Monday, June 23, 2008

Life and Death for Fictional Characters

OK: Spoiler alert for Indiana Jones, Sex and the City movie, Harry Potter, Lost if you're not caught up.

A few weeks back, we had a lot of discussion about narrative and fictional characters. I'd like to come back to that theme to talk about a trend I've noticed in recent years. We seem to be unwilling to kill off our beloved fictional characters.

When the Harry Potter series finished last summer with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there was massive speculation about whether book seven would end with his demise. Would Voldemort do him in? Would the two finish off each other in a final showdown? Would Harry lose to he who must not be named and would evil wizardry win the day? Well, no one really thought that would happen; it was a childrens' book after all. In a 2006 interview, about a year before the book was released, J.K. Rowling said she might kill Harry. So fans did open the novel wondering whether Harry Potter would still be alive when they closed it. But despite a good scare near the end in which Harry has a near-death experience, Harry survives the battle with Voldemort and goes on to marry his long-time love.

Similarly, before the recent Indiana Jones sequel came out in theaters, many fans wondered if this would be the movie in which Indiana Jones finally died. It has been 19 years since the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Harrison Ford is now 65 years old, old for an action star. The series seemed to be introducing a new generation of archaeologist/adventurer in Shia LaBeouf's character. And on top of that, one of the remarkable things about Indiana Jones as a hero has always been his fallibility—he's never seemed invincible or naturally strong. He comes across as an everyday man who is put in extreme circumstances that push him to his limits and force him to act in amazing ways. It would have fit his character arc very well for audiences to see him die on screen. But he does not die either.

Rumors popped up before the release of the Sex and the City movie that one of the beloved characters from the well-known TV show would die when the story hit the big screen. Early speculation especially centered around Samantha, who suffered breast cancer in the TV show. Producers and writers decided to keep all of the characters alive and well.

There are also TV shows like Lost that frequently blur the lines between life and death. Claire seems to recently have died, but she didn't even get a death scene. Instead, she just left her baby behind and got up and walked into the woods. Now she is with her father, Christian Shephard, who has become some type of Angel of Death on the show. Charlie visited Hurley, even though Charlie had drowned. Boone keeps finding ways to come back. So does Mr. Friendly. There are flashbacks and flash-forwards, so that even once a character has died in the present, we still see them as part of the show in flashbacks, and they may still exist in the present but have died in the future (as with Locke). Death is not treated as a permanent goodbye on Lost.

I wonder if this zeitgeist has something to do with our country being at war. We're under such stress and and see so much turmoil and death in reality, we don't want to feel it with our fictional characters. We want our fictional characters to have happy endings. And now that the economy has taken a turn for the worse, it's all the more motivation for things to work out in the land of not-so-real.


Michael said...

Interesting. Another way that pop culture seems to be coping with the real world is with copious amounts of blood and death. Consider the glut of horror movies in the last 5 or so years.

Jessica Knapp said...

Good point. And you know, in a lot of those horror movies, the people who die deserve to die, even if it's just in the Post Modern sense that they broke the "rules" of the horror genre, ala the Scream movies. Or in The Ring when Naomi Watts' character survived because she was willing to copy the video. (That reference may be a bit old for this point though.) And if you look at zombie movies, usually zombies only attack societies that have resorted to terrible ills—sin, vice, pollution, etc. But maybe the deaths are easier to take if they're so gruesome they seem obviously fake, and they're easier to write off as something that wouldn't happen to the viewer because the people who die do something to "deserve" dying, and you as the viewer could just avoid doing that thing and therefore live.