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WHACK!
October 26, 2007 7:39 PM   Subscribe

Are there any good examples of books or movies where the protagonist dies unexpectedly? (assume spoilers)

S/he gets hit by a bus, dies of the flu, gets trampled by a horse right near the end of the book. The plot takes a sudden, uncomfortable, twist, and then ends suddenly, leaving the reader with.a sense of unease, as though the story shouldn't really ended that way.
posted by Pants! to Media & Arts (97 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Offhand, I can't think of anything really good (Diary of Anne Frank, maybe, but not quite the same). Bridge to Terabithia kinda, but not quite what you describe.

The 'original' ending to Clerks is pretty close, but Kevin Smith was convinced to change the ending after initial reaction was pretty much against.

Trying not to be too spoilery here...
posted by pupdog at 7:42 PM on October 26, 2007


The movie Open Water. Wow, made me realize what an American I am, always expecting the happy ending. I totally expected them to get rescued at the end...not eaten by sharks. I didn't research the "based on a true story" history until after I saw the movie.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:42 PM on October 26, 2007


Psycho, sorta.
posted by dobbs at 7:45 PM on October 26, 2007


I missed a "have" in that last sentence. That's what I get for asking on a mobile phone. Thanks for the good responses so far!
posted by Pants! at 7:45 PM on October 26, 2007


There are lots of books/movies where the protagonist dies a bit unexpectedly but I'm not sure which, if any, of them involve the plot taking a sudden, uncomfortable twist. "Open Water" is a good choice.

Do you consider the film "The Departed" or the novel "A Game of Thrones" (if you've seen or read them) to meet your criteria?
posted by Justinian at 7:47 PM on October 26, 2007


To Live and Die in LA does this.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:49 PM on October 26, 2007


While it was a horrid movie, They has ending like you described.

It's not exactly death, but in the original ending of The Descent has an ending that's as close to death as possible without actually killing the character.
posted by Nelsormensch at 7:50 PM on October 26, 2007


Justinian: I'm sadly lacking in the whole "participating in the culture around you" department. I'll add them to the list, though.
posted by Pants! at 7:51 PM on October 26, 2007


Psycho was noteworthy in its day because the young heroine died so suddenly in the story.
posted by jefficator at 7:57 PM on October 26, 2007


Movie: Arlington Road
TV Show: Six Feet Under (although if you've seen any of it, "unexpected" is debatable)

Oh, and maybe you've heard of Million Dollar Baby? Bit of a curveball there.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:59 PM on October 26, 2007


Cold Mountain.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:01 PM on October 26, 2007


2nding A Game of Thrones and the subsequent novels. GRRM revels in killing off his main characters.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 8:07 PM on October 26, 2007


Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult
posted by b33j at 8:09 PM on October 26, 2007


If you want to talk about cinema from the Philippines from the last few years, Magnifico meets the description. Not a entirely sad ending, but I found myself asking, now what did him dying accomplish?

(Um, spoilers.)
posted by stleric at 8:12 PM on October 26, 2007


Romeo & Juliet

Gladitor

Ichi the killer: well, maybe this one doesn't count because you find the demented evil guy more sympathetic than the anti-hero (who dies) ...

American History X: main character dies.

Twelve monkeys: protaginst dies.

Mulholland Drive: as above.

Scarface
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:15 PM on October 26, 2007


Not quite a death, but the last few seconds of Brazil reveal that rather than having just escaped, the protagonist is now in a vegetative state.

The other one that comes to mind is Night of the Living Dead where Ben, having survived the night's onslaught is killed by the rescue party.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 8:17 PM on October 26, 2007


All Quiet on the Western Front, in which the protagonist is also the first-person narrator. Then it suddenly changes at the end to third-person, to tell you about how he died.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:19 PM on October 26, 2007


Spoilers. Obviously.

The Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman movie Far and Away is one of my most-hated movies of all time, because it tricks you with what seems like an ending where Tom Cruise's character dies (which would have made a so/so movie at least somewhat unusual & interesting)... and then the camera spirals back down and he sits up and comes back to life. I would have walked out of the movie right there if it wasn't already over.
posted by MsMolly at 8:20 PM on October 26, 2007


Drew Barrymore in Scream? Not really unexpected, I guess, but certainly premature.
posted by rokusan at 8:22 PM on October 26, 2007


The Wikipedia article on false protagonists lists quite a few examples.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:24 PM on October 26, 2007


Not the protagonist, but a major character in the Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Actually, for that one the author died too, before the book was published.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 8:25 PM on October 26, 2007


The best "character dies unexpectedly" story that I've ever seen was the West Wing episode 18th and Potomac.
posted by MsMolly at 8:34 PM on October 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'd say Infernal Affairs does it far better than The Departed. It's pretty shocking, to be perfectly honest. The Departed is just heavy-handed (I mean, seriously, ending on a shot of a rat?).
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:42 PM on October 26, 2007


I'm going to say American Beauty, even though it doesn't really count. You know from the start that he is going to die, but I was still a little surprised when it happened.

This is a really hard question because most good authors will let you know that a protagonist will die. Audiences don't usually like surprises way out in left field.
posted by sbutler at 8:44 PM on October 26, 2007


James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere has this happen - I was pretty shocked when I got to that part.
posted by rfs at 8:48 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


American Beauty is the first thing to come to mind, because even though he gives it away in the opening narration, it's almost something you forget.

I'd also consider another Sam Mendes film, Road to Perdition (though that was based upon a graphic novel, so if you read that, it probably wasn't unexpected).
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:52 PM on October 26, 2007


Sorry, the story doesn't end there - I missed the last part of your question. It's one of the three protagonists in The Big Nowhere that dies.
posted by rfs at 8:53 PM on October 26, 2007


Sbutler: interesting comment about what a "good author" does. Do you think that's a cultural or human expectation?

For the sake of argument, a "good" author could pull this off in a pleasing, although unpleasant, way.
posted by Pants! at 8:53 PM on October 26, 2007


I felt this way about Connie Willis's Passage. It made sense in a way and the character is still sort of in the book (it's about near death experiences) but yeah, WHACK.
posted by jessamyn at 8:55 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Serenity.
I was at a midnight screening awhile back and when Wash died someone yelled out "Joss, you bastard!" So, yeah, a lot of people didn't like it.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:01 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've been searching for a quote, but can't find it right now. It goes something like this:

If there's a gun on the wall in Act 1, Scene 3, then you better use it by the end of Act 3. Also, if you kill someone in Act 3, the gun better be there in Act 1.

Using the term good writing is a bit subjective, but I personally can't think of any that would pull such a stunt. Maybe they could do it, but I don't know that it would make for a very good story.

All of this is one of the reasons I hated Ocean's 12 so much. You sit through the whole damn movie, trying to figure things out, and then at the end they say "Surprise! A bunch of stuff happened off stage." If it were a good movie, to me, they'd be able to subtly work it into the plot.

Perhaps you're best shot is documentaries. When I was young I watched La Bamba w/o knowing what happened to the Big Bopper, etc. You don't get foreshadowing in real life.
posted by sbutler at 9:07 PM on October 26, 2007


Movies:
To Live and Die in LA
Executive Decision
In both of these, the protagonist dies right in the middle. Very strange plotting.
In Gallipoli, the protagonists die at the end. It's not exactly unexpected, but it is a major change in the plot's direction.
And Serenity, of course. A couple major characters die there.
posted by adamrice at 9:13 PM on October 26, 2007


Executive Decision
In both of these, the protagonist dies right in the middle.


Steven Segal was not the protagonist.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:19 PM on October 26, 2007


Time Traveler's Wife.

You think he'll get out of it. But he doesn't
posted by TrashyRambo at 9:21 PM on October 26, 2007


Collateral. There's a whole storyline involving the Mark Ruffalo cop character (not "the" protagonist, but a major character), it's being developed, we learn about him, his part of the story is nowhere near resolution, you think he's going to be pivotal because the story tells you he is, and then bang, he's gone, just like that (and just like Wash *sniff*). And it's not like his wife just had a baby and he has everything to live for, it's just he's there, carrying his bit of the story, and then he's dead (which is part of why I love the movie).
posted by biscotti at 9:22 PM on October 26, 2007


I hate to "recommend" this film in any way since it epitomizes the absolute worst in schmaltzy, manipulative, cheesy drama, but Pay it Forward seems to fit your criteria.
posted by The Gooch at 9:36 PM on October 26, 2007


In The Bedroom.
posted by JPowers at 9:39 PM on October 26, 2007


The Departed. Whomever you might think of as the protagonist dies (with one exception).
posted by thewittyname at 9:40 PM on October 26, 2007


Japanese Story
posted by RoseovSharon at 10:13 PM on October 26, 2007


sbutler - that's Chekhov's Gun
posted by djb at 10:18 PM on October 26, 2007


sbutler, that's Chekhov's gun.

"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 10:18 PM on October 26, 2007


Letters from the Inside by John Marsden. This is an odd suggestion, because it's a kids' book. And the ending is officially ambiguous, although I think it's totally clear that the character is dead. My sense is that kids tend to be confused by the book, mostly because they refuse to accept the implication that the character has died, because it just feels so fundamentally wrong. But if you're looking for a book that leaves you with a sense of unease, I can't think of a better one. It's honestly one of the more brutal things I've ever read.
posted by craichead at 10:20 PM on October 26, 2007


12 monkeys

Saw IV, but you kind of know it is going to happen all the saw movies go that way, and it is at the end.
posted by DJWeezy at 10:25 PM on October 26, 2007


See, this is why I was hoping the OP would give us examples of the kind of thing he's talking about. I think he's looking for stuff like "Open Water" but people are naming virtually anything with any kind of twist in which somebody mentioned before gets killed, even if it is telegraphed way in advance.

It seems to me that works where the outcome is telegraphed, such as "American Beauty" are exactly the kind of thing the OP isn't looking for.
posted by Justinian at 10:28 PM on October 26, 2007


The only one I can really think of is Staggerford by Jon Hassler.
posted by Electric Elf at 10:40 PM on October 26, 2007


The movie 15 Minutes. De Niro's character is murdered halfway through.
posted by aerotive at 11:09 PM on October 26, 2007


No death, but Monty Python and the Holy Grail is dead on as far as "a sudden, uncomfortable, twist, and then ends suddenly, leaving the reader with.a sense of unease, as though the story shouldn't really ended that way."
posted by limon at 11:13 PM on October 26, 2007


See the Sea. Actually, most of Francois Ozon's films, to a certain extent, but Sea the Sea is arguably the most disturbing.
posted by desuetude at 11:19 PM on October 26, 2007


I agree wholeheartedly about Connie Willis's Passage. Man, that book tore me up for weeks. I have had persistent, recurring dreams about death that were very much like her descriptions for years before reading it -- it was very much like seeing someone cut into my subconscious and tear out the precious bits to put on display.

In Mean Girls, one character is very, very suddenly HIT BY A BUS. She doesn't die, though.
posted by InnocentBystander at 11:38 PM on October 26, 2007


Would Meet Joe Black fit the criteria? Brad Pitt's character dies, then is replaced by death, then sorta....goes away? (what does Death do to leave the earth?)...then is replaced by his body's former...er, soul.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 12:14 AM on October 27, 2007


The protagonist doesn't exactly die (although what does happen would be a fate worse than death to some) but Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust is an excellent novel that left me feeling exactly the way you describe.
posted by goo at 3:16 AM on October 27, 2007


Sommersby, Braveheart, Gladiator.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 4:00 AM on October 27, 2007


Invasion of the Body Snatchers - the remake with Donald Sutherland is fantastic, with a surprise protagonist death that gave me nightmares for years.
posted by BinGregory at 4:57 AM on October 27, 2007


The World According to Garp. - Garp is unexpectedly shot at the end.

Star Trek II - Spock sacrifices himself to save the ship.

Terminator - "Reese is killed by his own pipe-bomb while attempting to destroy the Terminator, which is only damaged" -from wikipedia

Terminator 2 - Arnie's character destroys himself/itself to prevent the tech from being used by the future terminators
posted by sandra_s at 5:44 AM on October 27, 2007


A Perfect Day For Bananafish
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 5:46 AM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Run Lola Run? One main character dies suddenly in two of the three "runthroughs".
posted by Lucinda at 5:51 AM on October 27, 2007


The "sense of unease" bit is tricky because every reader is different and expectations will be different based on worldview and how engrossed the viewer is with the immediate plot.

Still, some films with protagonists who died suddenly:

Clean, Shaven.
Videodrome.
The Prestige.
Children of Men.
Army of Shadows.
posted by Tuwa at 5:59 AM on October 27, 2007


S/he gets hit by a bus

Oh, and since you mentioned books, I remember being shocked by the ending of Hatter Fox when I was younger ... no idea if it would seem predictable today.
posted by Tuwa at 6:05 AM on October 27, 2007


A main character death at the end of 'Of Mice and Men' really (REALLY) surprised me and left me with that aghast, uneasy feeling.
posted by rinosaur at 6:55 AM on October 27, 2007


Wasn't there an unexpected death in "Horse Whisperer"?
posted by Smalltown Girl at 7:00 AM on October 27, 2007


In Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga book Mirror Dance, Miles, the main character of pretty much the whole series, is killed after a couple of chapters. He is brought back to life later in the book, however.
posted by cerebus19 at 7:07 AM on October 27, 2007


The Great Escape has this sort of ending to a large degree. (Hard to tell since it has multiple protagonists. I would argue that the protagonist is really "the collective of prisoners" and the antagonist is collective of "the guards".)

Star Trek: Nemesis whose spoiler no Trekkie deserves to have ruined for them (they'll be heartbroken enough)

Pearl Harbor (Again, dual protagonists, but still, one dies)

Serenity (Gut wrenching hero's death, but I wouldn't wish the spoiler on my worst enemy)
posted by mysterious1der at 7:12 AM on October 27, 2007


Brokeback Mountain
Oh, and when Tara dies on Buffy....
posted by quentiniii at 7:17 AM on October 27, 2007


Jude the Obscure, Hamlet, Anna Karenina. Little Women, possibly.

Jude the Obscure and Hamlet both had that sort of turn-the-page "holy heck, everyone's dead" shock for me.
posted by jenh at 7:25 AM on October 27, 2007


Not quite the protagonist, but The Shining sets up Dick to be a rescuer, riding in at the end to save the wife and daughter. Except Jack kills him instantly the moment he arrives.
posted by rjt at 7:40 AM on October 27, 2007


- Urinetown (the musical)
- Six String Samurai
posted by mkb at 7:44 AM on October 27, 2007


Steve Gutenberg in The Boys From Brazil. Not the main character, but we don't know that right away.
posted by erpava at 8:19 AM on October 27, 2007


One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
posted by emilyw at 8:34 AM on October 27, 2007


The Parallax View
posted by the cuban at 9:02 AM on October 27, 2007


Seriously, wasn't anyone shocked by ANY of the deaths in the last two Harry Potter books?
posted by MeetMegan at 9:15 AM on October 27, 2007


Depending on how you interpret the finale, The Sopranos.
posted by heatherann at 9:17 AM on October 27, 2007


The TV show Lost.
posted by rabbitsnake at 9:51 AM on October 27, 2007


The play, The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster. the duchess dies at the beginning of Act IV (out of V), about 60% of the way through a very long play. It's a tragedy do the death isn't unexpected but it's a bit of a surprise that the story wasn't actually about her life.
posted by winston at 9:53 AM on October 27, 2007


George RR Martin's "Game of Thrones" series. Protagonists and point of view characters drop like flies. It's great!
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:13 AM on October 27, 2007


I haven't seen either the original or the hollywood version, but I believe the Al Pacino hero/protagonist/detective character dies in Insomnia unexpectedly, having not solved the crime.
posted by roofus at 10:39 AM on October 27, 2007


Adaptation. And maybe My Girl.
posted by streetdreams at 10:41 AM on October 27, 2007


In Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry series of books, one of the main characters dies in an act of self-sacrifice. I vaguely recall it taking me completely by surprise...it's been years.
posted by JaredSeth at 11:28 AM on October 27, 2007


Not a movie or book, but a TV series. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, one of the regular characters dies in the next to last season.
posted by pmbuko at 12:47 PM on October 27, 2007


Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Joachim is not the central character, but it's still kind of shocking when he dies fairly early on. (derail: And sets up for the best scene about technology in 20th century literature, when the new technological wonder--a recording of an opera--seems so realistic that it calls up Joachim's ghost. Man.)
posted by nax at 1:34 PM on October 27, 2007


Iain Banks's Use of Weapons had a great example of this.
posted by Zonker at 1:35 PM on October 27, 2007


George R.R. Martin is the king of protagonist deaths -- check out a Song of Ice and Fire.
posted by boo_radley at 3:43 PM on October 27, 2007


The plot takes a sudden, uncomfortable, twist, and then ends suddenly, leaving the reader with.a sense of unease, as though the story shouldn't really ended that way.

That is a lot of extra baggage for the false protagonist shtick to carry around..

For example, Deep Blue Sea has a most unexpected, and absolutely hilarious, death scene (not redeeming enough to recommend the movie). It doesn't really change the tone..

It sounds like you might be looking for Twilight Zone episodes or something - it turns out they were all dolls in a toy chest.

Anyway, The Crying Game seems to be a perfect candidate.
posted by Chuckles at 4:01 PM on October 27, 2007


What about Kingsley Zissou/ Ned Plimpton in The Life Aquatic? I guess Steve Zissou was the protagonist, but Ned's death was definitely unexpected and led to, for me, a definite feeling of unease.
posted by foxinthesnow at 8:13 PM on October 27, 2007


the thin red line
although witt isn't the "main" character, i was still shocked when he was killed.
posted by jessica at 8:59 PM on October 27, 2007


I'm amazed no one mentioned Layer Cake. That's one frustrating (but appropriate, upon further reflection) ending.
posted by zardoz at 1:13 AM on October 28, 2007


Easy Rider ends with the sudden, senseless deaths of the protagonists.
posted by planetkyoto at 5:25 AM on October 28, 2007


See, this is why I was hoping the OP would give us examples of the kind of thing he's talking about.... but people are naming virtually anything with any kind of twist in which somebody mentioned before gets killed, even if it is telegraphed way in advance.

Hear hear. Also, a lot of people are naming things where the protagonist (or apparent protagonist) is killed in the middle of the story, and the story goes on for a while after that. The way I'm reading the question (and I could be completely wrong) is that the OP is looking for things where the protagonist is killed at the end, but almost randomly, with the death having little to no connection to the rest of the plot, and not at all foreshadowed.

In which case, I'd nominate the director's cut of Das Boot.

(And just in case the OP is looking for things like American Beauty, where we know from the start that the main character is going to die, but it's still shocking when it happens, Sunset Blvd. also falls into that category.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:39 AM on October 28, 2007


My classic example is The Unbearable Lightness of Being (I think the same in book and movie) where a bunch of characters are literally hit by a bus! boom! the end! It never made sense to me at all unless the author ran into a page limit.
posted by anitar at 7:30 AM on October 28, 2007


@zardoz - I was thinking Layer Cake the whole time I was reading through.

I guess 3:10 to Yuma fits the bill. Though it wasn't as unexpected as some others. And on second thought, lots of westerns are like this so I guess you could argue that it's not really that unexpected at all.

The Professional
One Eight Seven
Titanic?
Cool Hand Luke
posted by Kupo? at 9:13 AM on October 28, 2007


Terry Brooks' The Wishsong of Shannara kills off a pretty major character part of the way through the book.
posted by phaded at 9:42 PM on October 28, 2007


For a novel, Jodi Piccoult's My Sister's Keeper. It's at the end, but it's completely unexpected. It is also becoming a movie.
posted by bozichsl at 6:56 AM on October 29, 2007


I'm surprised nobody has mentioned John Cusak in The Grifters, so I will do so now.
posted by jeditanuki at 12:09 PM on October 29, 2007


Oh, and it's only semi-appropriate, but I love how Neal Stephenson sets up his novel, The Diamond Age, by making it seem like it's a run-of-the-mill Cyberpunk novel with your standard boilerplate anti-hero of that genre...then kills him at the end of the first chapter and takes things in a bit of a different direction.
posted by jeditanuki at 12:12 PM on October 29, 2007


Late to this game, but I cannot fail to point out Special Topics in Calamity Physics, one of the better books I have read recently. One of the principal characters dies halfway through the book, and I really didn't see it coming.
posted by msali at 8:08 PM on October 29, 2007


The Seventh Seal.
posted by SassHat at 9:01 PM on November 6, 2007


I think we're well off the OP's original intent by now, but man, I was not pleased about the loss of Commander Charles Tucker III.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 9:24 AM on November 17, 2007


187. Identity? And maybe not in the way you meant, but Fallen. Waking Life leaves it up to your interpretation ("it" meaning "everything").
posted by Eideteker at 3:11 PM on November 25, 2007


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