Let’s face it: there’s a lot of love stories that are hit and miss. Yes, love is a part of life and many people are fortunate enough to find their special someone. But in fiction, it seems as though romance gets taken for granted. It becomes inevitable that the Male Lead and the Female Lead will hook up by the end, no matter how much they hated each other in the beginning or how much collateral damage their relationship may cause.
As someone who studied English literature, I’ve taken a few courses on Shakespeare. Naturally, everyone points to Romeo and Juliet as the ideal romance. Then again, everyone forgets that the play is actually one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It’s not the love that condemns them, but their blind passion for each other; because their families are so opposed to the union, the star-crossed teenagers take a self-destructive path since no one (not even Friar Laurence) is being moderate or reasonable. It’s a sign of our society that we assume Romeo and Juliet are great models for romance, when really theirs is a cautionary tale about reckless action and being shaped by the savage politics of fair Verona.
So I’m here to make a case for a more serious look at romance—namely, at which love stories work and why they work. It’s my belief that a good romance story is less about the fiery passion evoked by the two people and more about the change that they inspire in each other. It’s less about how ardent their passion for each other is and more about how that passion brings them together and makes them into better people overall.
Case No. 1: Jack and Sally (The Nightmare Before Christmas)
Next to Edward Scissorhands, the other classic Tim Burton film is one of my all-time favorites, The Nightmare Before Christmas. This is the story of Jack Skellington, the ruler of Halloweentown, and his mad plot to try something new by running Christmas. Hilarity ensues, resulting in Jack almost ruining Christmas for everyone and having to rescue the real Santa Claus from his rival Oogie Boogie. But along the way, there’s a very quiet and touching subplot about his neighbor and friend, a living rag doll named Sally. She pines for Jack, unable to tell him how she feels and failing to convince him that taking over another holiday is a horrible idea. But by the end, they finally see eye to eye and embrace as an adorable couple.
We’ve seen many times before this story of a young man or woman who has a crush on someone, but just can’t get the words out. To be fair to Sally, she has been subjected to a lot of abuse living with Dr. Finklestein, so it’s no surprise her self-esteem is low. But she never gives up trying to help Jack, who’s utterly oblivious to her. He’s consumed with his obsession with Christmas, thinking he can put a Halloween spin on the holiday and make it “better.”
But by the climax, there’s a nice change for both characters. When Sally learns that Santa is in Oogie Boogie’s lair, she doesn’t hesitate to try and save him, putting herself in terrible danger. And when Jack comes to terms with his failure, he tries to make amends and saves both Sally and Santa. There’s a lovely moment when the two are alone near the end, as Jack is about to realize Sally’s interest in him. Even though they’re interrupted, Jack decides to go and reciprocate her feelings in the final song, his eyes now open to the world and his place in it.
What I like most about this romance are two things. One, it’s a nice illustration of poor communication, as Sally is too submissive to properly express herself and Jack is too caught up in his own imagination to really listen to his friend. It isn’t until they’ve both stepped outside their usual antics that they finally connect.
Secondly, it’s so nice to see a romantic subplot done well for a change. Instead of weighing down the movie or distracting from the main plot, it fits into the overall picture. Jack is so obsessed that he can’t notice what’s wrong about his plan and Sally is the only one in town to try and make things right. She could have been written as just a concerned friend, but the unrequited love adds a nice dimension to Sally’s character. She’s trying to be more than just another of Finklestein’s creations and more than a background character in Jack’s own story.
Case No. 2: Han and Leia (Star Wars)
There have been numerous rants, blog posts, and online videos made about the lack of chemistry in the romance between Anakin and Padme in the Star Wars prequels. But rather than add to that tottering pile of snark and frustration, I want to focus on a romance in Star Wars that does work.
In the beginning, there seems like little chance that Han Solo and Princess Leia could ever work as a couple. Han is a cynical smuggler who cares only about money and saving his own skin, whereas Leia is a proud aristocrat and a passionate resistance fighter, dedicated to the cause of stopping the Empire’s many injustices. But by the end of Return of the Jedi, the two seem to have reconciled their differences and trust each other completely, both as members of the Rebel Alliance and as lovers.
Now, the lovers in so many romantic comedies and dramatic films usually share the same starting point as Han and Leia: completely opposite in personality, almost to the point of loathing. And yet, there’s something that both Han and Leia have that many other couples don’t seem to get: a shared goal. They’re both interested in doing some good and looking out for those in need. It’s an obvious trait for Leia, but for Han, it’s key to his character development. He starts out caring only for Luke after he first meets him, but as time goes on, he decides to stay with the Rebellion because he knows he can’t outrun the Empire forever. He’s very much like Rick from Casablanca; behind the cynical veneer is a burnt idealist and it’s his love for a woman in the Cause that gets him to wake up to the tyranny and fight back.
As I mentioned earlier, a good sign of romance is that both people in a relationship are willing to change for each other and become better people for their love (Romeo and Juliet don’t count, you see, because they change from passive to actively inspiring more feuds and deaths, including their own). While Han changes from a jaded loner to a responsible leader (without ever losing his cocksure attitude), Leia goes from a proud and distant leader to a more passionate fighter and lover.
In The Empire Strikes Back, it takes most of the film for her to get past her distaste for Han and realize that he’s a good person in spite of his antics. He may be a “bad boy,” but he’s not abusive or deceptive. Leia has too often put her work ahead of her own feelings; by recognizing her love for Han, she attains more of an inner balance, so that she can have both her dedication to the Alliance and a personal life to build on once the war is over.
I realize, though, that it seems like a step-down for Leia, considering how tough she is in the first film. But the difference is that Leia never stops being a fighter. Even after confessing her feelings to Han, she’s still in the thick of the action on Endor—and proves her love for Han by concealing the blaster she uses to kill two unsuspecting stormtroopers. In that moment, we see she’s becoming a little more of the “scoundrel” she used to despise, just as Han is becoming more involved with the Rebels than he ever imagined he’d be.
These characters work because their romance is tied into their story rather than added onto it. It’s easy to say that romance sells and people will always be shipping characters together regardless of how well they work together, but it takes a special kind of devotion to look beyond the obvious and see what would keep them together as a genuine couple.
If you have other examples of great fictional couples and why they work, please let me know in the comments below.