20 Movie Character Deaths That Were Devastating

Character Deaths We Can't Get Over

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Kate Winslet And Leonardo DiCaprio In 'Titanic'
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Dead Sorry

Why do we love to cry at movies? And how are some of our favorite films the ones that reached down our throats, yanked out our hearts, and stomped on them? Some of them provide a catharsis, the release of crying in the dark, while others changed the way we looked at our world. Some are controversial and spark years of debate, something superstar director James Cameron hopes to put to rest about one of the most frustrating on-screen deaths ever. Warning: This entire story is a spoiler.

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‘Titanic’ (1997)

Character Death: Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Why It Was Devastating: It’s an old-school romance with elegant costumes, lavish Edwardian cruising, and a pretty, teenage Leonardo DiCaprio, who rides in steerage and still steals the heart of high-society Rose (Kate Winslet) by drawing her like one of his French girls. Your sadness may turn to fury, however, as you yell, “Scoot over!”  Everyone thinks that Jack could have fit on that floating door, but James Cameron wants to put that theory to rest once and for all. For an upcoming National Geographic show, he conducted a scientific test, complete with Leo and Kate's body doubles and a hypothermia expert, and concluded definitively that only one of the pair could survive. If you say so, man.

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Daniel Craig
Max Mumby/Indigo / Contributor / Getty Images

'No Time to Die' (2021)

Character Death: James Bond (Daniel Craig)

Why It Was Devastating: As if it wasn't hard enough to say goodbye to Craig as the pivotal character, it was the first time Bond had died (instead of just being recast) in the series since Ian Fleming's MI6 character made the transition from novels to film. To really get audiences weepy, Bond sacrificed his life for the woman he loved and his daughter. 

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Saving Private Ryan

‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

Character Death: Captain Miller (Tom Hanks)

Why It Was Devastating:  In the film, Captain Miller has survived the D-Day invasion, fought his way through France, and seen much of his company die in the quest to save a single soldier, Private Ryan (Matt Damon). At this point, we know Miller far better than Ryan, and it seems so futile to see so many die to save a single life.

Fruitvale Station

‘Fruitvale Station’ (2013)

Character Death: Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan)

Why It Was Devastating: The death of Oscar Grant is like a blow to the solar plexus, both because it’s true, and because of the way director Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) framed the story. Coogler shows us the last day of an imperfect life, as Grant argues with his girlfriend, tries to get a job back, and celebrates his mother’s birthday. Grant is catching a train home when a fight starts in a train station, and he is shot in the back by a police officer. Michael B. Jordan brings charisma and sincerity to the role, and the tiny moments of a life add up to the point where it is just too painful to see it extinguished.

Do the Right Thing

‘Do the Right Thing’ (1989)

Character Death: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)

Why It Was Devastating: Thirty-one years before America’s summer of unrest, Spike Lee presented Radio Raheem as a voice of Black activism and struggle. Raheem is a serious thinker, but friendly and gentle to his community. He presents some of the film’s biggest themes through his boombox, either blasting Public Enemy or speaking about love and hate. When Raheem gets in a fight with a white pizzeria worker, the police choke him to death in the street. The scene was based on the 1986 violence in Howard Beach, New York, but is even more painful to watch in the aftermath of George Floyd's death.


‘Bambi’ (1942)

Character Death: Bambi’s mother (Paula Winslowe)

Why It Was Devastating: The loss of innocence, the efficient dismissal of a parent: Those Disney tools begin here, in the scene that shocked generations of 5-year-olds thinking they were just going to enjoy some big-eyed forest animals and happy songs. Bambi’s mother chases her baby throughout the forest, away from danger. We hear the crack of a rifle, but Bambi keeps running. When he finally emerges into a snow-filled world, calling for his mother, and we know she won’t be calling back … excuse me, I think there’s something in my eye.


‘Up’ (2009)

Character Death: Ellie

Why It Was Devastating: You just don’t expect to cry at the beginning of a Pixar movie. The four-minute, wordless opening, accompanied by a silent-movie piano, takes us through the love and adventures of Ellie and Carl. It begins with the flash of a wedding photographer’s camera and Ellie planting an exuberant kiss on Carl, and in just over four minutes, takes us through a fully lived and loved life, ending with Carl visiting Ellie in the hospital … and going home alone. It’s a masterpiece of a biographical miniature, and a rich, poignant love story.

Old Yeller

‘Old Yeller’ (1957)

Character Death: Old Yeller

Why It Was Devastating: This classic story has brought multiple generations to tears. In 19th-century Texas, a black mouth cur insinuates himself into the lives of 15-year-old Travis and his family. Old Yeller protects the family from a bear, wild hogs, and finally, the wolf that gives Old Yeller rabies. Old Yeller’s heroism isn’t the only reason this death is tragic, though. It’s that Travis takes on the mantle of adult responsibility when he shoots his own dog to put him out of his misery.


'Platoon' (1986)

Character Death: Sgt. Elias Gordon (Willem Dafoe)

Why It Was Devastating: The moral voice of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War epic, Elias cements the Christ motif of the film, after being betrayed and shot by the more pragmatic and vicious Barnes. His smile at Barnes confirms their Christ-Judas dynamic. As the others rise above the fray in a rescuing helicopter, Elias emerges from the jungle, beset by the North Vietnamese. He is repeatedly shot, rising up again each time, until he finally dies with his arms raised in that indelible crucifixion motif. If the images weren’t enough to bring the tears, the swelling climax of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” guarantees gut-churning sobs.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings

'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' (2001)

Character Death: Boromir (Sean Bean)

Why It Was Devastating: The valiant Boromir comes to the rescue of Merry and Pippin (who require an unseemly amount of rescuing in the trilogy). A horde of Orcs take him down with their arrows, and he dies in the embrace of his rival, Aragorn. He’s a flawed character, but that’s what makes his deathbed confession more moving. Sean Bean turned out to be aces at dying on-screen, as he ademonstrated in “Game of Thrones.”

Terms of Endearment

‘Terms of Endearment’ (1983)

Character Death: Emma (Debra Winger)

Why It Was Devastating: Mothers, daughters, and people who know them connect deeply to the lifelong struggle and bond between Emma and Aurora. With a shy smile and a wave, Emma’s life ends, and as the realization hits Aurora, she turns away from the camera for nearly a minute. She stands and begins to hyperventilate. “I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid,” she says. “Somehow I thought when she finally went, that it would be a relief.” We cried when she said it, and continued sobbing for pretty much the entire remainder of the movie.

Boyz n the Hood

‘Boyz n the Hood’ (1991)

Character Death: Ricky (Morris Chestnut) 

Why It Was Devastating: John Singleton’s directorial debut introduced us to best friends growing up in South Los Angeles, focusing on Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who is being raised by his father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne). The film depicts the gang wars of the period, and the way they could permeate even the most focused, promising young lives. Ricky, a star athlete, is shot by the Bloods. Hours later, his mother opens his SAT scores, and finds he qualified for a college scholarship. It’s a story of struggle and loss, and an overall sense of young men abandoned by the society around them.

Steel Magnolias

‘Steel Magnolias’ (1989)

Character Death: Shelby (Julia Roberts)

Why It Was Devastating: Shelby is young, beautiful, has diabetes, and is fairly well-written as a saint. She considers ending her engagement because she has been told it would be dangerous to have children and she doesn’t want to deprive her fiancé (Dylan McDermott). She gets pregnant, though, has a baby boy, and suffers from kidney failure as a result. The emotional release comes not just from Shelby’s death but from the support her mother (Sally Field) gains from the women around her, played by an all-star team including Olympia Dukakis, Shirley Maclaine, and Dolly Parton.


‘Beaches’ (1988)

Character Death: Hillary (Barbara Hershey)

Why It Was Devastating: Beginning at Coney Island, this sentimental film follows two unlikely best friends throughout their lives together. C.C. (Bette Midler) is a loud, brassy singer, and Hillary her more reserved soulmate. When Hillary needs a heart transplant that will not come, C.C. comes to the beach house to care for her. The film ends with C.C. singing “The Glory of Love,” the first song Hillary ever heard her sing.

Longtime Companion

‘Longtime Companion’ (1989)

Character Death: John (Dermot Mulroney), Sean (Mark Lamos), David (Bruce Davison)

Why It Was Devastating: We are brought into this circle of New York friends at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and continue with them as the disease rips through their relationships. Their lives are distinct and feel true, and their deaths are also specific. The most emotional scene isn’t a death, though, but the final moments of the film, when three surviving friends walk along the beach, and for a brief moment, all of those lost to AIDS join them smiling and healthy as they walk, only to disappear again.

Brokeback Mountain

‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)

Character Death: Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Why It Was Devastating: The restrained emotion of the stoic Ennis (Heath Ledger) lets us do the crying for him. The two meet as shepherds in Wyoming in 1963, and their love affair winds through the decades and each of their marriages, always put aside because there is no way for them to make a life together. When a postcard sent to Jack is returned marked “Deceased,” Ennis calls Jack’s wife, Lureen (Anne Hathaway), who tells him that a car tire blew up in his face. But we see what Ennis imagines, Jack beaten to death with a tire iron for being gay.

The Green Mile

‘The Green Mile’ (1999)

Character Death: John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan)

Why It Was Devastating: Based on the Stephen King novel, this film has been rightly pointed to as a prime suspect in creation of the “magical Negro” trope, but Duncan invests that plot device with depth and humanity. It’s hard enough knowing that this death-row prisoner is innocent and that he is awaiting death as an escape from an inhumane world. At the moment of his execution, he asks to be killed without a hood, because he’s afraid of the dark. That piece of vulnerability is the final figurative nail in our emotional coffin.

The Shawshank Redemption

‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)

Character Death: Brooks (James Whitmore)

Why It Was Devastating: After 50 years in prison, the prison librarian is so terrified of being released that he tries to knife another man to stay in jail. “In here, he’s an important man, he’s an educated man,” says Red (Morgan Freeman). “Outside, he’s nothing. Just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands.” Sure enough, Brooks finds modernity both confounding and lonely. He hangs himself in his murky apartment, after carving into the wall, “Brooks was here.”

The Lion King

‘The Lion King’ (1994)

Character Death: Mufasa (James Earl Jones)

Why It Was Devastating: We shouldn’t be surprised by death in an animated movie anymore, as Disney loves killing off parents. With the Hamlet overtones in this film, we really should have seen this one coming. But when Mufasa is betrayed by his brother into a Death By Wildebeest and Simba futilely tries to wake his daddy, those tears falling down our cheeks are three-dimensional.

Little Women

‘Little Women’ (2019 and 1994)

Character Death: Beth (Eliza Scanlen and Claire Danes)

Why It Was Devastating: Both of these movies are so beautiful and emotionally affecting, it’s impossible to pick one over the other. Adapted from the 19th-century Louisa May Alcott novel, the story of the four March sisters puts a stone in the throat multiple times, but the tears truly flow when the purest, gentlest, most selfless sister dies after a long illness. It’s so unfair to lose her, and so painful to see the hole left in the lives of this marvelous family of females.

Bridge to Terabithia

‘Bridge to Terabithia’ (2007)

Character Death: Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb)

Why It Was Devastating: In the adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s beloved children’s book, Leslie is the spirited new girl in town who befriends Jess (Josh Hutcherson), who is regularly bullied by their classmates and neglected by his family. Together, they turn the woods in their neighborhood into an imaginative wonderland with an abandoned treehouse and a rope swing across the creek. When Jess learns that Leslie has drowned after falling from the broken rope swing, it’s the end of a friendship that provided two children with the companionship they sorely needed.