Unrequited love sounds great and ideal, right? The Kierkegaard's of our world would note that it is unsullied by harsh reality. This love you hold for a person from afar but is never returned, how marvelous it must be to love without receiving love in return! And surely for many there is a wish to avoid acting on unrequited love (or more aptly put "a crush") for fear of reality - fear of rejection.
What I find interesting is how our popular culture believes in unrequited love as the most perfect form of love. In film, television, books and comics, invariably one character will pine for another character. How we in the audience must long for them to become a couple! And then they do, our faith in the pureness of unrequited love is fulfilled! Hoopla!
Unfortunately, we are so preoccupied with this idea that it grants some examples of unrequited love a depth they were not meant to possess. Throughout Chris Claremont's X-Men he toyed with the idea that Wolverine held feelings for Jean Grey, even though she and Cyclops were a couple. Claremont certainly seemed to believe in the love between Jean and Cyclops, so Wolverine's pining for Jean served primarily to create some tension (as well as character development for Wolverine). Over the years Claremont would note Wolverine's feelings as a matter of continuity, but the Jean/Cyclops relationship was one which stood the test of time.
That is, until Claremont was no longer writing those characters. In 2001 writers began toying with a dangerous notion: What if Jean loved Wolverine? I call it 'dangerous' because it leans into many of the terrible false narratives we men like to tell each other - the so-called 'Nice Guy' narrative where women, in spite of all evidence, are supposed to be interested in us and will 'come around' given enough time. More to the point, it eliminates Jean Grey's agency in all of this; because Wolverine had feelings for Jean, it was simply assumed her character felt the same way for him. In the real world, the healthy thing is to move on from unrequited love (which Claremont had by giving Wolverine new love interests, starting with Mariko Yashida). Unfortunately, in the realm of fiction a potential couple who haven't 'hooked up' are treated as a loose thread, one which must be tied.
The television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine opened with series regular Dr. Julian Bashir carrying an embarrassingly-obvious torch for his crewmate Jadzia Dax, whose disinterest in him romantically was likewise evident. Although the two had their moments across the early seasons, by the show's 3rd year it was clear they were very good friends and unlikely to change; in the 4th season Jadzia became romantically interested in a new cast member, Worf, which lasted through the end of the 6th season when the character was killed off. Enter Ezri Dax in season 7 and suddenly the Bashir/Dax relationship is given another chance, ultimately leading to them becoming a couple.
As Darren Mooney puts it on his blog:
It feels like an awkward reversal of what had been a nuanced and compelling friendship. There was something reassuring in the idea that an unrequited (and slightly pervy) crush could develop into genuine (platonic) affection, and the arrival of Ezri Dax undercuts that aspect of their relationship.
But all that is past is mere prologue; who I really want to talk about is Jorah Mormont.
Jorah is character from George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice book series and has been adapted into the television version, Game of Thrones, where he's ably played by actor Iain Glen. If you know only the television show, you may be surprised at how differently Jorah is characterized in the prose. It should be noted that in the original books every chapter is written from the perspective of a single character and there are many characters whose point-of-view is never granted to the readers. Jorah is one such character, having appeared across the five novels thus far without ever seen from his own POV. His thoughts, turmoils and challenges are witnessed from a distance, usually from the perspective of Daenarys Targaryen (later, via Tyrion Lannister).
It is not so clear at the beginning but by the second novel (and 2nd season of the program) Jorah's affection for Daenarys - the queen-in-exile he's sworn to serve as bodyguard to - become evident. In the novels, this usually manifests itself as jealousy: as other men offer their services to Daenarys' cause, Jorah will bitterly whisper his misgivings to her. In time, Daenarys realizes Jorah is an unreliable counselor because his affections for her cloud his judgment. During the 3rd novel, Daenarys loses all faith in Jorah.
One of the most damning incidents against Jorah occurs in the first book when Daenarys' brother Viserys is murdered by the Dothraki when he threatens Daenarys' life. The reader is given little reason to care for Viserys, who is consistently petulant and ignoble, but when his death plays out Ser Jorah is shown to be extremely negligent in that he permits events to spiral out of control until Viserys' death is inevitable. "Good riddance," so saith the audience. But Jorah was supposed to be Viserys' loyal bodyguard. In time, it becomes clear Jorah betrayed his vows to Viserys because he wanted Daenarys for himself. Viserys would have been a terrible king, but in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, characters can frequently be defined by how dutifully they follow their oaths. Jorah tacitly betrays Viserys; how could he be trusted with Daenarys' safety when he takes his oaths so lightly?
The decisions made in adapting Jorah to television force some uncomfortable questions about the priorities of the series' creators, because their version of Jorah is quite different from Martin's. Some of this is simply down to casting choices; almost everyone on Game of Thrones is chronologically older than the book versions of the same characters, and it becomes particularly of note with Daenerys, who is 13 at the outset of the first novel, but played by a 25-year old Emilia Clarke in the first season of the show. At the time, Iain Glen was 50, placing him within earshot of Jorah's 43. But while these actors have a noticeable age gap (Glen being twice Clarke's age), in the books Jorah is more than 3 times Daenerys' age! It's also unavoidable that they cast a pretty good-looking actor to play Jorah - but one of the hallmarks of the literary version is that he's not good-looking and, as Daenerys is a teenager, that alone is almost enough to ensure he will never stand a chance of winning her heart.
In the show, Jorah is extremely devoted to Daenarys; although he serves as a spy during the 1st season (as he was in the books), he quickly leaves that behind and there is none of the pettiness which so marks his literary counterpart. In the books he forces a kiss on Daenerys; on television, he's more moon-eyed than he is rapey. The show also removes unpleasant moments such as a scene from A Dance with Dragons where he beats Tyrion bloody after one of Tyrion's many japes (the television show opts for a conventional fast-friendship between the two). It is clear in the books that while Jorah is fiercely devoted to Daenerys, he is not a particularly good man. I mean, the fact that in both formats his backstory is "former slave holder, still unrepentant about it," should raise all kinds of flags for you in the audience.
Without a doubt the largest point of divergence is when Jorah's treachery towards Daenerys is discovered. On the television show he pleads for mercy, but Daenerys, seeming somewhat cruel to the audience, icily dismisses him. And we, watching the program, are certain of Jorah's true devotion to her and bemoan Daenerys for being hard-hearted. But in the books, the scene is basically the opposite of that; Jorah refuses to admit he had done wrong and refuses to beg forgiveness until he gradually realizes he's digging himself deeper with each justification - by the time he does apologize, it's too late. Despite learning Jorah had been a traitor, we know Daenerys yearns to pardon him (because the chapter is written from her POV), but because he's so stubborn she is forced to make an example of him and banish him.
The showrunners of Game of Thrones have done a lot to render what's found in the books into something more format-friendly for television, but also more conventional in terms of relationships. Thus, Jorah's lust for Daenerys, which is a destructive force in the novels, becomes, well, this:
But is that the only path available when you start toying with unrequited love? As it happens - no! You simply have to think outside the box and not blindly obey the tropes of your medium.
Take, for instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; during that program's first season, a running character beat is that of character Xander Harris having a crush on Buffy. In the first season finale he finally tells her how he feels, but she rejects him; she's simply not interested in him. Xander's wounded by this, but by the end of the episode helps save Buffy's life and, in doing so, mostly comes to terms with being her friend. Although he continued to feel pangs here and there over the show's second season, as the series progressed it became clear he had moved on and was now one of her best friends. And that was perfectly okay; we in the audience liked their dynamic as friends and found their subsequent romantic pairings (most notably the Buffy/Angel relationship which cast a huge shadow over the franchise) to be worthwhile television.
Mark Gruenwald once said, "The job of those in the arts is to help people connect with life experiences of people other than themselves, thereby expanding upon their concept of humanness." I do firmly believe that, which is why the kneejerk fiction writer's belief that 'unrequited love = true love' is not only a lazy equation but one which doesn't confront the audience in areas where they possibly should be challenged. There is nothing inherently noble, good, true or pure about unrequited love. Sorry, Kierkegaard.