by Marina Rose
One version on a character lives, another dies. It can change the moral of the story!
|Have you ever been angry or disappointed when a favorite fictional character is killed off? Most of us have. My own reaction when J.K. Rowling even dared to hint at killing off our beloved boy wizard was pure rage. Professor Dumbledore died in order to force Harry to stand on his own two feet, but her reasons for considering an early death for the boy himself were purely economic. She doesn’t want anyone to pirate her idea and continue the story, although something tells me that someone would (and will) anyway. If her reasons were creative, I would not have had nearly the strong reaction that I did to her musings.
Similarly, in television, there are the lives and careers of actors to consider, not to mention the economics and huge business industry behind prime time. So when Claire Kincaid was killed in a drunk driving accident on Law and Order a number of years ago, it was simply because the actress, the lovely Jill Hennessey, had opted not to renew her contract an move on. Or perhaps it was a mutual decision that she made in conjunction with NBC and producer Dick Wolfe. Either way, enter Angie Harmon and her hard-nosed Abby Carmichael.
But the beauty of the written word is that characters need only meet their demise for important, creative reasons. Very rarely does a book reach the heights of Harry Potter where the author must consider killing off a personage just to prevent pirating and plagiarism. In fact, the fate of a major character at the end of a story can completely change the message. I will take as my examples La Boheme and Romeo and Juliet as compared with their respective modernizations, Rent and West Side Story.
La Boheme is set in Paris’ Latin quarter and was, in its day, quite controversial. Not only did it revolve around the city‘s riff raff, but many of the characters were gravely ill with Tuberculosis, a contagious disease that was feared at the time the way AIDS was feared in the 1980’s and 90’s. Puccini’s aim was to put a face on these people and draw attention to their plight, and he did so by leading his audiences directly into the heart of Mimi. Audiences can’t help but fall in love with her, but she passes away at he end of the opera as the violins wail her theme music, thus evoking the anger and pathos that the composer hoped for.
In 1996, the late Jonathan Larson sought to remount the story for modern audiences in a way that we could relate to, but he also wanted to show that, although his modernizations of the same characters suffered under similar circumstances, they were not similar victims. Of necessity, their suffering had led to the new outlook and positive attitude that becomes the theme of the show; “No day but today.” Larson accomplished this with one simple tweak of the plot- modern-day Mimi has a near death experience due to drugs and AIDS, but unexpectedly returns.
Bernstein and Sondheim made a similar adjustment in a similar way. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare seeks to shed light on the evil destructiveness of a family feud by bringing his famous star crossed lovers together under impossible circumstances. Readers and live audiences alike want desperately for them to be together, but instead The Bard emphasized his tragedy by having them each commit suicide for the love of the other.
“Never was there a tale of such woe” until it was adapted for the American musical stage many years later. Gang warfare is, of course, just as futile as family feuding, but Bernstein and Sondheim saw another element of the story that was important to bring to the attention of their audiences, namely the fact that such anger and hatred can only breed further anger and hatred. It destroys those who are directly involved, but it also eats away slowly at anyone who happens to be in the immediate vicinity. In order to illustrate this new point and take the plot a step further, the creators of West Side Story allow Maria to live. In the end, we find her wielding a gun and deciding who to shoot first because Tony is dead, and as she says, “because now I hate.” Again, one version of the character lives and the other dies, thereby changing the entire moral of the story.
So the next time a favorite fictional character is murdered or assassinated, consider the lesson. Consider the point that the author is trying to make. True growth can only be achieved through suffering, and I’m afraid that the fictional world is far from exempt.