KILLING YOUR PROTAGONIST
Every once in a while we’ll see a film in which the protagonist dies at the end. It’s a tricky maneuver to pull off, but by looking at movies that make this bold move, we can see some patterns in what works, and in which types of stories this kind of thing tends to occur.
We most often see dead protagonists in period action-adventure, typically in the key of “epic.” In this very specific genre we find several examples: BRAVEHEART, SPARTACUS, GLADIATOR, 300. There is a certain high, bloody drama to seeing the protagonists of films of this nature die by the sword.
Similarly, we sometimes see a protagonist die in action movies in which an older badass decides to go out in a blaze of glory, an attempt at trying to do one last good thing, perhaps out of a sense of redemption. (LOGAN, THE SHOOTIST, GRAN TORINO). But not always; it’s possible to find stories in which a younger protagonist willingly makes the ultimate sacrifice for a greater good, like ELYSIUM.
Ahhh… “sacrifice.” That’s the thread we can pull to find the “right” way to kill a protagonist. The death has meaning; the protagonist dies in order to see through a larger good within the community or culture. Leonidas’ death in 300 incites the Greeks to the heroism they need to defeat Xerxes; William Wallace’s death in BRAVEHEART incites the Scots to the heroism they need to defeat England. (And William impregnates the English princess in order to hijack Longshanks’ bloodline).
But the greater good needn’t be martial; it can bring about peace. For instance, the death of our titular protagonists in ROMEO AND JULIET makes the warring houses realize the error of their ways. Maximus dies so Rome can be freed of tyranny. Or the protagonist dies in order to save children, as in LOGAN and ELYSIUM.
Thus in this sense the protagonist’s death takes a Christ-like turn, a willingness to die in order to achieve a larger goal that he deems to be of more value than any one life.
However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we see a protagonist die, and the “world” of the story they inhabit is unaffected for the most part.
In this case, the impact of the death is intended primarily for the audience; we want them to experience the character’s life and events, and reflect on what the death means to them. This is typically the province of drama, examples including MY LIFE, AMERICAN BEAUTY, SCARFACE, CITIZEN KANE, and Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM.
So while it isn’t all that common to see the protagonist die at the end of the script/film, it’s possible to find enough films that do take this big swing in order to see the common denominator: It’s okay to kill our protagonist so long as the point is to make sure the death has meaning to the world, of both the film and real life.