In the early decades of the 20th century, audiences arrived at cinemas prior to feature films to watch pre-show content such as newsreels and serials. One of the trademarks of these serials, which were particularly popular with young people, was their use of cliff hanger endings designed to leave viewers anxiously awaiting the next instalment.
There is a question mark over where and how the term “cliff hanger” originated. It is likely to have come from the late 1800s, when novels were published in magazines chapter by chapter and authors often capped them off with unresolved situations to build dramatic anticipation.
In the era of silent films, the device was very common — but watching a character apparently jump to their death or literally hang onto a cliff, only to be informed the story is yet to be completed, might also have made a pretty unsatisfying experience.
Most of us aren’t old enough to know for ourselves. Recently, however, in the great tradition of cinema’s “old is new” dictum and pop culture’s perpetual process of recycling its own creations, Hollywood has given us a new movement of movies that take the principles of the cliff hanger and crank the dial to eleven.
While the device never went away (famous examples in cinema history include Hans Solo frozen in a block of carbonite at the conclusion of 1980s The Empire Strikes Back and the Doc running up to Marty with fantastic news at the end of 1985’s Back to the Future) the cliff hanger ending is back in fashion with a vengeance.
Like new blockbuster The Maze Runner shows, it has grown up a lot over the years. Director Wes Ball’s darkly spectacular take on a young adult novel by author James Dashner is an intelligently made and reasonably thoughtful big budget movie steeped in literary and screen tradition — books such as Skymaze and Lord of the Flies and TV shows such as Lost and Nowhere Boys.
But man, that ending. The characters finish one challenge only to be whisked away to a much larger one then bam — the credits roll. If silent films of the early 20th century can be considered the original batch, the sequel (true to Hollywood style) offers louder, longer, bigger and much more spectacular feats of to-be-continued storytelling.
These days the cliff hanger involves a heftier and more spectacular build-up and a far longer wait for a payoff. That payoff now arrives not next week or next month; if you’re lucky if it arrives next year. Arguably the device has never been more agitating.
How did we get here? Buoyed by popular literary franchises, an array of blockbuster titles bet the house that audiences would come back for more. The studios were subsequently rewarded with prime slices of the box office time and time again.
The final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was split into two movies (one a cliff hanger) released in 2010 and 2011. Ditto for the two final Twilight movies (Breaking Dawn and Breaking Dawn – Part 2) released in 2011 and 2012.
The first two instalments of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings blockbusters may have had valid reasons for ending with cliff hangers (they were faithful to the novels) but the first two of his three Hobbit movies, adapted from a single children’s book, certainly didn’t. The most recent Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, ended with a brutally incomplete finish: a huge cliff hanger leading into (sigh) yet another two-part book adaptation.
Cliff hangers are essentially about putting characters in extremely dramatic circumstances then removing their ability to respond. Other than annoying audiences, they also pose questions for film reviewers. Can a reviewer insightfully analyse one half, or one third, of a complete story arc? Can they retrospectively analyse the entire arc, which may be comprised of the work of different directors, writers and actors?
Irrespective of whether you find the modern cliff hanger annoying or tantalising (perhaps both), there is no doubt one pernicious element of its resurgence has thrown contemporary film into disarray. The worst thing about cliff hangers is barely talked about or contemplated, despite a potentially intractable affect on cinema and popular culture. There is no underestimating its reach or impact.
What to know what it is? Find out next week on Daily Review.