Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

October 10, 2005

Die, Protagonist, Die!

Right: German for "The, Protagonist, The". What's Deep Blue Sea in German?

Yes, I'm going to say there are valuable lessons in the "smart sharks" movie. Lots, I think (for writers, anyway). The one that interests me the most is the fact that the protagonist dies.

The Saffron Burrows character is in charge of the research station. She's also responsible for the fact that the research they're doing there is illegal. But she's passionate, because she believes in the cause-- a potential cure for Alzheimer's. That's a pretty good cause. And hey, she's only messing with sharks-- you don't see PETA getting up in arms over mistreatment of sharks. You don't see me getting up in arms either. So we're more or less with her as the movie gets going... until we see what she's created. And then the running and the hiding begins.

With the advent of gore comes Saffron's indecision. She knows she's made a boo-boo. But she doesn't want to leave behind her research and potential miracle cure, either. She even goes so far as to put herself in harm's way in order to save her findings. In a slightly lesser movie, this is where the protagonist would just be hunted down and torn apart by the cunning, angry sharks she created. This would be entirely fair. But it would be a simple irony-- a little cheap.

Instead, she makes it out alive. Without her research.
This is interesting because it allows the character to go a little further. The story gives her a chance. Her sharks destroyed her research, her life's work. But she's not suicidal about it, she's running for her life! Maybe she's even learned a lesson. (Making sharks smarter is a bad idea.) Maybe she'll even be a better person in the future. Then the story puts the pressure on even more-- a shark may very well get free, and start terrorizing quaint beachfront communities where children are playing innocently on air mattresses. And it'll be all her fault. Saffron, being a good protagonist, chooses to sacrifice herself for the safety of the other two survivors and to ensure the containment of the last shark. She redeems herself. Instead of the story punishing her, it allows her to punish herself-- ultimately, much more satisfying in my books. A decision to sacrifice yourself (especially when you, you know, would rather continue living) is pretty powerful.

We often hope for character redemption, or at least, an acknowledgement of one's misguided ways. But redemption doesn't always mean you get to live. Sometimes it's right to allow a character to do their thing, and then say goodbye.

Other effective protagonist deaths? American Beauty-- he did what he needed to do. Started out on the bottom and went out on top. Dangerous Liaisons-- same thing for the John Malkovich character. He is transformed by love before dying. While these deaths have terrible consequences for some of the people in these worlds, they're such redemptive moments for the protagonists that we actually feel a little... glad.

Let the massacre begin.


Anonymous clayton said...

I only vaguely remember this movie, as I have a bad penchent for starting to (gasp!) fast-forward through a movie a bit, if it doesn't grab me in the first 15 minutes. I guess the difference between this and "American Beauty" might be that Saffron sacrificed herself to put the genie that she unleashed, back in the bottle. It much akin to Weaver in "Alien 3", who kills herself and the evil she has brought to the planet she crashes on. It's almost a return to normallacy though her death, the research is lost partly because they don't want to suggest that the science in 'our' world would be altered though Saffron's discoveries, which would much more interestingly leave a plot thread dangling, such as "Jurassic Park" did with dinosaurs. So the audience learns "There are some things humans are not meant to know" and the rest of the cast pays for their involvement in the godless-evil-shark-spawning enterprise. It's almost like the Cosby show, only in the water and with more death. ;-)

10:16 a.m.  
Blogger Jennica said...

Hmm. It would be kind of interesting to allow for this forced evolution to remain in the world in some way. Saffron has to die, I suppose, because she must be sacrified for her sins... but does her research have to die too? Why?

Are there some things humans aren't meant to know? Why do we as humans continue to explore this themes? Do we not trust ourselves? Or are politicians and the media training us to be apathetic and supportive of the turn-a-blind-eye status quo?

I dunno. But sharks are scary!

11:08 p.m.  

Post a Comment

<< Home