’m also glad I watched it back then and not today, when it might have sat with me a lot differently.

Jeux d’Enfants (translation: children’s games) is about two mischievous best friends who play a back-and-forth game of dare throughout their lives. They inevitably fall in love but are too caught up in their childish and immature dynamics to say it in a normal way.

How do you get the happy ending you secretly want, when your whole relationship has been about games, trickery and specifically trying to get your best friend into the funniest problems you can think of? How do you even trust that they mean it this time, and that it isn’t just another prank?

You ask for nothing less than concrete proof of love, pun intended.

๐Ÿ“• Never Let Me Go (2005), Kazuo Ishiguro

Mood rating: ๐Ÿ˜” forlorn

This was one of those books that took several DNFs before I got to finish it. It was also the book where I applied the “Read 50 pages first” personal rule. I’m always thankful I did, because Never Let Me Go immediately became one of my all-time favorites.

It’s about three friends who meet in a secluded boarding-school, knowing little to nothing about their origins or the outside world. It’s a heart-wrenching way of telling stories where you assume love can happen because love has already happened. That’s as much as I can say without spoiling it.

There’s a 2010 film adaptation of the book starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. I do highly recommend the film alongside the book, largely because all three actors are excellent at what they do.

๐ŸŽฅ One Day (2011), dir. Lone Scherfig

Mood rating: ๐Ÿ˜ญ inconsolably ever after

My sister recommended the book to me first, and I don’t know what compelled me to watch the film. I think I was in the mood for a good cry.

One Day follows Emma and Dexter, who become Friends Ultra Max Pro โ„ข the night before their college graduation. The rest of the movie shows them on the same date every year, friends or not, together or not.

I really love the complicated friends-to-lovers / friends-and-lovers journey of two imperfect people. They’re flawed, a little messed up and often annoying, but so are we, the audience. And so we want them to improve and be happy, just as we want ourselves to improve and be happy.

The film is an adaptation of the 2009 book by David Nicholls, which I haven’t read but plan to when I pause or end my spec-fic binge. There is also a British TV mini-series adaptation this 2024, but I’m undecided on watching it.

๐ŸŽฅ Past Lives (2023), dir. Celine Song

Mood rating: ๐Ÿฅบ wistful, but we’ll be okay

This was my favorite film of 2023, and in some ways this post is just an excuse to talk about it. Past Lives is about could-have-been-lovers who instead become friends. Kinda. You know this is not what you want: not like this, not anymore, or not right now. So what are you supposed to do with the feeling that’s somehow still there?

The story hits many tropes and themes that I love: friends-to-lovers / friends with feelings, immigrant or third-culture-kid life, could-have-beens, and subtle discussions of other lives.

It’s so sweet and poignant, and just so visually beautiful on top of the story. That one scene that’s just a really long shot with little to no dialogue? Living rent-free in my brain and my yearning heart forever.

As an aside, this list really expresses my love for friends-to-lovers stories. Some others in that lane include Love, Rosie (Book: 2004 / Movie: 2014), Definitely, Maybe (2008), Emma (Book: 1815, Movie: 2020) and Little Women (Book: 1868, Movie: 2019). If you’re familiar, you know many of these are happy endings.

So I do love happy endings, and I enjoy fairy tale romances where it counts. But I’m a wistful girlie and an appreciator of the full spectrum of emotions, so I wanted to honor my love for these stories which don’t promise or deliver on that desire. In fact, they go out of their way to either thwart it or make it as weird as possible.

Sometimes that’s true love, too.

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