James Cameron's Avatar is now the second-highest grossing movie in history, behind his other megahit, Titanic. Many people expect it to eventually eclipse Leo, Kate and the tragic boat. I haven't seen Avatar so I can't ruin the ending for anyone.
And nearly everyone who saw Titanic during its long run in theaters surely knew the ending going in. Perhaps the only movie with a less-surprising conclusion was The Passion of The Christ. Even with that knowledge, Titanic still emotionally devastated millions of people, though much of the sadness was over DiCaprio's on-screen death and not so much the memory of the 1,500 real people who died. But how upsetting would the movie's ending had been if you didn't know the story, if you'd never heard of the Titanic? In America and elsewhere, the story's so well-known that the word Titanic now means much more than just a ship that sank. It's become a metaphor, used to describe everything from a failed energy company to a coach who refuses to resign and "goes down with the ship," like the Titanic's doomed captain.
But not everyone knows the story or is familiar with the myths or can recite the legends. Several of those people were Louise and her teenage friends, who saw the movie in Cape Town, unaware of the back story or the tragedy. The giddy girls watched in fascination as Jack sneaked onto the ship. They squealed as he charmed Rose. They mocked her cunning fiance. They wept in joy when Jack and Rose made love in a car.
Then came intermission, a real intermission where the crowd takes a break, heads to the bathroom and the concession stand and reflects on what they've seen, and speculates on what's to come. Louise and her innocent friends gathered in the bathroom, chattering nonstop about how the movie might end. How would Jack and Rose escape her mother and future husband? Where would they settle? Would they have kids? And isn't it so romantic and beautiful the way they found each other on that magnificent ship? They generally agreed that the movie up to that point was perfection, perhaps the most romantic film any of them had seen.
With intermission over and the theater lights dimming, the girls settled back into their seats. A few minutes into the second act, the Titanic struck the most famous iceberg in maritime history. Unsettled but still enjoying the show - "Ooh, they'll have to get off the ship now" - the girls continued watching in fascination. Of course the happy portion of the movie was long gone and the rest of the movie was devoted to death, the destruction of the ship and...Billy Zane running after Jack and Rose with a gun (the movie was not 100 percent historically accurate).
By the time Rose drifted off to sleep while Jack's lifeless body floated next to her, Louise and her friends had collectively broken down, sobbing and bawling and whimpering. They didn't understand how a film could be so cruel, not knowing the real story was just as devastating.
On the car ride home, Louise and her friend had to pull over to the side of the road. The shock and disarray left them unable to drive. Comforting each other, their cries lasted several more minutes. That was nearly 13 years ago. The wounds they suffered haven't healed. Today, whenever TBS or TNT breaks out an "All Titanic" weekend, Louise refuses to be in the room if the television happens to linger on the movie for a few minutes.
When Louise tells this story, people are often incredulous, unable to believe that her group of friends didn't know the true story behind the movie. "Everyone's" heard of the Titanic, but maybe just everyone in America, not necessarily the rest of the world. We'd probably have the same reaction - perhaps with less hysterics - if we went to a movie based on an event few have ever heard of, even if everyone in another part of the world is well aware of the story. How many people have heard of the Dona Paz, a Philippine ferry that sank in 1987, killing more than 4,300 people? Imagine going into a movie not knowing the history of the doomed vessel. The first 90 minutes of the movie are devoted to romance and derring-do on the ferry. Look, it's a love story for the ages. By the end, after thousands have died, the reaction in the theater would probably be similar to the reaction in the Cape Town theater after people watched Titanic.
Louise is now in Cape Town. I'll join her in a week and a half. We've talked about seeing Avatar there. Maybe even in the same theater that played Titanic all those years ago. I don't know how Avatar ends, whether it's tragic, uplifting or deflating. But no matter how it concludes, Louise will be all right. Because if watching Titanic without knowing how it ended didn't crush her, nothing in James Cameron's make-believe world will be a problem.