In Defense of Titanic’s Ending
“At the end of Titanic when Rose dies and reunites with Jack in the afterlife, how is it cool that she’s making out with a 19 year old homeless dude that she knew for a few days back when she was a teenager, rather than the father of her children?”
A friend of mine asked the above question and I agreed to answer it to the best of my abilities. That said, a fair response deserves a fair question, and the above question is not so. I can’t begin to answer the question by referencing Jack as a “teenage homeless dude,” for he is not that in both (what I’ll call), the “external-movie” and “internal-movie.”
The “external-movie” shall encompass all components that went into making the actual film. So I’m speaking about primarily, the screenplay, but also the conventions that influence the way movies are made. The “internal-movie” shall be seen as the fictional world in which the characters live.
To call Jack a “19-year-old homeless dude” that Rose knew for a “few days” is to negate his characterological purpose in its entirety, and in so, the purpose of Titanic’s emotional plot lines. Unlike most films, Titanic consists of two emotional plot lines: Rose’s love affair with Jack, and her self-actualization towards living a meaningful life.
Jack is a literary device to aid her in that journey, and in some ways resembles the manic-pixie boy archetype. Thus, if his presence in Rose’s afterlife is going to be questioned, it must be questioned taking into account his actual purpose, both within the fictional world of the movie, and outside it. However, once his true “internal” and “external” functions are acknowledged as so, the question itself, is no longer logically necessary to ask.
What does this mean? Well let’s start with the external-movie. Now, a ‘passable’ screenplay follows Hollywood conventions, and this affects Jack and Rose (and Calvert) in two ways:
Movies are stories. Stories do not include every detail in a protagonist’s life. Instead, the stories told in movies focus on a particular aspect of the protagonist’s life. In Titanic, Rose’s ‘story’ is more abstract when it centers on her romantic relationship with Jack and how his love for her transcends his own life to give meaning to hers.
Since that is the focus of the emotional plot, the screenplay does not spend time describing Rose’s subsequent years of marriage to a man under the name of, Calvert. Consequently, it appropriately avoids wrapping up “Jack and Rose’s” story with a man that the audience has never even met. Imagine instead of Jack welcoming Rose into the afterlife, an unfamiliar face greeted our protagonist. The ending would have never passed screen tests.
The second point in defense of Jack and Rose’s ‘afterlife reunion’ from an external-movie perspective looks at the movie paradigm. The movie paradigm, or “three-act structure,” states that if a character’s lowest moment is on pg. 90 in the screenplay, then he/she will get their happy ending and vice-versa. Well, it’s safe to say Titanic puts all of its characters through a perilous hell, including Jack and Rose throughout the second act. Jack’s death occurs at the “pg. 90 moment” for Rose’s story line, and so according to screenplay law, she deserves a happy ending within that story line.
Again, going back to the above, real-life would argue for the case of Calvert, a life-after-love perspective. But that’s not the story “Titanic” is telling.
To repeat myself, the story “Titanic” is telling, is Jack’s transcendent love for Rose and how it helped create a new life for her. So what sort of endings can be drawn up from that, given that Jack is now dead? An ending that not only depicts how dramatically Jack’s love transformed her life (as seen in her bedside photos), but that is also proportionally equal to the “adversity” they faced earlier in the film. With both Jack and Rose spending the second act fighting for their lives, it only makes ‘screenplay sense’ that in the third act, their love is no longer in threat of sinking ships, and class boundaries. Thus, an ending depicting a ‘Titanic heaven reunion’ directly parallels the film’s rising action of a sinking ship tearing its characters a part.
From the “powers that be” that dictate Hollywood film conventions, it makes the most “external-movie” sense for Jack to welcome Rose into the afterlife.
I’ll preface this part with, I believe the external-movie’s ‘needs’ often trump the internal-movie’s realities. In so, the above segment carries more weight because, “That’s Hollywood, baby.” Additionally, this part naturally lacks information outside of the context of the film’s story, so I cannot speak on behalf of Calvert, or Rose’s marriage and life spent with him. However, we can take a look at why Jack makes the cut for Rose’s afterlife, given the information the film gives us.
Although their actual time spent together was brief, Jack’s impact on Rose had life-long effects because he unconditionally loved her when no one else did, and that love consisted of a natural bond inexplicable by the likes of me, or anyone….because love.
Their relationship launches from a unique situation, which entails Jack saving her life. Prior to Jack, Rose felt so insignificant to those around her it led her to attempt suicide. Therefore, Jack became the first person in her world to care, to see her, and to advocate for her. For a 17-year-old aristocrat in 1912 with no say in her future, Jack promised a future, one with choices, and we have to assume that that was heavily intoxicating and alluring for an impressionable Rose. Anyone who has ever fallen in love can speak to its exhilarating ways. Jack and Rose’s love was merely set against extremes.
When was the last time you attempted suicide, were talked out of it, nearly died going back over the rail, bonded with a complete stranger, fell in love for the first time, lost your virginity, made a conscious choice to leave your family and life behind, fought for your survival on the FREAKING Titanic, had your first love die so that you could live, and then enter New York City with nothing of your own accept the chance of a new start? Phew. It’s exhausting even saying it, I can’t imagine living that over the course of a few days. The point is, none of us can. So if empathizing with Rose on this is actually outside of your scope, I don’t blame you. But it must be noted, this incredibly, rare and unique chunk of time in her life irrefutably influenced her life moving forward.
Jack’s death, as well as the sinking were traumatic events that Rose had to endure. Trauma effects people in different ways, but for Rose, she chose to honor Jack’s life by carrying on his legacy. In Jack’s final plea to Rose, he tells her she is going to have a life beyond the Titanic and beyond him, that she is going to marry and have kids with another man. He does this because he fears if he doesn’t make this clear, she would succumb to her own death beside him. This is depicted clearly when after Rose learns of Jack’s death, she briefly rests her head beside him in surrender. Her eyes only snap open once she remembers that he made her promise she would go on without him. Rose’s trauma then becomes a driving force in her life to honor a man who saved her in more ways than one.
She does presumably find happiness in a relationship with Calvert. Does her relationship with her husband differ from that of Jack’s? Yes. To compare the two would be a mistake. I believe that every single person has a side of him/herself that is unlocked through another person, that different people allow us to express different parts of ourselves. Rose’s husband may have unlocked Rose’s caregiving side, her practical side. Jack unlocked the passionate side of Rose, but primarily, he tapped directly into her soul. If you think that soulmates exist, Jack was her soulmate.
A Final Word
If you only believe in pragmatic love or if you feel incapable of suspending your disbelief, then I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you don’t bother watching “Titanic,” other romance films, or maybe films in general. All movies ask us to suspend our disbelief in one way or another. Some do it through unlikely chance encounters. As unlikely as it was for the real Titanic to sink, it did. If Jack and Rose’s love did not transcend the living world in Titanic heaven (how epic), would their storyline have carried its own weight against the actual story of an unsinkable ship sinking, taking 1500 lives with it?
I have a theory that we are only capable of taking away from movies, what beliefs and values already reside within us, that we ‘project’ on screen what we want to see. So I ask you, what do you want to see?