Parasite and Little Women, both nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, take place in different time periods, in different countries, and have different tones. One follows a poor family in South Korea infiltrating a rich family, while the other is a story about four sisters growing up in the late 1800s. And yet they still share something very specific. Besides the fact that both movies were snubbed in Oscar categories they should’ve snagged (none of Parasite’s actors were nominated in the performance categories, while Greta Gerwig wasn’t given a directing nod for Little Women), these movies also share the same ending.
Yes, the black-comedy thriller set in modern-day South Korea and the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century coming-of-age novel have the same ending. Not just thematically, though they both explore economic politics and access to wealth, but in a literal sense. Both movies have ambiguous, nested-puzzle box endings, but the final shot of each movie solidifies any lingering doubts over what plays out on screen and what fits thematically within the movie.
[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for the endings of both Parasite and Little Women.]
In both films, a traditionally happy ending plays out, swathed in warm colors. Little Women’s ending follows what happens in Louisa May Alcott’s book: Ambitious young Jo March admits her feelings for Professor Bhaer, marries him, and then opens a school, where the whole March family gathers in happy, domestic bliss. The end of Parasite, meanwhile, sees young con man Ki-woo saving up enough money to purchase the mansion of the rich family he defrauded, so he can let his father out of the basement.
But both of these endings are framed in a way that casts doubt over their validity. The scene where Jo realizes she loves Professor Bhaer and chases him to the train station is interspersed with a scene where she negotiates with her publisher, who tells her that her main heroine must get married by the end of the book she’s trying to sell him. The film doesn’t end with the March family reunion, but instead with Jo at the publishing house, watching her book print, and then holding a copy of it alone. The implication is that the Bhaer ending is pure fiction, which she wrote into her semi-autobiographical novel as a compromise, to keep her publisher happy and secure a lucrative ongoing book contract.
Similarly, Parasite’s happy ending is narrated by Ki-woo, who’s writing out his plans for the future in a letter to his father, which will likely never arrive. The final shot, after he lays out his ambitious, unlikely plan, is of him sitting in the same basement apartment that his family lived in at the movie’s start. In both cases, traditionally happy scenes play out, but the films actually conclude with images casting those happy endings as fantasy and fiction.
Arguably, in both cases, the tragic path and the brighter path of the films’ paired endings don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In Little Women, Jo could both write a book and have a fulfilling family life. While Ki-woo’s quest to save up and rescue his father is daunting, a particularly positive movie-goer might see it as a path to a tangible future. The caveat, though, is that believing these happier endings undermines each movie’s ongoing theme — and in both cases, the directors purposefully picked the less traditional ending.
Even though Little Women’s ending plays out ambiguously in the movie, the screenplay makes it clear how events actually panned out. The idyllic family gathering has a big “FICTION (?)” written across the scene marker, with the text in the same red that denotes other events that take place within Jo’s book. The fact that the last shot isn’t the happy family scene, but Jo quietly celebrating — choosing to be lonely, but successful and free — emphasizes how Gerwig changed the movie from previous iterations.
And her Little Women twist reflects the real life of author Louisa May Alcott. This ending gives Jo the resolution Alcott wanted for her, but did not have the luxury of giving her (Alcott, like Jo in the movie, kept the copyright to her book and subsequent sequels. Alcott’s work was her family’s sole source of income.) Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women elevates the story to not just be a coming-of-age tale, but also a commentary on the limited financial and artistic freedom women had in the 1800s.
“I felt if I could give Louisa an ending she actually wanted for Jo 150 years later, then maybe we’ve gotten somewhere,” Gerwig told Variety.
Parasite doesn’t share the same burden of adaptation. Instead, its darker ending serves more as a “surefire kill,” director Bong Joon-ho told Vulture. Ending the movie on a more ambiguous note, even with Ki-woo’s narration, would still leave audiences some hope. He felt the theme of inescapable class struggles, or the fact that under our current economic system, there will always be someone on the bottom while a rich German family feasts on the top, wouldn’t hit quite as hard if that moment of fantasy lingered.
“It’s quite cruel and sad, but I thought it was being real and honest with the audience. You know and I know — we all know that this kid isn’t going to be able to buy that house. I just felt that frankness was right for the film, even though it’s sad,” Bong explained.
It’s still up to the viewer to decide which ending they believe. But thematically, the “sadder” endings just work better. Little Women, the book, was semi-autobiographical, but the greatest difference between Jo March’s life and Louisa May Alcott’s is that Alcott never married, nor ever wanted to. She wanted the same for her heroine, but had to compromise by marrying her off in a “funny” match. In Gerwig’s Little Women, if we choose to believe that only the sadder ending pans out, Jo is closer to the character Alcott envisioned, and closer to Alcott herself. The 2019 Little Women threads its nonlinear timeline with yearning for the past, but makes it clear that the past is long gone. An ending where the family comes together like days of the old is sweet, but an ending where Jo has chosen who she wants to be apart from them — still honoring them in her words, but making her way on her own — hits harder.
Similarly, the hopelessness of Parasite’s ending hammers the point home even more. This isn’t a story where hard work and perseverance will be the saving grace of a poor family. It’s a story about the gap between the rich and the poor, which won’t ever be closed. There will always be someone in the basement, just as there will always be those living above who don’t give any thought to what goes on beneath them. Believing that happier ending at best instills false hope that the world will change, and at worst, implies that because Ki-woo could get out of his situation, he should’ve done so long ago.
But the more cynical ending of Parasite is less a reflection on Ki-woo than it is on the world. Ki-woo is smart, resilient, and resourceful, but because of the station he was born into, his choices are limited. He can hope and dream all he wants, but as that last lingering shot reminds us, he will be sitting in that basement apartment while the rich Park families of the world walk above.