Although films generally only last around 90 to 120 minutes, we can become so attached to the characters in this time that they can feel like friends or family. In all genres of film, death is common and will frequently happen to the characters that we have become so attached to. Often these deaths are poetic in their nature, and audiences around the world are still coming to terms with their departures. Be warned, even the toughest of watchers will find themselves reaching for the tissues after sitting through these films. Spoilers ahead…
12. Severus Snape (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2)
J.K. Rowling started axing characters left, right and center towards the end of the Harry Potter story, but it is the death of Severus Snape that was the most tragic. Throughout all of the installments, Snape is an intriguing character who fills the role of an antagonist. In this final installment, we learn that all along he was working with Dumbledore to protect Harry from Voldermort, and that Dumbledore’s death was planned between the two of them. It turns out that Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, Lily, and he therefore wanted to protect her son. This is a particularly tragic death because we do not learn that he wasn’t an antagonist until after he has passed, and throughout the different installments his role had been ambiguous. When this is combined with the death of Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Fred Weasley, Dobby and others, it makes for a tearful ending.
11. Boromir (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
You can’t have a list about cinema deaths without an appearance by Sean Bean, and it is his character of Boromir in The Lord of the Rings that is the most tragic. Boromir was a flawed character that became corrupted by the Ring, and he even attempted to seize it from Frodo. Once he realizes what the Ring has made him, he repents and redeems himself by defending Merry and Pippin. He would die with dignity when he sacrificed himself, taking three arrows in the chest but continuing to fight. He is heartbroken that he betrayed Frodo and Aragorn, and his final words will bring a tear to many Lord of the Rings fans eyes—“I would have followed you, my brother…my captain…my king.” He was never supposed to be a hero, but he died a hero’s death after his warrior-like actions and repenting for what he had done.
10. Jack Dawson (Titanic)
The ultimate love story, Jack Dawson’s death in Titanic is both poetic and heartbreaking. Jack and Rose become infatuated with each other whilst aboard the Titanic, despite their difference in class and Rose’s engagement (for financial reasons, and to a despised character). Rose has the opportunity to be saved once the ship is going down, but jumps back on board to be with her true love. They ride the ship down into the sea together. He then helps her onto a wooden panel, but it is only big enough for one person. They hold hands while waiting to be rescued, but Jack eventually dies from hypothermia. Rose is saved and survives to tell the tale. It is a brilliant and tragic love story with many iconic moments. The film catapulted Leonardo DiCaprio to superstardom for his portrayal as Jack.
9. Littlefoot’s Mother (The Land Before Time)
You would think that a children’s cartoon about dinosaurs wouldn’t be able to make you blubber like a baby, but you would be wrong. In 1988 animated classic The Land Before Time, a young dinosaur named Littlefoot and his friend Cera are attacked by a giant “Sharptooth” dinosaur, but Littlefoot’s mother intervenes and rescues them both. She sustains severe injuries from the “Sharptooth,” but then a giant earthquake opens a deep ravine which separates all the dinosaurs, including Littlefoot and his mother. Littlefoot later finds his dying mother, who is unable to stand due to her injuries. She gives Littlefoot some important motherly advice, and then tragically passes away to the despair of Littlefoot. It is an incredibly heavy scene for a children’s film, but it serves an important moment in the film’s exploration of prejudice. This scene is likely to leave any adults, particularly mothers, with at least a tear in their eye.
8. Brooks Hatlen (The Shawshank Redemption)
The Shawshank Redemption will make even the toughest viewer a weeping mess. Brooks Hatlen is not a major character, but his death is utterly heartbreaking and gives plenty of food for thought. Brooks is an elderly man who has spent the majority of his life in jail, and he is also the prison librarian. He is eventually paroled, but after spending over 50 years in prison he finds himself unable to adjust to the outside world. He narrates a letter written to his prison friends, stating how things have changed, and considers committing a crime to send him home. The end of the letter states “I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay. I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me.” We then see Brooks end his life by hanging himself.
7. Danny Vinyard (American History X)
American History X is a gripping, shocking and sad story that has a brutal ending. The story is of two brothers in Venice, Los Angeles, who are involved in the neo-Nazi movement. The elder brother, Derek, goes to prison for manslaughter, whilst the younger brother, Danny, stays involved with the movement and appears to be following in his brother’s footsteps. In prison, Derek befriends a black man and changes his outlook on life, turning his back on the Aryan brotherhood. After being released, Derek shares his experiences of prison and brings about a change in Danny, who removes all the white power posters at home. In school the next day, a reformed Danny is shot dead by a young black student, who he had a confrontation with the day earlier. Derek cradles his brother in his arms, blaming himself for being unable to prevent him following in his footsteps.
6. Bambi’s mother (Bambi)
Made in 1942, this remains an iconic cinema death and for thousands of young children, it may have been their first experience with passing. Bambi’s mother teaches her son about the world around him and warns about the dangers of life, and Bambi becomes very attached to his mother. During Bambi’s first winter, they are trying to find food, but they spot a hunter and begin to run. A shot is heard and all that is shown is Bambi continuing to run home. He then turns around, but realizes that his mother is not there. In a heart-wrenching moment, he then begins to call out to his mother whilst he retraces his steps. Disney certainly know how to pluck at the heartstrings and they have done this in numerous films, but this is one of two deaths that stand out and are important moments in their cinematic history.
5. Marley (Marley & Me)
Watching animals pass in films is perhaps even more heartbreaking, and Marley & Me is a prime example. Many dog lovers find this film too much to cope with, and it is notorious for leaving people a blubbering mess by the end. The story is of a newly married couple who adopt a dog, Marley, who they find impossible to control. The couple go on to have kids, but the wife experiences postpartum depression and becomes impatient with Marley and wants to give him away. She then realizes that the dog is actually an important member of the family, and they keep Marley and move to a rural farm. Marley grows old and suffers from a twisted stomach, and they eventually have to have him put down in a heart-wrenching scene. This will strike a chord with many pet owners, and is a brilliant tale about man’s best friend.
4. Ellie (Up)
It is astonishing how quickly a film can cause utter heartbreak, and this is most evident in Pixar’s Up. An eight-year-old Carl Fredricksen meets Ellie, and the two become friends, having a shared interest in exploration and Charles Muntz. A montage then shows the two getting married, enjoying life and growing old together. They plan to travel to Paradise Falls, but Ellie falls ill and passes away, leaving Carl by himself. This montage lasts around five minutes but leaves hardly a dry eye in the house, and this is a testament to Pixar’s phenomenal ability to create engaging tales and endearing characters. The rest of the film sees Carl go on a personal and physical journey, where he learns to live again and let others into his life. Up is a fantastic film which is heartbreaking, charming and hilarious, and, as always, there is an important underlying lesson.
3. Jenny Curran (Forrest Gump)
There are a few different characters from the 1994 classic Forrest Gump that could feature on this list, but the death of Jenny Curran is perhaps the saddest. Jenny is the only person not to bully Forrest at school, and they become important figures in each other’s lives. After high school, they live separate lives but reconnect a few times throughout Forrest’s extraordinary story. Jenny always seems to be struggling whilst Forrest thrives, and eventually they end up sleeping together. Another three years pass and they reconnect again, and Jenny introduces Forrest to his son (also called Forrest). They get married, but Jenny discovers that she has AIDS and eventually passes away. The story itself is tragic enough, but Forrest is such a sympathetic character that it plucks on the heartstrings even more and makes for an unforgettable watch.
2. Mufasa (The Lion King)
The Lion King is arguably the greatest Disney film, and it also features one of the most tragic cinema deaths of all time. Mufasa, King of the Pride Lands and father to Simba, is an excellent leader and father, and he teaches his son about the responsibilities he will have and about the circle of life. Scar, Mufasa’s younger brother, plots to kill Mufasa and Simba so that he can rule by luring Simba to a gorge and causing a stampede. Mufasa manages to save his son, but as he tries to climb up the gorge he is thrown down into the stampede by Scar. He is trampled to death, and Scar then convinces Simba that it was his fault and he should run away. It is a shocking moment and heartbreaking to see Simba’s reaction, but Mufasa lives on through Simba, and the circle of life continues.
1. John Coffey (The Green Mile)
Nobody can sit through The Green Mile without getting a tear in their eye, and if they say they can, they are either lying or they are not human. John Coffey is on death row for a crime he did not commit, and he is also a gentle giant who is shy, emotional and child-like. There is injustice in the fact that he faces the chair for a crime he didn’t commit, but equally he is tired of all the pain and suffering in the world and how people treat each other. John and the prison guards are all tearful as he is sat in the electric chair, and in a completely heart-wrenching moment, John asks not to have the black hood over his head and states, “Please boss, don’t put that thing upon my face. Don’t put me in the dark. I is afraid of the dark.”