At one point or another, some of cinema’s most beloved characters found themselves on the chopping block. Original drafts reveal many a time where screenwriters did their heroes in, often times to the tune of breaking up potential franchises for the studio. But, for whatever reason, these writers felt the death of a crucial character raised the stakes for their story, and were willing to take the heat for burying them six feet beneath the page. How, then, did they manage to escape this untimely fate for more sequels?
Executives and producers, mostly. In the wide world of Hollywood, show business is still a business, and killing one of the key components to success doesn’t play too well the audience – or the wallets of marketers.
To be fair, such decisions don’t always come from a monetary mindset; sometimes, there’s just a passion for seeing the character live to fight another day. This list has both, from the scrapped surprises to the joyous resurrections, with every rewrite in between. And in the event that anyone bemoans Han Solo’s exclusion, due to Harrison Ford’s desire that the character die in Return of the Jedi (1983), the rule is (*five month-old spoiler ahead*) that the character can’t die off in later installments. If this weren’t the case, Han would most definitely take the top spot. Don’t worry.
Here are Screen Rant’s 12 Characters Who Were Originally Supposed to Die.
And, of course, don’t read ahead if you don’t want the ends of these movies spoiled for you.
12. Dr. Will Rodman – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
James Franco’s compassionate Dr. Will played a crucial part in this Planet of the Apes prequel, being both the emotional epicenter and the human connection for primate Caesar (Andy Serkis). The scenes between him and the the ape sold much of the film’s bold premise, and set-up a world quickly devolving into revolution. But the downtrodden demeanor of the finale originally took things a step further by having the good doctor die in Caesar’s arms, right before his retreat into Muir Woods.
Director Rupert Wyatt even shot the scene with Franco and Serkis, though he ultimately decided to scrap it for the bittersweet ending seen in the final film. By allowing Rodman to squeak by, Rise honored the depth of an unorthodox friendship while also leaving things open if ever a sequel were made. The filmmakers turned out to be right in this regard, as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hit theaters in 2014, though Franco only appeared in a brief cameo.
11. Katie – Paranormal Activity (2007)
Before Paramount Pictures came into the fold, Paranormal Activity ended brutally. The cops, called in to discover Micah’s dead body, come across a possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) in a catatonic state and still holding the murder weapon. A standoff ensues, and the doomed murderess gets gunned down by the officers in the room – a far cry from the ambiguous conclusion that writer/director Oren Peli eventually went with. The studio felt such an ending didn’t deliver the punch the rest of the film deserved, and instead implemented one of two alternatives.
The first (included in the DVD release) found Katie slicing her own throat with the knife that killed Micah, while the second left things open as she survived the night and disappeared to whereabouts unknown. Obviously, Peli went with the latter option, leaving Katie’s story eerily unfinished for any potential follow-ups in the future. Ggiven the tremendous success that the franchise eventually saw, it looks like he made the right call.
10. Tom Hooper – Jaws (1975)
Richard Dreyfuss’ uppity marine biologist was such a charmer in Jaws that it’s tough to envision the character any other way. But in the novel the film is based on, author Peter Benchley originally had him pulling the short straw and getting munched by the titular sea beast in place of Quint (Robert Shaw). The novelized version of Hooper made much more sense with this demise, as the character’s snobbish demeanor gave way to an affair with Brody’s wife – which just isn’t cool. If that were the guy getting lowered to his impending death, the response wouldn’t have been as heated.
To Steven Spielberg’s credit, he realized such a direction wouldn’t suit the likable portrayal of Dreyfuss, who was rewritten to survive his harrowing cage match. The opting out for Quint also allowed a stroke of storytelling genius, as the modern Ahab’s demise proved far more poetic in the grand scheme of things. Besides, if Hooper had bought the farm, we wouldn’t have gotten that iconic closing shot. Now that would’ve been a short straw worth getting heated over.
9. Dewey Riley – Scream (1996)
Another case of an actor altering his character, David Arquette didn’t exactly gel with Wes Craven’s original vision of Dewey. The scream king director intended to get someone younger and sillier for the part, but found something in Arquette that was ideal for… well, for being brutally murdered. Every single draft of the script had the slow-witted deputy getting axed without exception, to the point where test screenings of Scream ran with Dewey’s divisive demise. But viewers weren’t having it, and Craven bowed to his fans by inserting an upbeat alternative.
Ironically, this last minute adjustment only enhanced Craven’s meta-approach to the slasher genre. For all intents and purposes, Dewey was a dude designed to get a knife in the dome, but by subverting this target, Scream dodged another yet cliche expectation. Dewey would go on to get stabbed a ridiculous amount of times in each sequel – only fair, given his miraculous survival each time out. Dude’s got more lives than Kenny from South Park.
8. John Rambo – First Blood (1982)
The struggle for artistic integrity against a potential franchise. That’s what Sylvester Stallone was up against with First Blood, an adaptation of David Morrell’s acclaimed 1972 novel. This source material, documenting the mental descent of a war worn-torn John Rambo, came to a blistering conclusion through the soldier’s suicide – a bleak, yet appropriate demise for a soldier with a damaged psyche. Stallone, on the other hand, as co-writer and star, knew a thing or two about the Hollywood machine. He recognized that Rambo had the potential to be a bankable franchise, and altered the final act accordingly.
The film version has Rambo tearfully bearing his soul to Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) before giving himself up to the authorities. Even Brian Dennehy’s Sheriff Teasle is left alive, in comparison to the agonizing death that guided his novel arc to a close. As for which ending is better is a tough call; the book’s cynicism has it’s unbeatable merits, but there’s something behind the film’s whiff of redemption that fits right in the pocket. Just ignore the video game goofiness of the sequels and you’ll be golden.
7. Dante Hicks – Clerks (1994)
This would’ve been really weird. Actually, it is really weird, because Kevin Smith did in fact film a version of Clerks where slacker Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) is gunned down and killed in a robbery. Regarded by theorists as an attempt to mirror the downtrodden ending of Dante’s favorite flick, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the ending was immediately disliked upon initial viewing in 1994. Even Smith mentors Bob Hawk and John Pierson were thrown by this violent curtain closer, insisting the rookie director alter events to end on a brighter note.
Thankfully, he did. Smith has said in later years that this poorly conceived conclusion was the result of him not yet “knowing how to end a movie,” and that had the original ending stayed, the Askewniverse would have ceased to exist. Now, with twenty years and a sequel in the can, this ending is nothing more than some bizarre alternate reality where Dante never danced awkwardly with Rosario Dawson. And what a shame that would’ve been.
6. Joker – Full Metal Jacket (1987)
The death of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a pivotal moment in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s built up so tensely that the harrowing effect it has over James T. “Joker” Harris (Matthew Modine) is felt for the duration of his military tour. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the original plan. Modine has since revealed that Kubrick’s initial intent was the kill Joker off in lieu of Pyle – a move that would’ve restructured the entire trajectory of Jacket’s second act. The logic behind such a move is indeterminable, especially given that no such events happened in source novel The Short-Timers.
But it’s tough to tell with Kubrick. Could there have been some grand revision of the story a la The Shining (1980)? Or perhaps a rethinking of the material to fit an altogether different commentary on the perils of war? One could theorize all day as to what the film could’ve been without Modine’s main character, but, as it stands, Metal Jacket remains a war classic. Not a bad trade off.
5. Clarence Worley – True Romance (1993)
Part of the fun behind True Romance (besides everything) is realizing that Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is pretty much a better looking Quentin Tarantino with a pistol and Patricia Arquette. Acknowledged as his most autobiographical film to date, it paints a character equal parts oddball and hero, loner and hardcore romantic. But with the impending success of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), the screenwriter tossed the reins over to Tony Scott, who followed the story with one notable exception: Clarence wouldn’t die at the end. Tarantino wanted his doppleganger to bite the bullet in the cash exchange gone wrong; but the commercially slick Scott insisted that this hyper-violent love story needed a happy ending to work.
Originally tentative about the idea, Tarantino has since changed his tune. “Tony was right. He always saw it as a fairy tale love story, and in that capacity it works magnificently,” he admitted to Maxim, “but in my world Clarence is dead and Alabama is on her own. If she ever shows up in another one of my scripts, Clarence will be dead.” Poor guy can’t seem to catch a break.
4. Dr. Ian Malcolm – Jurassic Park (1993)
Charisma can sometimes be enough to save a character. Such was the case with Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the charming scientist who survived a T-Rex mauling so he could wax poetic and lay shirtless across a table. Spielberg had done this dance with death for Jaws (1975), so he knew saving the right character could mean big things for the morale of the audience moving forward. Turns out, he was right again, as the decision to save Malcolm from a conclusive death catapulted the leather-sporting jokester into an iconic stratosphere of supporting characters.
Goldblum’s favoritism with the fans even forced author Michael Crichton to alter the events of his literary world, so as to capitalize on the character’s popularity. His seemingly serious brush with blood loss was passed off as being “greatly exaggerated” after the fact, so both Crichton and Spielberg could dust him off for 1997 sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park. That is one big pile of charm.
3. Poe Dameron – Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
Another case of charisma trumping intent, Poe Dameron was originally supposed to die in the Jakku desert after helping Finn (John Boyega) escape the First Order. That wasn’t exactly what Oscar Isaac wanted to hear when he hopped a plane to France to meet J.J. Abrams, as the actor recounts, “I’ve done that before, set up the plot for the main guy then die spectacularly.” Isaac urged Abrams to reconsider the limitations of such a glorified cameo – a proposal the director took to heart and expanded Poe’s potential beyond being the Drew Barrymore of Star Wars. As a result, Poe Dameron has become the swaggering Han Solo of this generation’s galaxy far, far away.
Attested to in various interviews since the film’s release, Abrams is supremely happy with his decision. Not only did he spare the current fan-favorite, but he and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan made him so integral to The Force Awakens finale that reducing him to a first act death would’ve drastically undercut the resolution. It probably helps that Isaac has become the most swooned over human being on the internet; but either way, the more Poe, the better.
2. Martin Riggs – Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Remember the end of Lethal Weapon 2 when that South African schmuck shoots Riggs (Mel Gibson) like five times? Yeah, he was supposed to die. That’s what Shane Black had in mind at least, as the screenwriting specialist closed the first (and in his mind, the only) series sequel. Naturally, Warner Bros. had some issues with the idea, furthered by the fact they were sitting on a goldmine of action-comedy backed by bona-fide stars like Gibson and Danny Glover. As a result, director Richard Donner went against Black’s original draft and lessened the severity of Riggs’ (multiple?!) gunshot wounds.
Instead of a teary-eyed send off, Riggs and Murtaugh share a few barbs and belly laughs as police sirens steadily approach. Given the quality of Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) and 4 (1998), it’s tough not to side with studio on this one. Black is to be commended on his artistic vision, and his scripts still make up the finest entries in the series, but bumping Riggs off just wasn’t the way to go in a rollicking buddy cop movie.
1. Rocky Balboa – Rocky V (1990)
This would’ve been a really bad mistake. The story goes that Sylvester Stallone’s original script for Rocky V had Balboa dying in the arms of Adrian (Talia Shire) after his street brawl with Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison). This would’ve not only closed the series on a sucker punch to the heartstrings, but fashioned an insulting cop out to the whole perseverance theme of the character. Of course, in retrospect, it doesn’t help that V is far and away the worst entry in the franchise, so muddled in melodramatic schmaltz it’s almost unbelievable that the director of the first film, John G. Avildsen, was responsible.
Thanks to the movie gods, Stallone chose against this idea, and rewrote the ending as it is in the film. It’s still not very good, but at least it provided a chance for the series to make a comeback with outstanding entries like Rocky Balboa (2006) and Creed (2015). Having The Italian Stallion die in a street brawl would’ve been the equivalent of a bodybuilder being crushed while moving boxes – stupid and silly. Thanks, Sly, for saving everyone a lot of disappointment.
Can you think of any other characters that didn’t meet the demise they were supposed to? Let us know in the comments!