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What makes a death scene 'immortal?' A writer explains his favorite fictional deaths

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Spoiler alert - in this next conversation, they all die in the end. This is indeed the very point of a new list, the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It comes to us from Slate. The list starts with a Greek classic, winds its way through "Beowulf," Shakespeare and ends with today's books and movies and songs, all kinds of stuff, even video games. So what makes a great death scene?

Well, Dan Kois is behind this list, and he's here now. Hey, Dan.

DAN KOIS: Hey. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: What's your personal favorite on this list?

KOIS: I have a real close personal tie to the end of "Thelma And Louise."

KELLY: Sure.

KOIS: And I find that death scene great because - and I'm talking about the end of the movie.

KELLY: I was going to say you should just sum up...

KOIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

KELLY: ...For teenagers who maybe haven't seen "Thelma And Louise."

KOIS: Yeah. Yeah. So Thelma and Louise, who go on the run after one of them commits a some-would-definitely-argue-justifiable murder - they go on the run across the great American West, and they end cornered by the cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA AND LOUISE")

GEENA DAVIS: (As Thelma) Let's not get caught.

SUSAN SARANDON: (As Louise) What are you talking about?

DAVIS: (As Thelma) Let's keep going.

KOIS: And they drive off into the God-dang Grand Canyon. And the last shot of the movie is them in their blue convertible, flying over the edge of the Grand Canyon, their hubcap flying off, holding hands as they go into that final freeze frame. And I find that death scene remarkable because even though it's obviously a tragic ending for these two characters we love, the way it's shot and delivered by those actors is, in fact, inspiring.

KELLY: Yeah. Like, you're cheering them on as they...

KOIS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Literally drive off a cliff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA AND LOUISE")

STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY: (As Max) Hey.

KOIS: You want them to escape forever. You want them to escape the bounds of masculine society. And if this is the way they got to do it, this is the way they got to do it. At least they're together in the end. And it doesn't show us, you know, the gruesome part. It shows us them at the top of the world. And it allows us to imagine that they're sort of just continuing this adventure forever.

KELLY: Is there a formula to making a moving death scene, a memorable death scene that works?

KOIS: One of the great things about making this list was that we learned there is no formula because death scenes can do so many different things in the context of a great work of art. They can be shocking, or they can be heartbreaking, or they can be extremely funny. We also talked to a lot of the people who wrote these memorable deaths. And I did get one great tip from Stephen King, who said he finds the key to writing a satisfying death scene, no matter what kind you're trying to write, is that you really actually know something and care about that character before they meet their final end. I'd argue that isn't always true because we have a few death scenes where you know nothing about the characters before they just anonymously go into heaven or hell, but I liked hearing that from the master.

KELLY: Yeah, indeed. Now, I have to pick a bone with you about the Shakespeare choice in here. "Macbeth" makes the list. You call it the greatest of all Shakespearean deaths. And obviously no shade on "Macbeth" and his, you know, rager of a demise, but not "Romeo And Juliet." How did "Romeo And Juliet" not make the cut?

KOIS: I find Romeo and Juliet's death very hacky, personally.

KELLY: Oh, come on. The star-crossed lovers - it's beautiful.

KOIS: Wait 10 minutes and see if she wakes up, for God's sake.

KELLY: (Laughter).

KOIS: But, yes, I find the "Macbeth" death scene incredibly just dramatically satisfying and potent. And the reason that I included that one in this list as opposed to the many, many other wonderful Shakespearean deaths I could have included - you could do a list of 50 just of those...

KELLY: Yeah.

KOIS: ...Is because of those final lines that "Macbeth" gets, which I just find, like, incredibly vivifying at the moment of death.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MACBETH")

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (As Macbeth) Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him that first cries, hold; enough.

KOIS: It's a real literally great last words.

KELLY: My nomination for this list would have been "Braveheart," Mel Gibson playing Scottish warrior William Wallace and that scene where he's being brutally tortured and they're about to finish him off and he's given one last chance to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRAVEHEART")

MEL GIBSON: (As William Wallace) Freedom.

KELLY: I must have watched that 10 times. I cry every time. How did you pass this one over?

KOIS: Well, I'll be blunt. I don't like "Braveheart."

KELLY: Are you English secretly?

KOIS: That must be it.

KELLY: Right.

KOIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I'm a medieval English soldier.

KELLY: Well, we'll have to agree to differ on that one. In a total change of scene here, I was not expecting Pac-Man to show up on the list, although then I thought about it and thought, well, he does die, like, every single game. That's how it ends. How did he make the list?

KOIS: It's pretty iconic, right? We - I like the idea not only of including video games but also including, you know, deaths that would surprise people on this list. And in the '80s, for a video game player, all of those characters went through these endless cycles of death and rebirth and death and rebirth and death and rebirth. And it's fun to think of poor Pac-Man, you know, who just has - he just has one job. It's to eat dots.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAC-MAN EATING SOUND EFFECT)

KOIS: But no matter what he does and no matter what you do, you get this little, tiny lesson in mortality every time you drop a quarter in that machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF COINS CLINKING)

KOIS: And it's expressed through that perfect sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAC-MAN DEATH SOUND EFFECT)

KELLY: Dan Kois, writer at Slate, talking with us about their new list, the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. Dan Kois, thanks.

KOIS: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Megan Lim