This sort of thing is particularly prevalent in action movies. An older one with Brandon Lee ‘Rapid Fire’ has some overt bad guys that get killed in bad ways but I’d like to look at a secondary villain. An FBI agent who takes payoffs from one of the criminals sets up the main character to be killed. During the scene where the hero escapes his imminent death, an innocent police officer is shot.
If betrayal wasn’t enough, he’s added indirect murder to his list of film crimes. Years of wicked activity haven’t caught up to him before this movie but because we’re on screen with a protagonist now, he’s going to get his. A few scenes later he’s gunned down by his former boss, despite his desperate attempt at redemption.
Foreign movies don’t tend to experience this. La Femme Nikita is a great example. Nikita walks away at the end having clearly killed at least two innocent people and probably more (we don’t know the list of crimes from her assassination targets). Sometimes movies made outside of Hollywood punish everyone (including the viewer).
Eye of the Beholder with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd is my prime example of this. Ewan is an agent watching Ashley’s movements and becomes obsessed when she murders a man. Following her literally across the country, he does some pretty unspeakable stuff to maintain his voyeuristic contact with her.
This includes savage beatings and even murder.
In the end, the object of his obsession dies and in that, his reason for living. We don’t see him kill himself but it’s pretty obvious he’ll never be the same again. Seeing this movie in the United States ended with a disgruntled audience complaining about how foreign it was.
Independent films can also deviate from Hollywood Justice though even Pulp Fiction loosely follows the format. Jules and Vincent kill several people right off the bat. Jules finds God and so gets to walk away from the life. When Vincent scoffs at all that, he’s gunned down. True Romance was supposed to involve the lead character being killed and his wife shooting herself. Tony Scott didn’t like the depressing ending so he let them live happily ever after.
Novels have a lot more flexibility than films. I would suggest that this is due to budget. A movie costs tens of millions (up to over a hundred million) dollars. Anyone can sit down and pound out a book and usually it costs them no more than a few dozen hours. The sky is the limit when you don’t have to worry about recouping such a vast amount of money. Depressing endings will not get people in the seats a second time.
Books are rarely read a second time in this day and age. An author can pretty much do whatever she wants with her characters and story without too much reprisal (though a reviewer with the Hollywood Justice mentality might slam it if it deviates too far from the accepted standard). This is where we get some crazy books that barely make any sense.
The Piano Teacher by Janice Lee tells a story and the plot is there (even though I’d argue that she borrowed a little too heavily from The Painted Veil). The problem is that it does not have a satisfactory ending and what little resolution is there happens so swiftly, it cheapens all the time you spent getting there.
I don’t suggest that authors should cater to audience if they’re aiming to be artistic but there should be some caution behind that. Pulitzer Prize novels tend to be painfully depressing or outright strange. They are not the sort of books that you pick up for some casual reading at the beach. The audience is much smaller. They are the foreign films of novels where literally anything can happen and you don’t have to like it.
Stories don’t have to be unoriginal because they follow the Hollywood Justice format. They can still be unexpected and exciting. The reason that HEA is such a strong point of conversation is because people like it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating art, novels or movies that people will enjoy. When they finish and feel satisfied, that’s a good thing.
There is plenty of room to make people think and drive points to the heart. Usually, these are in the form of non-fiction or novels that fall into the ‘Literature’ section of the book store. These can even become marketable if enough people find the message stirring enough.
As we all know, this business is volatile. There are risks when finding the balance between too much surprise and too much cliché. The trick is to find the sweet spot where your stories keep people coming back, entrance with a hint of new, give them a sense of fulfillment and ultimately entertain. That’s really the point of writing romance, horror, or fantasy and as long as we remember that, the industry will continue to flourish.