SPOILER: This article may reveal the fate of some key characters in their respective movies. Read at your own discretion.
I feel sorry for the side-kicks. Current movies and television shows are suddenly full of ‘hard truth’; the happily-ever-after seems to be a dated concept, and everything is a cry-fest. So I left my brains back at home to go watch Transformers: Age of Extinction, and guess what, pretty soon, I was feeling sour about the petrified form of the whacky-yet-likable Lucas. It brought back memories of times when I have felt similarly, or worse about some of the more beloved characters having significantly short life spans. Worse would mean The Hunger Games (both) and the Harry Potter series (the fourth instalment onwards). But at least, I was partially prepared for these deluges beforehand; but when original screenplays start taking cues from adapted ones (books have a stronger influence, and need be, are capable of scarring you for life), it does sometimes test my nerves. Here’s to the untimely, and in some cases, completely avoidable and/or unnecessary deaths of the second-best…
Right up my list is the hot-headed, impetuous older Corleone brother. He wasn’t my favourite side-character in the Godfather’s family, (that would be Tom Hagen), and his vices would outnumber his virtues three-to-one any day, but surprisingly, his bloodied body lying amidst the bullet-ridden Long Beach causeway toll booth and the pockmarked car made me feel incredibly sorry for him. Add to that the original, relatively nobler intention (not counting the intention to kill, but to take care of his sister) with which Sonny had embarked upon his unsuspecting, yet fatal journey. Toll booths anywhere, to this day, remind me of that lonely dusty road and the panic and helplessness in the young man’s eyes as he realised what he had walked into. At least his death was well avenged (far too well avenged, perhaps, but you get the drift…).
Do tell me you remember him. He was certainly the second most mature, and certainly the most interesting character in L.A. Confidential and by the time I got to the softness of his heart (notice his reactions when he was looking almost pitifully at Simon Baker’s character), behind the apparent apathy and sleekness, they killed him off in cold blood. Considering it was Kevin Spacey playing Vincennes, I had naturally assumed he wasn’t really that dead. But this was 1997, and I only caught up with the movie a few months back, so the natural rule of characters-coming-back-from-the-dead didn’t quite work out then. So, dead he was, and it very nearly broke my heart.
This one was plain cruel. Filmmakers should really take some note of the impact wrought on the audience, when they kill off a lovable character, then bring him/her back, and then goad that he/she was dead after all. Gravity was a very masterful film, full of deep undercurrents and nausea-inducing tumblings along all possible axes, but the one cheerful thing in the entire frightening situation was the reassuring banter of Matt Kowalski. Things were pretty downhill from very much the beginning, and then Alfonso Cuarón just had to pull a Jack-Rose rerun, with Kowalski merrily letting go of the rope to help his colleague Ryan Stone live. As if watching the lonesome figure of Kowalski float away into the nothingness wasn’t torture enough, he made a cameo in Stone’s sub-conscience. Who does that? For laymen like us, the kind of pickle the astronauts had been in is of unimaginable proportions. Naturally, I happily hoped that Kowalski, somehow, in some crazy inexplicable way, had actually found his way back, knocking at the glass porthole, like he didn’t want to get wet in the rain outside, and wanted to be let in. What high hopes!
It gets to me that nobody really talks about her enough. She was the only normal constant in Jason Bourne’s (or David Webb’s) life, and remarkable for this fact alone. The Bourne Identity was one of the first films in its time, where ordinary-looking, unsuspecting characters were portrayed as martial-arts specialists, and so Bourne’s journey was as novel to me, as it must have been to his girlfriend Marie. Her transition from a naïve, slightly flummoxed woman to an understanding and patient partner was quite frankly, a relief. The Bourne Identity ended on an almost fairy-tale note with the pair re-uniting under the sparkling Greek sun; then The Bourne Supremacy begins and Marie is dead within the first half-hour. It’s hard to expect the world crashing down on Bourne, but it certainly did for me. I guess her lack of dexterity with all-things-mercenary would have slowed down Bourne and hence she had to be eliminated from the scene, but that was an incredibly low shot to inflict on the audience.
The fact that she went only by her first name, impresses me. The fact that she was as handy with a handgun as she was with cars and bikes impresses me. The fact that she was mostly quiet yet shrewd impresses me. The fact that she was Han’s girlfriend impresses me. The fact that she fell to her death, in a movie which is as far removed from reality as two neighbouring celestial galaxies, does not impress me. For all I know, Gisele was the only woman in the Fast & Furious franchise, who was really out there kicking up dust, with barely an emotional baggage. Sure, she had a thing for Han, but taciturnity seemed to define their relationship, and that suited me more than fine. So, of course, they had to do that heartbreaking scene where she gives up her life for Han, who is left utterly, yet silently, distraught. Oh right, didn’t he die too ? My bad…
Yes, I know Solo actually lives to see the day, but that was an uncertainty for me the way things ended in The Empire Strikes Back till I saw Return of the Jedi. The wise-cracking, self-assured straight-shooter and ace-pilot perfectly balanced the calm sincerity of Luke Skywalker and the heady dignity of Princess Leia. Needless to say, he was a perfect heart-throb, a very typical bad boy, full of latent kindness. He made the galaxy far, far away a little more swanky and his transformation from a reckless, trigger-happy employee of the loathsome Jabba the Hutt, into a more sensible, responsible member of the Rebel Alliance makes for an endearing watch. The change in his deliverables in life however, do not diminish his dry and scathing sense of humour and everything about him could be summed up in that legendary response to Leia’s confession of her love for him. Harrison Ford, who played Han Solo, has let us know years later that he would have preferred Solo to be killed off, to lend some depth to the character and the story. Well, I say, someone sure was kind enough to override the suggestion. Something gives me the sneaky feeling that Solo’s fate in that carbonite was deliberately left open-ended. But for once, happy endings had their day.
More often than not, the death of a supporting character is used as the emotional base for the rest of the story, in which case Ford’s suggestion would have certainly made a stronger connect with the saga of Star Wars. There is a reason why they are not the heart of the story, but their primary utility is to bring out the layers in the protagonist. What probably bothers me (us?) when these characters are killed off, is the immense burden that the lead character is suddenly required to put up with. Loss of a friend or a close loved one is a sickening feeling that all of us, at one point or another, have experienced. Hence, the understanding of the grief can get very personal, which is the root of all the heartache. Of course, much depends on how well the relationships have been built on screen (for instance, I do know of people who didn’t really view Rachel’s death in The Dark Knight as massive a turn of events as it was for Bruce Wayne/Batman, simply because their relationship, admittedly, lacked certain spark). All said and done, this trend has somehow become a major formula for most of our movies today, which makes it quite difficult for some of us not to tear up. Dear filmmakers, life in itself is short and can get quite too much to handle at a time. Would it kill you to keep all the good guys intact?