As Umberto Eco said, “there is nothing more wonderful than a list,” especially a list full of death scenes.
1. Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring (the movie)
Boromir’s death is quite simply one of the best death scenes ever in the movies and remains devastating no matter how many times I watch it. From the mad dash through the trees when the Orcs attack, to the way we feel the thunk of each arrow, to that final “my king”—it’s a slice of cinematic perfection. Boromir in FOTR is also one of the few instances I can think of where a movie has significantly improved a book character. While Boromir in the book is sort of sketched in by Tolkien as an example of how the One Ring can turn heroic, proud men into misguided villains, Sean Bean and the LOTR script writers make him a much more nuanced and interesting character and that makes his death hit even harder.
2. Seok-woo in Train to Busan
Like many zombie movies, Train to Busan is rife with harrowing death scenes that will pull, tear, and rip at your heartstrings. By the time I got to the end of this movie, I thought I was numb to any further emotional pain, but I had obviously underestimated both Gong Yoo’s acting chops and Yeon Sang-ho’s skills as a director. Seok-woo’s death when he is so close to saving both himself and his daughter is not really unexpected. As a viewer I felt that death coming and dreaded it from the beginning, and yet that final scene still hit me like an emotional sledgehammer.
3. Ace in One Piece
A warning to everyone charmed by Netflix’s wonderful One Piece live-action adaptation: if you get into this series, whether it’s the anime or the manga, it will crush your heart again and again and keep you coming back for more. There are several death scenes in One Piece that could be included on this list including Donquixote “Corazon” Rosinante’s death, and the violent demise of Nami’s mother, Bell-mère (a death that packs a bigger punch, visually and emotionally, in the manga and anime than in the live-action). Still, the pinnacle, for the story and its main character, is the death of Luffy’s brother Ace at Marineford. Eiichiro Oda wrings every last drop of pain, sorrow, desperation, joy, drama, and grief from this (long) story arc, and gives us a death that reverberates through the series from that point on like an earthquake.
4. Essun in The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
This might not count as a death scene for reasons that are obvious to those who have read the Broken Earth trilogy, but I still think it qualifies, regardless of what happens in the epilogue. Essun’s quest to find her daughter Nassun in a broken, breaking world comes to a cataclysmic conclusion in The Stone Sky. When mother and daughter finally meet, it’s no cozy reunion, but a world-shaking clash between two immensely powerful women, both bent on changing the world. The way Jemisin so intimately ties together the fractured relationship between mother and daughter with the fate of the planet, had me reading at a furious pace while bawling like a baby.
5. Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Martin’s saga is full of memorable deaths: Tywin Lannister dying on the toilet, and the Red Wedding are two obvious examples. But for sheer shock value, Ned Stark’s beheading in the first book (and the first season of the TV-series) stands out. If you were reading or watching this story unspoiled, this was the moment when you realized with absolute clarity that you’re not in Middle-earth anymore. Martin sets Ned up to be the hero, a man trying to do what’s right, and then shows us that in the world of Ice and Fire, being strong, good, and righteous will never ever guarantee that you make it to the end of the story.
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6. Roy Batty in Blade Runner
Iconic. What else can you really say about this death scene and soliloquy? After we spend the entire movie watching Batty brutally kill, maim, and terrify assorted humans, he goes out on an elegiac note, in one of the most famous death scenes in movie history. Batty’s monologue was written by screenwriter David Peoples and then modified by actor Rutger Hauer who apparently cut most of it because he felt it didn’t fit his character. Hauer kept two lines and added two of his own, including the “tears in the rain” part and the rest is history. (The actor reflects on the scene and its legacy in a 2017 interview from Radio Times.)
7. Baby Brian in The Changeling by Victor Lavalle
Whether you read it in the novel, or watch it play out in the new TV-series, the scene where baby Brian dies at the hands of his mother Emma is almost unbearable. And it’s no less painful for playing out, mostly, out of sight. Rather, the power of the scene is magnified by Lavalle’s choice to never let us see it clearly, only glimpse the edges of the horror through Apollo: the shrieking kettle, the child screaming in the other room, Emma transformed into something akin to a monster. This scene is also the point where I, the reader, went from “oh, I guess this is a really good psychological horror story” to, “omg wtf is happening here.” If you’ve read the book, you might question this scene’s inclusion on this list, but no matter what comes after, there’s no denying it’s impact.
8. The Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke
Like all Miyazaki movies, Princess Mononoke can take you apart and put you together again in a multitude of ways, and the death of the mysterious forest spirit is one of the movie’s most crushing moments. After the desperate efforts of Ashitaka and San/Princess Mononoke to stop the mercenary monk Jigo from killing the forest spirit and take its head, it’s Lady Eboshi who does the deed. The spirit’s demise, and the wave of destruction that follows is devastating in every sense of the word. Each time I’ve watched this movie, part of me hopes it will play out differently, and that the spirit will escape.
9. Bambi’s mother in Bambi
Movies and books for kids and young adults are full of crushing death scenes that rival a lot of adult fare when it comes to emotional impact. For examples, look no further than Mufasa’s death in The Lion King, the fate of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, and Prim’s death in Mockingjay. I picked the death of Bambi’s mother for this list because it manages to be simultaneously brutal and heartrending, without actually showing the death on-screen. Who needs to see the bullets and the blood, when the sight of the suddenly orphaned Bambi searching and calling for his mother is all that’s needed to traumatize generations of children.
10. Lucy Westenra (x 2) in Dracula by Bram Stoker
Lucy Westenra dies twice in Dracula. Both times, she goes out in epic, gothic style. First, Lucy is drained of blood by Dracula and almost kills one of her three suitors before she dies. Then, she comes back from the dead as a full-on vampire and goes on a spree that leads her former friends and suitors to drive a stake through her heart, decapitate her, and solder her coffin shut. Not bad for a blonde, demure woman “waiting for the right man to come along to marry her”. (For more Lucy Westenra content, read Gwendolyn Kiste’s brilliant short story “The Eight People Who Murdered Me (Excerpt from Lucy Westenra’s Diary)” in Nightmare Magazine. https://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/the-eight-people-who-murdered-me-excerpt-from-lucy-westenras-diary/)