Character Death

I have a long standing disagreement with a friend about death in literature and film. He thinks I’m so overly sensitive that I can’t stand characters dying; I think he’s insensitive to the point of not being able to pick up on emotional manipulation. I’m never going to persuade him of this.

With that in mind, however, I want to expand a little on the death of a main character in L.A. Confidential. Spoiler if you haven’t seen/read it.

Jack Vincennes (played by Kevin Spacey in the movie) dies in both the movie and the book but in vastly different ways.

In the book, Jack makes it almost all the way to the end only to be killed in a big shootout with the prison train. His death is random and has no real effect on the plot.

In the movie, after having discovered important information, Jack goes to tell his superior officer who then murders him. If you’d read the book you would have know this character was evil but while it wasn’t a big surprise in the movie, the scene is still a shock. Jack’s dying words then provide a clue for Exley as to Dudley Smith’s real character and how Jack really met his death.

The pointlessness plot-wise of Jack’s death in the book is one thing (although it is far more satisfying if a death does something). What was far more annoying is that the book had spent some time setting up his rocky marriage so that right before he dies his wife has forgiven him of all the terrible things he did and wants them to go away to give the relationship another try.

You’ll see this so often in movies. The divorced/separated/etc. guy getting back together with his wife isn’t as common but it’s similar to how the the guy who talks about how he can’t wait to go home and see his wife/kids/dog/farm/chia pet is the one instantly marked for death. You’re supposed to feel bad when he dies because he’s got a wife who’s never going to see him again. His poor kids are now fatherless.  What it really boils down to is that it’s far easier to stick in a fleeting mention of the wife and kids rather than taking the time to make a character who is sympathetic and compelling enough so that you’d feel bad when he died even if he were a childless widower.

The movie version of Jack Vincennes is made sympathetic, not through cheap externals, but by his actions and the arc the character has been given. He’s a sleazebag but one who’s gotten a bad case of conscious and is trying to do right. His death moves the plot. Hollywood usually has the excuse of time constraints in a movie so it’s amazing that they did a better job here than the author.


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