Final Exits — Death Scenes in Film and Literature

“A dying man can do nothing easy.” — Benjamin Franklin on his deathbed, April 17, 1790

Final exits are satisfying in literature and film.  They are moments of revelation, betrayal, sadness or wit.  Sometimes the dying person has a chance to say a few bon mots or a teary goodbye.  Often mysteries are resolved or in the case of the word, “Rosebud,” in Citizen Kane, launched.   Death propels the action, giving impetus to other characters that may have been stalled.  Death illuminates the life of the character that has passed, adding poignancy.  Death is meaningful, and possesses a great sense of dramatic timing.

In real life, death scenes usually suck.  They either drag out, or the person dies so quickly that there is no chance for goodbyes.  In real life, death does not have good dramatic timing.  Having been present at a number of death beds, dying is often more about waiting than wisdom.  Good exit lines are rare, which is why I will always treasure the final words of Oscar Wilde: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

Death with his daughter Susan and his servant (from the Hogfather)

As I am currently on death watch for another relative, I am taking solace in fiction.  Fiction has a gift for making sense of the senseless, and I think that I really need that.  This week I’ve been rereading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #8 and some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.  Both feature Death as a main character, though the two representations of Death are very different.  Gaiman’s Death is a perky girl Goth, in love with life and the living.  Pratchett’s Death is skeletal and wields a scythe, but has a wonderfully dry sense of humor and strong relationships.  In both representations, Death has human moments, and cares deeply about the people he or she takes.  I find comfort in both visions.

Thinking about this has made me wonder if any of you out there have a favorite fictional death scene that you want to share.  What made it meaningful and memorable to you?

The floor is open.

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About Hilary Moon Murphy

Hilary Moon Murphy's fictional life currently takes place in 1836, within the boundaries of Washington, D.C.. Before that, she has fictionally lived in an ancient China that never was, Mahatma Gandhi's India, and a magical San Francisco. She is a firm believer in Sacred Cows, especially those that are really elephants.


Final Exits — Death Scenes in Film and Literature — 11 Comments

  1. I’ll start us off. I am thinking about the famous death scene of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He has been stabbed, and realizing that he will not live much longer, tells his friend, “Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man.”

    What a great exit line.

  2. That’s a great question, Hilary. Inside of it is another one–how could you turn a realistic scene of sadness, loneliness, frustration, and sorrow–no smart dialogue–into a satisfying ending? It could be very real and satisfying if properly set up.

    I think the death of Roy Batty in the Bladerunner film was well done. You felt for this “bad” guy as he fades out. There are some others to check out at:

    • I really like that list, Pat! One of the things that I like about it is the reflection on what makes a great death scene. I notice that self-sacrifice is a recurrent theme, but there are other tropes going on as well. The thing that runs through all of them is that the death scene is a fitting culmination to the character, and that it resonates with that which has gone before in the story.

  3. Call me a romantic. Or imprinted in childhood. For the nonce, I’m going to go with the death of the Wicked Witch of the West in “Wizard of Oz”. Dramatic, iconic, and still holds up.

    • And how can you go wrong with dialogue like, “I’m melting, I’m melting?”


    • Excellent choice, Jason! I found that a moving scene as well.

  4. I’m sorry you’re going through another rough time, but props on turning it into an interesting discussion!

    I’ve always been partial to the exit of Maj. T.J. Kong in Dr. Strangelove — he’s the guy who rode the bomb down to the ground like a rodeo cowboy, taking the rest of the world out with him. If you’ve gotta go, you might as well go out hollerin’ with enthusiasm.

  5. One death scene that I HATED was the major character death near the end of the Serenity movie. It felt so abrupt and random. Realistic, perhaps; in battle death can come to anyone, without warning. But I think fans expect a beloved character’s demise to be treated with more care.

  6. To me, the weight of death seemed most onerous in George R. R. Martin’s series Fire and Ice. The way one moment he creates these well drawn characters, many of which I loved, to the next killing them. I found some of this dark world, shroud in death and darkness, intriguing. It drew me in for a while. In the end, after three or four of his books, to me George R. R. Martin took it too far. I had lost too many, too much, too quick – I had to look the other way and stop reading the series. I am in no way saying that the line was drawn too tight for everyone, but for me so many deaths in his series (to the point even those I might have considered a protagonist – or close to one – died) ultimately pushed me out.

    One death, two death, red fish, blue fish.

    I need to attach to a character as I go through the story. I need a constant.

  7. Hillary: I like Mercutio’s previous words in this same line, when Romeo is trying to console him, saying that the wound is not serious, and Mercutio says “Not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve.” And after this he pronounces a curse on both houses – which of course is fulfilled. That line is in fact the pivot of the story: everything turns on it.

    If a death scene comes early in the story, it will set the writer up for success or failure in the rest of the book/movie/story. Great exit lines can help tremendously with this. Dark humor is often the mark of a great death-initiated turning point.

    What popped into my mind with this question were the tongue in cheek lines that Arnold Shwartzenegar made famous in his various action films, as he eliminated the various nefarious bad guys. For instance, after he drops a nasty villain from a bridge, he comes back to the concerned “civilian” girl, who asks what he did with the guy. Arnold replies, “I let him go.” Dark humor, not unlike “tomorrow… you will find me a grave man.”