Thursday, 21 January 2010

Killing your hero

There was an interesting post last month on Alex Epstein's blog about killing your protagonist. Someone asked whether it should be done. Here's what Alex has to say:

"This is really a gut check question. Are you in the right genre? Does it make it a more satisfying story? Does it deliver the goods on the concept? Have you set this up throughout the movie so that it is a surprising but
inevitable ending? Then go for it.

I think the key thing with a surprise downer ending is it has to be, somehow, not a true surprise. It can't come out of nowhere. It has to be set up emotionally. The hero has a death wish. The hero is getting away with something that we know, deep down, he can't really get away with. Or shouldn't. There have been intimations of death all along. The resolution of the movie is really about what the hero accomplished, not whether he survives. The hero is a bad bad man and we really want him dead.

The posters for a certain Mel Gibson movie say, "Every man dies; not every man really lives." So you know going in that the odds aren't good for Mr. William Wallace.

In a horror movie I saw a few years ago, the heroine loses her child in the opening. She never really gets over that. In one version of the ending (the European one, of course), she doesn't make it out alive because dying (and being reunited with her dead daughter) is a better result for her than going on living.

In a long-running HBO series, the main character (arguably) winds up dead in the finale. But he's talked about it ("When you get it, you probably don't even see it coming") and he lives in a world where it's normal.

You shouldn't end on a twist for the sake of a twist. But if you can surprise us, yet leave us with a feeling afterwards that this was the natural conclusion of the story -- then go for it."

Interesting thoughts. I had that problem myself a while ago. After a lot of thought, I made decision and stuck to it. I was able to make that decision after getting the theme sorted in my head - what point am I trying to make in this story? Ultimately, I decided that my message was - people have the right to live. So if I were to kill my protagonist, in the space of 10 seconds I would have shat all over the entire story!

It's imperative that your ending reflect the theme of the script. Maybe it would help to think of stories as academic essays with an introduction, argument and conclusion:

INTRO - what are you saying here? What sort of film is this? Set the theme.
ARGUMENT - tell your story.
CONCLUSION - reinforce your theme and review.

I thought it might be a good idea to go through a few stories and see how the theme relates to the character's ending. Do these stories do as Epstein says: "it is a surprising but inevitable ending?"

'Terminator 2: Judgement Day'
The mission: preventing Judgement Day and destroying machines.
Ending: The Terminator is destroyed.

Of course that ending was inevitable - the Terminator had to 'die'. It's arguable that John Connor was, in fact, the protagonist, but people watch a 'Terminator' movie for Arnie right?

'Saving Private Ryan'
We follow Tom Hank's Captain Miller throughout the movie. At one point, he notes:
So, I guess I've changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I've changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I'll ever be able to tell her about days like today.
You may not have realised it at the time, but we get clear foreshadowing here. From this point it was inevitable that Miller would never return home - he would die on this mission. How can he tell her about days like today? He can't - so he won't have to.

'V for Vendetta'
While we may love V for his anarchist, rebellious ways, we can't deny the fact that he is a terrorist. I know: "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", but V is a mass murderer who is simply too dangerous to be left alive. Of course he as to die - there is no other fitting ending to this character's story.

'Lord of the Rings'
In the first movie, it was said by a freaky witch/seer/elf (played by Cate Blanchett) that the quest to destroy the Ring would claim Frodo's life. So was it always inevitable that Frodo would die at the end of the trilogy?

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
Forgetting that she came back for 2 more seasons, Buffy died at the end of season 5. At one point in the series, the first Slayer told Buffy:
"Death is your gift."
It takes our girl a while to figure it out, but with death being her gift, it was foreshadowed that her death would be the thing to save the world.

You can argue that Angel and the gang don't die at the show's finale, however I believe they do. There is a great speech from Angel in the previous episode where he proposes their suicidal mission:
This isn't a "keep fighting the good fight" kind of deal. Let's be clear. I'm talking about killing every... single... member... of the Black Thorn. We don't walk away from that.
We do this, the senior partners will rain their full wrath. They'll make an example of us. I'm talking full-on hell, not the basic fire-and-brimstone kind that we're used to.
Ten to one, we're gone when the smoke clears. They will do everything in their power to destroy us. So... I need you to be sure. Power endures. We can't bring down the Senior Partners, but for one bright shiny moment we can show them that they don't own us. You need to decide for yourselves if that's worth dying for. I can't order you to do this. Can't do it without you. So we'll vote... as a team. Think about what I'm asking you to do. Think about what I'm asking you to give.
Angel and the gang know their fate - the conclusion was inevitable - they die.

In all the above examples, the death of the main character is always inevitable and justified. They're also intertwined with the theme:

Humans vs. machines ('Terminator 2')
Sacrifice ('Saving Private Ryan')
Disrupting the status quo ('V for Vendetta')
Extreme heroism ('LotR,' 'Buffy')
Making a point ('Angel')

Right now, I can't think of any examples where killing the protagonist was unjustified or not linked to the theme. There must be some - anyone have any?


Scriptwrecked said...

Hey Neil, nice summary. You may also find this article I wrote on the subject to be of interest.


John H said...

That's a brilliant article, Trevor. Great examples - I always think of Butch & Sundance for the 'don't show the actual death' bit. They don't die! :)

I like your summary too, Neil but think some of your examples are a bit off. Just 'cos you watch Terminator 'cos of Arnie, doesn't mean he's the protagonist. I love Jaws 'cos of the shark - doesn't mean he's the protagonist either!

Similarly, I don't think V is the protagonist of V for Vendetta. It's Evey who makes all of the decisions central to the plot. A better example featuring Natalie Portman living with a homicidal maniac would be Leon - that's very much his film and Natalie gives him something to live for. And ultimately something to die for.

I think the Buffy/Angel 'deaths' are a different matter because of the difference of spanning a story for film and TV. There's little point to starting a film if you don't know the end (thematic or otherwise). But is it different in a series if the death of the protagonist doesn't necessarily mean the end of the series?