The Nobel winning author and absurdist/existential philosopher, Albert Camus, wrote: “since we all are going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”
Camus, whose genius has continued to be revered long after his death on January 4, 1960, did not know actor Paul Walker, director James Wan or Universal Pictures. From a practical, not metaphysical, viewpoint, the circumstances of Walker’s death were a significant matter.
When the actor perished in a fiery single car crash in late November of 2013, he was in mid-production of the seventh installment of the successful “Fast and Furious” film franchise.
Obviously, the personal tragedy overshadowed any commercial considerations, but Hollywood being Hollywood, eventually those business concerns could not be ignored — millions of dollars were on the line. Movie fans also wanted closure.
It was a dilemma that commercial art has faced, literally, for centuries: how to handle the death of key character in a movie, television show, stage play or novel. Even Shakespeare faced this challenge.
In the Walker case, the movie makers arrived at a tasteful solution where a non-treacly farewell took place: through a technical process called “stitching,” which employed Walker’s two brothers as doubles, a near seamless final product emerged.
Taken on its own terms – “Furious 7” was a commercial project, aimed at the box office, very modest artistic goals – the 40 year old Walker exited maintaining character continuity. It even left open the possibility he could return in a cameo at some future date.
Walker’s body was cremated and interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood, California, where it remains a popular visitation site.
When the leading heartthrob, Cory Monteith, on television’s “Glee” passed away from a drug over dose in July of 2013, producers/writers faced a similar quandary; they took a short hiatus to review storyline options.
Over seven million fans tuned in to see a respectful send off, including a tribute to Monteith’s character (Finn Hudson), as well as the coping mechanisms the rest of the cast employed.
Reaction was generally positive to the approach: there was no hint of exploitation or saccharine posturing.
Critic Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times pointed out that by not mentioning the specific cause of Finn Hudson’s death, the program, which had previously not been shy about dealing with social issues, skipped a potentially teachable, cautionary tale for the audience.
Monteith was only 31 at the time of his demise: he had a long history of struggling with substance issues. “Glee” cast members said that they felt a twin loss: Monteith’s actual death, and then the Finn Hudson episode, which disrupted and protracted an already agonizing grief process.
The very likeable but very troubled actor was ultimately cremated and his ashes were scattered in the three places he liked best: Victoria and Vancouver, B.C. and Los Angeles, Ca.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, actors can written out and/or killed off for reasons that have nothing to do with an actual death. Budgetary issues and limited thematic development are common problems – but sometimes, the creator simply tires of writing about the character.
Probably the most celebrated instance of the latter took place in 1893 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to do in Sherlock Holmes.
At the time, the success of the Holmes stories (26 had been published) made him the best paid author existent. But Doyle felt that Holmes was distracting him from more important work: historical novels, plays and poems.
“It was not murder,” Doyle said, “but justifiable homicide in self-defense. If I had not killed him, he would have killed me.”
Published in “The Strand” magazine in December of 1893, “The Final Problem” concluded with Holmes and his arch-enemy, the criminal master-mind, Professor Moriarty, locked in a scuffle as they plunged over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.
Literary hell broke loose: “The Strand,” which released a public statement saying that editors had pled with Doyle to spare Holmes’ life, lost 200,000 subscribers; city workers in London wore black arm bands; even Doyle’s own mother was displeased (in no uncertain terms, she had instructed him not to do it.)
Succumbing to both the lure of financial enticements and his disgust with the ersatz Holmes figures being created by inferior writers, Doyle relented by returning to the real deal in one of the finest prequels ever – “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” an adventure set prior to Reichenbach, was serialized in monthly issues of “The Strand” from August 1901 until April 1902.
Baskervilles is one of the finest gems in the Holmes cannon. Today, it still has healthy annual sales and has been filmed more than 20 times — numerous stage/radio presentations have been given around the world.
The concluding sentence of chapter 2, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound,” has produced serious shudders in generations of readers. It is an immortal line.
Doyle was immediately re-established as the preeminent author of his day; he wound up composing more than 50 Holmes stories before his death in July, 1930.
Circling back to Albert Camus, the manner of his own death was ironically in keeping with his absurdist philosophy. When he lost his life in a car wreck, inside of his coat pocket was an unused train ticket — Camus, at the last moment, elected to forgo a railroad trip with his family and make the journey by car, a decision that turned out to be fatal.
The how and the why may not have mattered to Camus, but they are always mentioned in accounts of his life.