Books that almost had different endings
Books that almost had different endings

The best endings stick with a reader. Whether it’s because that happy-ever-after has finally came to pass, because it was bittersweet in a good way, or because of that plot twist you didn’t see coming. A satisfying ending is usually one that makes sense to readers and gives us some sense of closure.

But, of course, the art of writing is never simple and authors inevitably re-draft their work at least once before readers end up with the final book in their hands. So imagine, then, if these well-known novels had ended up with the alternate endings their authors originally had planned – would they still be the books we know and love today?

Warning: there are major spoilers ahead!

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)

In 2011, Great Expectations was voted readers' favourite Dickens novel in a poll for The Guardian, but who knows if that would have been the case had Dickens stuck with his original ending for the book. Wanting to go against the grain and give readers something unexpected, the first version sees an unmarried Pip briefly reunite with Estella in London, discovering that she has been widowed and remarried, so there’s still no hope of ending up together. 

However, on reading it, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a friend of Dickens and fellow writer, argued that the ending was too melancholy. Writing to Wilkie Collins, Dickens said: "Bulwer was so very anxious that I should alter the end… and stated his reasons so well, that I have resumed the wheel, and taken another turn at it. Upon the whole I think it is for the better."

The first publication of the story included the last line “I could see the shadow of no parting from her”, though Dickens revised this once more to “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”, giving us a slightly more ambiguous ending. It hints at a happier future for Pip and Estella though perhaps Dickens couldn’t quite let go of his desire for a more unconventional ending, leaving the reader to interpret that final sentence in their own way.

Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)

Dahl’s initial version of Matilda didn’t feature the bookish heroine we know and love; instead the first draft of the story was more of a cautionary tale.

In that version, Matilda was a naughty, unruly child who played nasty pranks on those around her and, ultimately, died at the end of the book as penance for being so cruel: a warning to all young readers to be kind to each other lest they end up with a similar fate.

Thankfully, Dahl’s final manuscript changed course, giving us a much softer version of Matilda. She still prays pranks but they’re less dark and the people she plays them on seem more deserving of them. Matilda also gets a well-deserved happy-ever-after as the ending sees her parents, hastily packing to go on the run from the police, reluctantly agreeing to let Matilda live with Miss Honey.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (2012)

On the release of the film adaptation of Me Before You, author Jojo Moyes revealed that she almost “lost her nerve” with the ending. While writing the book, Moyes rang her agent suggesting two endings be included in the book so the reader could choose the version they liked the sound of best. 

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, her agent wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of choose-your-own ending and suggested Moyes stick to the original plan. Finishing with Will’s decision to end his life might be a bittersweet note to end the book on but as Moyes has previously said in an interview with Warner Bros: “Although the ending is a bit controversial, if I had gone the other way and given it a saccharine ending I would have been accused of sanitising everything and going the easy route. And I think it wouldn’t have had one-third of the audience that it had.”

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

Hearing about Dickens revising the ending for Great Expectations a couple of times feels minor in comparison to Hemingway’s 47 potential conclusions to A Farewell to Arms

This modern classic on love and war closes with the line, “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” Sparse and simple in style with a hint of bleakness, it’s classic Hemingway.

But evidently, writing that feels effortless isn’t always created with such ease as we can see with the other endings Hemingway cast aside, including one suggested by F. Scott Fitzgerald on how the world “kills the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)

Joan Lindsay’s novel about the mysterious disappearance of a group of school girls is not only one of Australia’s most iconic novels but it caused a sensation on its release as many readers believed it to be a true story. 

It’s thanks, then, to Lindsay’s agent who suggested the removal of a final chapter which spelled out exactly what happened. It would have made it clear Picnic at Hanging Rock was fictional and it's possible that the book wouldn't have gone on to be one of the country's best-loved novels.

That last chapter involved the girls climbing Hanging Rock in a trance and discovering “a hole in space” that transforms them into crabs – a transformation likely inspired by Indigenous Australian beliefs. Instead, having listened to her agent's advice, Lindsay ended the book on a much more mysterious note with a newspaper clipping reporting that hunters came upon a scrap of a dress at the rock but neither the girls or their governess were ever seen again.

Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books.

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