Sometimes, our favorite movies feel so complete, so perfect, that we forget they were forged by a team of people who had to make thousands of decisions to bring them to fruition. The name of a character, what they choose to do, how they choose to do it and ultimately, whether or not they meet their maker by the time the credits roll, are deliberate choices made by a team of creative professionals. Sure, they may seem like simple enough decisions, but these are the things that absolutely define the content of a film.
Den of Geek has compiled an excellent list of characters who were originally intended to shuffle off their mortal coils but got last minute reprieves for a variety of reasons. Some of them, like Han Solo in 'Return of the Jedi,' are pretty well known, but others, like Joker in 'Full Metal Jacket,' are surprising. A screenwriter is God of his own personal domain and his decision on who lives and who dies can permanently alter a film's content and legacy.
How about we step into those "God" shoes and have some fun? Let's travel back in time, thrust ourselves into the productions of a few classic (and not so classic) films and demand that a character be saved from a written death. It could be a bad decision, it could even ruin the film (or maybe it'll save it), but since this is purely hypothetical time travel, let's just see what happens.
Oh, and SPOILERS, obviously.
The Film: 'King Kong' (1933)
The Character: King Kong
How and Why He Dies: After being captured and forcibly brought to New York City to be showcased on Broadway, the giant ape king of Skull Island escapes and wreaks havoc, eventually scaling the Empire State Building, getting a face full of biplane and plummeting to his death. A tragic end for a majestic beast who should have just been left alone in the first place.
What Happens If We Save Him: In a move that would feel years ahead of its time but would completely negate the impact of the film, Kong survives his jaunt through New York and finds a way home to his island. A happier ending for the great beast for sure, but his iconic last stand and Carl Denham's face proclamation that it was "beauty killed the beast" would be stripped from our cultural language. 'King Kong' still resonates today because it packs a big emotional gut punch ... even though we truly want Kong to live, it is his death that makes this film a classic and forever burns him into our memories. Dead or alive, he's come back to life on a number of occasions (once to battle Godzilla for crying out loud) and he seems to have no shortage of family members ('Son of Kong,' anyone?).
The Film: 'The Wild Bunch'
The Characters: The entire cast (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Jaime Sanchez)
How and Why They Die: After the titular band of aging outlaws deliver stolen weapons to General Mapache of the Mexican army, the cruel military leader tortures and executes Angel for assisting local rebels. The remaining members of the bunch confront Mapache on general principle, knowing they've essentially just committed themselves to certain death. In the ensuring gun battle, all four men go down in one of the biggest, bloodiest gun battles ever put on film, but take most of the Mexican army with 'em. For these men, who come from a different time with an extinct code of ethics, it was the only way to go.
What Happens If We Save Them: Sure, the whole friggin' point of 'The Wild Bunch' is that they all go down in the end, but think of the franchise opportunities! Think of the various sequels that would have stretched into the 1970s and maybe, just maybe, the early 1980s. Director Sam Peckinpah would never return to these characters and the later films would take on the veneer of more traditional westerns, but 'The Return of the Wild Bunch' and 'The Wild Bunch and the Legend of Pike's Gold' would act as bizarre tangents from the original film, pure examples of Hollywood diluting the power of a film. Still, it would be worth it to see this collection of cinematic badasses on screen in further adventures, although by 1983's 'Sons of the Wild Bunch,' only Ernest Borgnine and a bunch of young newcomers would remain.
The Film: 'The Godfather, Part II' (1974)
The Character: Fredo Corleone (John Cazale)
How and Why He Dies: After betraying the Corleone family and being shunned by his brother Michael (Al Pacino), the poor, pathetic Fredo returns home for their mother's funeral and is seemingly forgiven for his past transgressions. Then Michael has him taken out on the lake for a "fishing trip" and quietly executed, destroying whatever traces of a soul he had left lingering in his morally bankrupt frame.
What Happens If We Save Him: "What a downer! What, are you expecting a 'Godfather Part III'? Like that's ever going to happen! Why can't Michael forgive his brother and end the film on the long road to legitimacy, having realized the error of his ways? Is that really the ending? Michael on a bench quietly pondering the evil man he's become? That's not an ending! This is Hollywood, it's gotta' be about redemption!" It truly makes the heart shudder to imagine that happening ... until you realize that saving Fredo and turning Michael on a good path probably would have meant no 'Godfather Part III,' which makes this alternate history almost tempting. Almost.
The Film: 'Jaws' (1975)
The Character: Quint (Robert Shaw)
How and Why He Dies: The most badass shark hunter to ever grace the silver screen, Quint leads Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) on a quest to kill the Great White that's been terrorizing Amity Island and gets eaten for his troubles. His sudden demise leaves Brody alone, forcing him to take a stand and take down the creature that's been devouring his town.
What Happens If We Save Him: Remember that iconic final shot of Brody and Hooper sharing the same piece of wreckage and kicking their way toward land, ensuring us that a friendship has been formed out of all this carnage? Add Quint in there, giving the conclusion an awkward "two's company, three's a crowd" feeling. Naturally, the slightly hard-up Robert Shaw would have undoubtedly shown up in 'Jaws 2' and stolen the spotlight from Scheider because everyone knows that in terms of pure awesomeness, Quint > Brody. Of course, since Shaw died in 1978, it would most likely be a posthumous release, ending a tremendous career on the sour note that is 'Jaws 2.' Sometimes, getting eaten by a Caracharodon carcharias is the best way to preserve the integrity of your career.
The Film: 'Die Hard' (1988)
The Character: Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner)
How and Why He Dies: The smarmy and smug corporate douche bag Ellis convinces the evil Hans (Alan Rickman) that he can convince the heroic John McClane (Bruce Willis) to give himself up. His plan to win brownie points with his captor backfires when Hans makes an example out of him by shooting him in the face, raising the stakes for everyone involved.
What Happens If We Save Him: Even though he's an irritating jerk who's trying to steal our protagonist's wife, Ellis isn't actually a bad guy, just an annoying one, more deserving of a punch to the jaw than a bullet in the brain. Although his death does ratchet up the intensity of the film by further proving how far Hans is willing to go, the major plot dynamics would remain mostly unaffected by letting him live. So, Hans lives, gets that punch to the jaw courtesy of McClane at the end of the film (with a warning to stay away from his woman, of course) and goes on to, like William Atherton's manipulative reporter, pop up in 'Die Hard 2' as a source of comic relief. Fans will spend the next couple of decades wondering and debating how much better the 'Die Hard' series would be if they capped this annoying little git in the first film.
The Film: 'Alien 3' (1992)
The Characters: Hicks (Michael Biehn), Newt (Carrie Henn) and Bishop (Lance Henriksen)
How and Why They Die: Due to the machinations of a stowaway alien creature, the hyper-sleeping survivors of 'Aliens' crash land on the prison planet Fury 161, wiping out the entire surrogate family that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) fought for in the last film. Her grief for the loss of everyone she has left fuels her rage, giving her the motivation to destroy the last of the Xenomorphs, culminating in her selfless suicide to destroy the alien queen growing inside of her. It's a jarring decision -- the characters we met and fell in love with in the previous film, gone in a blink of an eye. Seeing them taken so abruptly places us in Ripley's shoes and let's us feel her new found nihilistic anger.
What Happens If We Save Them: But here's the studio's note: "You can't kill Hicks and Newt! What the heck are you thinking? CHANGE IT." So Hicks, Newt and Bishop survive the crash and assist Ripley and the inmates as they take down the alien creature. Ripley's role as a mother is reinforced, a romance with Hicks steadily grows and the themes of family and teamwork that James Cameron established in the previous film are allowed to flourish. Oh, and if the supporting cast isn't allowed to bite it, Ripley certainly won't, meaning that this hypothetical version of 'Alien 3' ends with this ragtag little family still together and on their way back to Earth, which means that the fourth film in the series won't resemble the abysmal 'Alien Resurrection' is any way whatsoever. Hmm, maybe there's something to this alternate universe...
The Film: 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace' (1999)
The Character: Darth Maul (Ray Park)
How and Why He Dies: After spending the film hunting the Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), he finally engages the two of them in a duel during the Battle of Naboo, striking Qui-Gon down and getting sliced in half by a vengeful Obi-Wan for his troubles.
What Happens If We Save Him: Well, for one thing, Count Dooku never exists, sparing Christopher Lee the indignity of being in the 'Star Wars' prequels. Instead, Darth Maul is the mysterious figure operating the Separatist Movement, pulling the strings for the scheming Palpatine and acting as the Darth Vader of the prequel trilogy. Rather than appear and die as an empty enigma, we learn a little more about him, like where he came from and what he wants and why we should care about his existence at all other than the fact that he looks kinda' cool. By surviving the duel on Naboo, his continued existence puts Obi-Wan in a moral dilemma, forcing him to choose between the peaceful actions of a Jedi and his selfish desire to avenge the death of his master.
Of course, these are but a few excursions into the past to tinker with some of our favorite films. I bequeath my time machine to you know. In the comments below, discuss how your favorite films would be changed if a writer chose not to take the life of one of a character. Remember, any damage you do to film history isn't permanent, so go nuts!