Monday, October 30, 2006

Pigeon-holing Protag Deaths

Whew! Well, this was a daunting task that I regretted shortly after it began. Convinced that the death of the primary protagonist must have a story value that can be named, categorized and later replicated, I sifted through films where a primary protagonist dies, looking for logic and common threads. It was so depressing to keep watching the good guy die that I had to watch The Chipmunk Adventure to get out of my funk.

I've broken protagonist deaths into eleven categories but it's important to keep in mind that --

(1) there are likely many more categories - I couldn't find them all

(2) these categories pertain ONLY to the primary protagonist(s)

(3) this study only applies to protagonists that are still dead at film's end

(4) most films mentioned fall into more than one of these categories

(5) I'm not categorizing films. I'm categorizing death.

Why is it important to keep those five things in mind? Because I have NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING, THAT'S WHY! And because the parameters of the study affect the results. Please feel free to call my attention to a category I may have missed.

So, here we go --

Death Biographical - The purpose of deaths in biographical films is self evident. Quite simply, the primary protagonist(s) die because the character(s) portrayed actually died. While there is not always a demand for deep meaning or structural purpose of the death, screenwriters are not exonerated from crafting a compelling story. The death scenes in Bonnie and Clyde and Amadeus are unforgettable for me but many biographical films stop short of showing the character's death onscreen because the filmmakers may not see an artistic, structural, or creative benefit to showing the onscreen death, particularly the death of a beloved icon like Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, or Selena Quintanilla.

Death Historical - There is no other way for films like A Perfect Storm, The Alamo and United 93 to end without rewriting history. They all die. So the screenwriter's role in portraying these deaths is to orchestrate a story that makes viewers want to see the film even though we may already know the ending. Viewers need order, sequence, a driving force, or character motives that help us relate to events that are foreign to us. Even though the events are recorded in history books, the story still has to be written.

Death Emancipatory - Sometimes, death is viewed as a last act of defiance but I don't think it's that simple. Thelma and Louise were used, exploited, mistreated and oppressed by men. Death was preferable to going to jail and once again, living under the control and at the mercy of men. Suicide is in character for them and not the cop out ending I expected. It's about taking control and breaking free of the real or perceived bonds on their lives, much the way Maggie Fitzgerald dies in Million Dollar Baby. She doesn't want to live the way anyone else tells her to and in the end, she fights for death rather than live as an invalid. In both these films, death is liberation. Death is control. Death is ownership.

Death Ostentatious - Quiet and contemplative death or blaze of glory? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid aren't going to sit around and be victimized. The end of their story has to do justice to the lives portrayed. I think this may be the same reason Oliver and Barbara Rose both die at the end of War of the Roses. The marriage ends with the ultimate visual punchline -- until death do us part. It reminds me of a line in Amadeus where Salieri tells Mozart that the audience needs a big bang at the end so the they will know when to clap. Films sometimes need a big bang, too. An ostentatious death ending is one way to do it.

Death Anticipatory - Films are tense and angst ridden when we know that at any minute, the protagonist could die. Death is an ever present anticipation in many disaster films, crime dramas, gunslingers, and war films. Is there any question that Michael Sullivan's days are numbered in Road to Perdition and that he will, indeed, eventually reap what he sows? We hope Captain John Miller won't die in Saving Private Ryan but in war and in disaster films like the Poseidon Adventure, bad things happen to good people so every gunshot, every falling beam and every explosion is the adrenaline rushing potential death of a character we are growing increasingly invested in. We're on the edge of our seats and that's good writing. But it has to be logical. In Diehard, the reality established in the film for John McClain makes him all but invincible. We cringe as he walks across broken glass in bare feet but he isn't going to die and we know it. We don't know that in Saving Private Ryan because the reality of that film tries to mirror the reality of war where good guys are gonna die. How many bullets can you dodge? All of them in some films. All but one in others.

Death Matrimonial - Until death do us part? Not always. Love can bridge the gap between life and death onscreen. In both Ghost and The Sixth Sense, the protagonist is dead from the beginning but hangs around because of a love too great to be separated by death. In The Notebook, Duke is so devoted to his wife, Allie, who suffers from Alzheimers, that life would be intolerable for either of them if one were to die. Their simultaneous deaths serve as a snapshot of love everlasting.

Death as Synthesis - Sometimes death is a means of bringing a story full circle -- or full triangle. In Titanic, Rose wanted to die (thesis) until she met Jack who taught her to live (antithesis). By the end of the film, she welcomed death as a means of continuing life as opposed to earlier in the film when she longed for death as an escape from life (synthesis). Most of the protagonist deaths I've watched this week feel like some kind of effort to bring synthesis to the story. Sometimes it works. Other times, I scratch my head.

Death Sacramental - Death of the protagonist can bring reconciliation or social, moral, or governmental reform. Braveheart and Gladiator are based-on-history protagonists. Much is still unknown about William Wallace but he most certainly did not do much of what the film portrays. Even less is known about Narcissus, the slave who killed Lucius Aurelius Commodus and whose name was changed to Maximus some time after David Franzoni finished the first draft of Gladiator. But these films are not documentaries so the protagonists' deaths in both were carefully crafted to do three things: make the protagonist a hero, avenge the death of their wives, and bring about a reformation in government. It makes them noble, heroic and admirable and brings synthesis to the story at the same time.

Death Explanatory - This is what I would call films like Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty where the dead protagonist narrates and explains how he met his demise. Norma Desmond destroyed Joe Gillis rather than lose him. His death is the culmination of her insanity. But the death of Lestor Burnham? Well, I guess are were meant to understand that everyone in his life who thought they would be better off if he was dead -- his daughter, wife, neighbor and himself -- will now have to find out.

Death Antagonistic - So what do you do when your protagonists are also your antagonists? In Troy and in War of the Roses, we are drawn into the stories of opposing sides. Since both the primary protagonists are also the primary antagonists, somebody we are rooting for must lose. In these examples, it's everyone.

Death Recanted - Ever so often, we get thrown an ersatz death when there is a sequel afoot. Dead Man's Chest ends with Jack Sparrow's demise but we're confident that he'll be back. Jack is either fighting for his life in the belly of the beast or a piece of jewelry he stole from Tia Dalma happens to have some kind of resurrection value. We also went through this with Hans Solo in the Empire Strikes Back. The protagonist is gone and we grieve, but only a little. We know he'll be back.


Unk said...

Interesting read and THANK YOU for not sticking THELMA AND LOUISE into the same boat as BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I hate that comparison.

Good stuff... I think you're on to something here. I will admit that I've never given the subject a lot of thought.

Until now.



MaryAn Batchellor said...

I was guilty, however, of making that Butch and Sundance/Thelma and Louise comparison until I actually WATCHED Thelma and Louise...funny how that works.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Maryan - what an amazing list!!! Actually agree with everything you say (and you know what a cantankerous weirdo I am), so thanks for that.

Anonymous said...

Great list Maryan, very informative reading. And reading through all the suggestions people have made has just reminded me of so many films I must re-watch, like Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise.

Milehimama said...

I think you should add "Death Inherited", where a protag or major character must die in order to pass the torch on.
Charlotte's Web
Pay it Forward
The Godfather
and even Obi Wan Kenobi.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Thought about Charlotte's Web but left it out because I limited this to primary protagonists as opposed to major protagonists & important protagonists. That would be REALLY daunting -- sidekicks, spouses, children, best friends, teachers, mentors. Same goes for Obi Wan.

Still have not seen Pay it Forward, although it's on my list and please, no boo-ing, I have never seen the Godfather either. I know! I know! It's un-American of me. Sorrrrrrry. I suspect, although I really have no idea, that Godfather would fall into the same category as Road to Perdition. Sooner or later, they reap what they sow. Guess I'll have to watch it and find out.

You've seen Godfather and Pay It Forward, MHM, whatcha think? What category do they go in or do they get a new one?

Brett said...


"I have never seen the Godfather"

I'm not busting on you specifically, but it always amazes me when I see screenwriters who have refused to see some of the major iconic works in the canon.

"I'm a playwright, but I've never read Shakespeare."

'I'm a songwriter, but I've never heard Bob Dylan."

"I'm a painter, but I've never really looked at the works of Picasso or Da Vinco or Van Gogh."

yet I continue to run into movie people who somehow never get around to seeing some of those all-time Top 10 movies.

Odd. That's what this is-- just plain odd.

Get thee to a rentery.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I'm not REFUSING to see the Godfather, Brett, I just never have.

Here's the story. We were so dirt poor when I was growing up, I had only been to a movie theatre four times by the time I was eighteen -- Charlotte's Web, Benji, Superman, and The Buddy Holly Story. That's it. No Star Wars, no Jaws, no Saturday Night Fever. And, ahem, no Godfather.

So, I kind of went nuts after I got a job and could afford to go to the movies. However, I was 25 before I had a VCR.

I've had a lot of movies to catch up on. You'd be even more appalled if you knew what else I haven't seen.

By the way, I've read almost every Shakespeare play, own a lot of Bob Dylan and Testa di Faniciulla Detta is hanging over my desk.

I am odd. True. But it is not because I haven't seen YOUR top ten. It is because, darlin', I am odd. Love me for it.

But hey, I have eight televisions in the house, one, in every vehicle, a giant screen in the den, DVD players, VCR's, iPods, portable DVD's, iTunes, a Blockbuster down the street and a job. For Christmas, I'm asking Santa for a refrigerator with a television and DVD player in the door.

Well, I ain't a-gonna grieve no more, no more
Ain't a-gonna grieve no more, no more
Ain't a-gonna grieve no more, no more
And ain't a-gonna grieve no more.

(that's Dylan)

Milehimama said...

They go in "Death Inherited". Don Corleone, yes, kinda got what was coming to him, but the movie is really about Michael, his son, taking over the family business. The Godfather had to die to make the transition complete, thematically.

I hated - HATED - the ending to Pay It Forward. But, again, Haley Joel Osmet had to die, so his concept of "pay it forward" would be, well, forwarded.

I included Charlotte's Web, because it was my first time watching a movie in which a main character died. I was shocked! I think it's a 'first time' for a lot of people.

And you know what? I haven't seen a lot of iconic movies either. Never seen Butch and Sundance, or Annie Hall, or a thousand other ones that leave people speechless (although I have read the scripts for movies, often, without seeing them or before seeing them.)

I'm under thirty - and my mother was quite strict about our movies. If she liked them, she would ignore any and all sex and violence. If she didn't like them, well, then they better be rated 'G' or I better sneak 'em in at a friends house.

On the other hand, I have seen a lot of early Hollywood films. The Thin Man series? Check. Anything Bette Davis? Check. Fred and Ginger, Bing, Stewart? Check, check, check. Hitchcock? Of course! (Am I the only one who can't watch Nic Cage without having a Jimmy Stewart moment?)

I'm catching up now that I have AMC and digital cable.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Ah, yes, MHM, Bette, Cary, Bing, Ginger, Hope, Bogie, love them all and grew up with them on t.v. All time fav Bette Davis film? Jezebel!!!! I'm kneeling to ya', Pres. Second runner up? Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. But ya ahhhhhhh in that chair, Blanche! And of course, All About Eve. It's high time the piano learned that it did not write the concerto!

Good times...

Maybe...hmmm..never thought of this before but maybe that's why I like film more than television...? It's obscene how many DVDs I own.

Milehimama said...

My fave Bette movie is Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. The original psychological thriller with a twist ending.

shecanfilmit said...

I didn't see the Godfather movies until I started reading for Zoetrope. I met Francis a few times and thought, "Heck, it might be embarrassing if it becomes obvious in conversation that I've never seen his movies." So I got the boxed set and watched I and II, then Apocalpyse Now, then The Conversation. The Godfather movies indeed pulled me in, but my favorite was the Conversation.

A category related to Death of Protag: Protag is Crazy by End of Movie, i.e. The Conversation, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (if I remember correctly), Pi (doesn't he put a drill through his head at the end?), Reqieum for a Dream, etc.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Death by Insanity? If the insanity is genetic, would that fall under MHM's suggested Death Inherited?

Dang... so much more work and so much more to watch on this. But, I shall prevail!

Eddie said...

Nice post. Can we call you professor now?

I wonder who Shakespeare read, who Dylan listened to, and whose works Picasso admired... I mention this not just for half ass argument's sake, but because I'd like to know.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Professor MaryAn... that's funny.

Milehimama said...

Can I be the movie star? Even though I'm more like a female Gilligan.

I'm guessing Shakespear read Aristotle, Plato, Homer. He definitely had plenty of Greek classics in there somewhere. And probably the Bible. It's not like he could request the latest chick lit best seller from the local library.

Anonymous said...

well, the real Braveheart was probably larger..closer to six and half feet rather than the more, mortal stature of Gibson in the film.

also, there are references wherein he was not exactly a "commoner" and may have received professional training in soldiery.

they did get the personality right for the most part. he was supposedly loath to trangress the fields of his own conscience and was executed horribly, e'en worse than was portrayed in film!

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late getting into the game here, but I've been thinking about this every since you posted this wonderful study.

Under which category would you put Romeo & Juliet? I suspect it would be an offshoot of Death Antagonistic, as they were supposed to be antagonists, but refused, which brought about their tragic demise.

And with all of the talk about The Godfather in the comments, I have to say that it is NOT the death of Brando, Don Vito Corleone, that should be under consideration. His death was merely the inciting incident to Michael's story, and it is Micheal Corleone's demise in Godfather III that should be mentioned somewhere, although I'm not sure where. His death completed his absolute ruination. He was the best and the brightest in the family. Then, he took over and embodied the very worst of what his family represented. He brought the family to ruin, lost his marriage, lost his daughter, killed his own brother, lost his soul, tried to get out from that life, couldn't, and died. In the end, death followed him everywhere. I don't know what you'd do with Michael. But his story could not be told any other way.

Side note - you might someday have to include Harry Potter on this list.

In any case, a superb, thoughtful post. I really loved it.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Ah, MM, thank you so very much. I needed a kind word today, but must you force me to think???

My initial thought is that Romeo and Juliet would probably go into Death Sacramental since their deaths, we assume, tore down the curtain between the houses of Capulet and Montegue...but I may need to think on that one.

Anonymous said...

I love what you do here, MaryAn. I have for quite a while. Keep it up!


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Thank you for the shout out!

Tracy said...

Hi MaryAn,

I know this is a bit late, and I'm not sure if it was mentioned - I caught Armageddon last night, and immediately thought of your post (which is extremely informative). Which category might this film fall under - I'm thinking Death Anticipatory. I know a lot of people did not like this film, but we still see the death of the protag.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Been awhile since I've seen Armageddon but I think it's got more than one thing going on with that protag death. We're talking about the Bruce Willis character, right? I think anticipatory is correct but there was also some greater good stuff (sacramental) going on there, maybe? Wish I could remember. Will have to revisit after I watch it again.