The Meaning of the Ending of They Might Be Giants

They Might Be GiantsI went to do a Google search of one of my very favorite films, They Might Be Giants. Since I didn’t want information about the band, I added a space and was about to enter, “Film.” But Google offered me, “Ending.” It was only then that I realized that what most people don’t like about the film is its ending. And that is probably because they don’t understand it. So I thought I would take a moment to explain it.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, it is about Justin Playfair—a respected judge who goes crazy after his wife dies. He now believes he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother is being blackmailed by some very unsavory guys in a bad car. So the brother is trying to have Justin committed so that he can control Justin’s fortune. As a result, psychiatrist Dr Mildred Watson is sent to observe him. Once Justin finds out that she is “Dr Watson,” the two of them are off with Watson being pulled further and further into Justin’s delusion.

The Film’s Real Question

The ultimate question that the film addresses is whether Justin isn’t Holmes. He certainly acts like Holmes. Regardless, a society that insists upon everyone believing whatever everyone else believes is tyranny. (Not that science and economic policy should be based on such delusions!) At one point, in exasperation, Watson tells Justin, “You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.” And he responds:

Well, he had a point. Of course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant.[1] That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

With such big ideas, it isn’t surprising that many people watching the film get lost in it. But the ending isn’t primarily about the theme but rather about the plot. And the plot is primarily a love story. For Holmes and Watson to truly find love, one of them must change. There are two possibilities. There is the sterile version where Watson “cures” Justin of his delusion. That’s not interesting in addition to going completely against the themes of the film. So they go the other way where Watson fully accepts Justin’s delusion.

They Might Be Giants’ Ending

There are three points in this transition, and it all takes place in the second half of the film. First is when Watson comes back after abandoning Justin for the evening. When she returns, it is as a doctor, but one committed to engaging with her patient. Second is when Watson and Justin have dinner at her apartment. He is grazed by a bullet (Justin’s brother’s blackmailer has decided to hurry things along by killing Justin). Watson thinks he is dead and for the first time refers to him as “Holmes.” The third is at the very end of the film.

Justin and Watson stand in the park, waiting for Moriarty to arrive on horseback. At first, Watson can’t hear the horse galloping toward them. And she so wants to. But then she hears it. And she sees Moriarty approaching. Their love is finalized. The end:

Afterword

The film is thematically rich and I’ve only touched on it here. There are any number of currents that run through it. However, the plot is primarily concerned with Watson and her evolution of thought.


[1] This is incorrect. Don Quixote thought the windmills were giants when he saw them from far away. After getting dashed to the ground by one of the windmill sails, he knows that they are windmills. He assumes that his magician nemesis changed the giants into windmills just to deprive him of the glory of destroying them. Don Quixote uses this kind of logic throughout the books.

14 thoughts on “The Meaning of the Ending of They Might Be Giants

  1. Good summation. You are right, that is the main theme of the ending. But we are purposely kept in the dark about the last seconds. Did they really see Moriarty? Was the light the bad guys car come to run them over, a police spot light?

    • I’m glad to see that other people think seriously about this film. It is sadly neglected!

      You know, I had completely forgotten about the guy extorting his brother. I think it is because the entire third act goes off into a metaphorical universe. It is one of those lovely endings that just feel right without needing rational explanations. It is easy enough to ask, “What about tomorrow?” But to me, they become mythic at that point — frozen forever like Romeo and Juliet in the crypt.

  2. I was impressed with the film even though I am not able to break it down so well. My problem, and it may be me, is that I remember the coming together of the inmates to battle at the grocery store as a turning point for the “group” etc.

    Problem is that every TV and DVD version seems to leave that out.
    AM I NUTS – or did I try to read too much into that part of the film.

    Just glad to find someone who liked it as much as I did – even if I did not understand ALL of it – did get the last scene though.

    • No. You are not crazy. There are two versions. As I recall, the DVD version doesn’t include it. But for a glorious while, Netflix was streaming the full cut. I don’t really understand it. I see why the film wasn’t successful when it first came out. But it should be a cult classic now. And it would be if people could get their hands on it. (It doesn’t help that the band has blocked the movie out of most searches.) What I would like to do is get my hands on the play. (There was a published screenplay, which is rare and just a transcription of the film — not even a shooting script.) But apparently Goldman was so unhappy with the original theatrical production (he apparently liked the film) that he didn’t allow it to be licensed. That’s a shame, because it would make a good play for high schools.

  3. The published version was not a transcription; it was the screenplay as written by James Goldman. (Which I know from having discussed it with him directly; what I remember most distinctly was him shaking his head and muttering, “There’s no money in publishing screenplays.” Though in fact he did it thrice: with THE LION IN WINTER [Dell published the screenplay, rather than reprinting the Random House edition of the play], THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS [Lancer, with illustrations] and ROBIN AND MARION [Bantam]— though that last was his attempt to combine prose for the general reader [stage directions were all re-rendered and expanded in a past-tense narrative] with the screenplay [dialogue was presented as in a script]. You can even tell from the stage directions that the published script for THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS is in Goldman’s style [I’m looking at it now]. Are you possibly conflating the memory of that book with some of the scriopts published during that period by Signet? A good number of those *were* shot-for-shot transcriptions.)

    • Indeed I am! All I was able to find was the Signet version. I would really like to read his script, although far more, I would like to read his play. It’s so clear to me that the play would work better and I think it is a shame that his initial experience with the play made him disregard it as a play. The ending is the sort of thing that doesn’t work that well on the screen but can work brilliantly on the stage. Samuel French should have it available!

      • So far as I know, there was never a Signet version. Right around that time, Signet published (among others) BREWSTER McCLOUD with the original screenplay by Doran William Cannon followed by a transcript of Robert Altman’s very different film; Herb Gardner’s screenplay (not a transcript) of WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? (very rare until it was reprinted in Applause Books’ HERB GARDNER: THE COMPLETE PLAYS), and Robert Anderson’s screenplay — based on his play — I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER. You may be thinking of one of those. THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS was only ever published by Lancer and it must be INSANELY rare, I can’t even find a MENTION of it online, not even an antiquarian bookseller listing. When I’m back at my parents’ house (where I keep all my growin’-up books) I’ll take a photo of the cover just as academic evidence that it existed. (It’s fairly nondescript; white with tinted headshot cameos of Scott & Woodward.)
        As to the play: that may be the James Goldman holy grail. His by-all-accounts, ahem, difficult widow jealously guards the gates; and when I met him (college years, mid-70s), he had taken it out of any kind of circulation. The Wikipedia entry about the film had several big (I assume assumptive) mistakes, but when I came across it, I made the corrections, based on the actual history and the afternoon spent with Goldman. And it says (forgive some repetition):
        “They Might Be Giants is a 1971 film based on the play of the same name (both written by James Goldman) starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. Sometimes mistakenly described as a Broadway play, it never in fact opened in the USA. It was directed in London by Joan Littlewood in 1961, but Goldman believed he ‘never got the play right’ and forbade further productions or publication of the script. To coincide with the film’s release, however, he did authorize an illustrated paperback tie-in edition of the screenplay, published by Lancer Books.”
        Now, if you’d like more inside dope than that, this link will take you to a Google Books display of pages from a book about director Harold Prince. Use the hand-grab (cursor) to scroll up just a bit to the end of the previous page for the beginning of the relevant section:
        http://tinyurl.com/zq5p4p6

        • I only grabbed Signet from you. I don’t remember the publisher. I got it through ILL. It was a tiny paperback. I can’t find it on Amazon now, but at the time, the only one available was selling for about $150. The copy I had was on the verge of crumbling to bits. I was very gentle with it. I might be remembering it incorrectly, but it contained only what was in the film. There wasn’t a scene or even a line that was extra. But the main thing is that I’m interested in how he wrote it for the stage. I think I know — or at least, I see how I could rework it for the stage. There are three clear parts of the story: the beginning where Watson comes to visit him; the middle where they have dinner; and the end when she totally accepts his world. The story really is about her.

          Thanks for the link. I will check that out tomorrow. Although it looks like I’d enjoy the whole book.

          When you met with Goldman, did you discuss the play/movie? I think people get confused about it because of the explicit Sherlock Holmes content. But what it really is — what Goldman seems to have been doing — is a modernization of Don Quixote. And it is the only modernization that I think really works. But Watson as Sancho does follow that arc of gradually being seduced by Don Quixote. Of course, Goldman adds so much more — that’s why it works. It is tender in a way that early 17th century literature simply wasn’t.

  4. Not meaning to “correct,” just adding data to the discussion. :-)
    Happy to say, my copy’s still in mint condition (yeah, I’m one of *those*) and I was looking through it today. (If you look up my page on FB I even posted about the book with a cover photo.) The publisher was Lancer.
    I think our terminology may be confusing the issue. As you note, James Goldman was a dramatist for the stage as well as for the screen, and the fact that the lines were an exact match only means that neither actors nor director messed with the dialogue as he wrote it. The published screenplays of THE LION IN WINTER and ROBIN AND MARIAN also match what you see on the screen fairly exactly. The “tell” that marks the published script not as a transcript, but Goldman’s own is in the stage directions, which are robust and entirely in his style. There’s also very little in the way of camera direction. AND it’s in unaltered shooting script format. (That said: many shooting script screenplays have been *re*formatted in publication to more resemble prose for a reading audience — no change in the texts, just in layout — but no published script in draft format that *I* know of is a transcript.) Conversely, the tell of a transcript is that it’s *full* of camera stuff, a lot of tech abbreviations, a lot of nonverbal vocalizations (ahhs. uhmms, etc) and is generally more of a challenge to read with any sense of fluidity. I mentioned BREWSTER McCLOUD, above. If you get ahold of that book, you can make your own side-by-side comparison; the point of the original script and the transcript in one volume is to show the VAST difference between Canon’s original script and the finished film, which as a Robert Altman film contained much off-book improvisation and renovation, behind and in front of the camera. You’ll see that the first is a writer’s script (as is the published GIANTS), and the second is an archivist’s summary record.

    As to my meeting with Goldman, yes, it was actually to discuss the play specifically. But with an eye toward musicalizing it (that’s what I do for a living; write musicals and teach the craft). I was VERY young then (I think still in college) and just getting started figuring out which end was up, but nonetheless it was a great meeting and he talked to me like I was a pro, which was lovely. He wouldn’t let me read the play, though. He thought it wasn’t right and just didn’t want to show it to anyone. (I knew the screenplay and the film, of course, but I too wanted to see how he wrote it for the stage.) I’ve never read anything, anywhere that says this unequivocally, but exrtrapolating from here and there I’m fairly certain the screenplay is just a slightly more “opened up” version of the play whose ambiguity is more film friendly than stage friendly.

    I like your analysis. And I think you may be right. I also think that Goldman may not have been entirely conscious of how much that might how been true, or how pointedly. He was obsessed with Big Love stories, as evidenced by two of his novels, WALDORF and THE MAN FROM GREEK AND ROMAN, plus his triptych of original screenplays, and oh, by the way, FOLLIES :-) — so that was always a motor I’m not even sure he questioned much. As to the conflation of two iconic literary pairings: you may in fact have zeroed in on why he couldn’t get the play to work (as you may have read, Hal Prince couldn’t zero in on it either). The Holmes stuff takes over, when in fact there’s a bigger idea at hand. Congratulations. Or as Justin might say: Devilishly clever thinking, Moraes, if in fact that is your real name.

    • The one I read was most definitely not in screenplay format — shooting or otherwise. But the issue wasn’t that the dialog was the same. The issue was that there wasn’t any more dialog. Also there weren’t any cut scenes. I don’t know of any movie in which nothing is cut out. We should, I think, make a distinction between a published script that is based on the screenplay (which I believe was the case in the Giants script I had) and those monstrosities like the printed forms of Woody Allen’s films, that are more akin to novelizations than screenplays. But I have to admit to not reading it as carefully as I would have if the pages had not been crumbling. My main memory of the whole thing is my anxiety about damaging the book.

      What is the URL of your Facebook page?

      What an interesting idea: a musical! I can see that working — especially as a “little” musical like The Fantasticks or Godspell. But it tells me a lot that he wouldn’t allow you to read it; it tells me I am never going to get to read it! Oh, well. But now I’ll have to start thinking about it from the perspective of a love story — as a primary motivation. What I find most compelling about the film is how idiosyncratic it is. It’s rare you see such a curious idea so finely rendered.

  5. Perhaps my favorite movie. The ending
    was wonderful gut-wrenching poignant
    incomprehensible. To me, there’s no
    such thing as love. But this movie hit
    me in the ‘heart’.

    • Perhaps not “love” but “interdependence” as we see in Waiting for Godot. That is what makes the ending so poignant (as you rightly note): those two need each other. And if that means going a bit insane, so be it.

      I didn’t know what I was going to do for my Psychotronic Tonight post, but you’ve reminded me of a great one. Thanks!

    • Does love exist? As opposed to infatuation, compassion, or horniness? I do not know. Infatuation, compassion, horniness, those are things I’m familiar with. Love? I’m not sure. The definition is unclear, I’m not precise on what the word means.

      “Giving a shit” and “not wanting that person to die in your arms,” that’s probably a huge portion of it. “Thinking they’re kinda sexy,” that’s another part, but one does have to shave for this.

      I don’t know what the answer is.

      • Years ago, a friend introduced me to “love” as a verb as opposed to a noun. As a noun, it doesn’t exist. And if it did, we should shun it. As a verb, in almost all its manifestations, it is glorious.

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