Why historical media is the best genre at portraying death

Pirates of the Caribbean suffered, right from the very start, from the fact that none of its characters would stay dead. One of the most successful franchises of recent years is the Avengers series. But if it has a flaw, it is that death isn’t taken seriously. Yes, one guy died in the most recent installment, but given the sheer amount of world-ending jeopardy invoked in both major films and the individual installments, the actual threat is fairly minmal. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was pretty similar. Only three significant characters died in the whole trilogy; Boromir in Fellowship, and the two kings in Return. Considering all that vague ‘one ring to rule them all’ threat, the good guys get off waaaay too lightly.

But if we’re talking about Sean Bean, one series that bucks the trend, is Game of Thrones. Major characters die ALL THE TIME in that series. In fact they do it so often that new major characters have to be introduced to keep the action going. Game of Thrones is an anomaly; most TV series will only offer one or two token deaths every so often. So much is invested in characters that their creators are reluctant to off them. GRRM has no such qualms.Ned's execution Game of Thrones

On the other hand, historical media has to confront death all the time. People, factually, are mortal. All of the historical people who have ever existed, have all died. What’s more, historical characters tend to die at the most inappropriate times – Richard III springs to mind. As a result, death is one of the major plot features that history, as a genre, focusses on. Saving Private Ryan is a classic example; that film is all about Death Vs Life. Yes, it’s ostensibly about war. But in reality, death is a lot more familiar to us. The central characters almost all die, just so that Ryan can live. And they do not go gentle into that good night. They go out kicking and screaming, in a pool of their own blood, desperate to finish their business.

Saving Private Ryan

TV is rapidly catching up. HBO’s ROME featured a large number of deaths. The two heroes Pullo and Vorenus carved their way through a hugh number of fighters without so much as a backward glance, but there were also a large number of deaths that the show spent a lot more time on.  For the sake of variety I have included a still from the death of Julia; Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife. Her death was the catalyst for the split between the two men, and it is an emotional affair. HBO’s focus on death in all it’s complexity is a major part of what saved this series from being just a blood-n-sex-fest.Julia's death HBO ROME

Video games, by comparison, have a long way to go. Enemies are dead as soon as their last health point is hacked away. They fall to the floor, and (sometimes after a few seconds) fade into invisibility – leaving you just enough time to loot their body. This totally avoids dealing with things like the twitching, gurgling enemies on the floor, who grab at your heels as you march over them, or just how tricky it is to strip armour from a corpse.

The historical genre leads the way when it comes to portraying death. It is emotional, paradigm-shifting, and very, very final. And that is how it is portrayed.

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