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How Titanic’s Ending Became a Point of Controversy for 25 Years

Titanic’s ending remains controversial even twenty-five years after release — with even director James Cameron arguing in defense of it.

One of the single most successful films of all time, Titanic, was a massive hit when it came out — even becoming the first film to ever reach $1 billion at the global box office, but there’s one element of the film that still lingers in the public conscious, perhaps more than any other. Titanic‘s ending still remains controversial for its way of killing off Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack while allowing Kate Winslet’s Rose to survive floating on a door. While a solution may have been discovered that could have saved both their lives, director James Cameron is right in saying it would have undercut the surrounding film.

Titanic focused on Jack and Rose, a pair of star-crossed lovers who, by happenstance, met each other on the titular cruise liner. Falling in love despite their class divide, the pair found themselves trying to survive the sinking of the famously doomed ship. Unable to reach the lifeboats in time, the pair are dropped into the freezing water. Although Rose is able to survive by climbing aboard a broken door floating in the water, Jack’s additional weight would sink it — leading him to linger in the water with her as long as he could until he finally sank beneath the waves and drowned. This extra time keeping Rose awake and conscious allowed her to survive long enough for a lifeboat to find her — saving her life.

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It’s a sweeping, romantic moment within the film — and also one that remains a point of contention among audiences, even twenty-five years later. A common joke about the film centered on Jack’s inability to climb aboard the wood, playing up Rose as “selfish” for not making space for Jack. This question has lingered, to the point where experiments have been done, recreating the moment. A 2012 episode of MythBusters saw hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman successfully strap life-preservers to the bottom of the door, allowing it to float with two people. Even Rose’s actress, Kate Winslet, joked during a talk show appearance that Rose could have made room for Jack.

Even though it’s been controversial among audiences, it’s also a hill that Cameron has repeatedly proven willing to die on — arguing that Jack had to die for the film to be as effective as it was. Confronting the “realistic” arguments, Cameron shot down the MythBusters argument by arguing during an interview with the Daily Beast in 2017, reasoning that Jack would have wasted too much energy figuring out a means to survive, and his best (and only) chance was to hope someone would find them before he drowned. He’s not wrong to offer that as a solution to the controversy, as Jack’s scrambling in the frozen waters might have flipped Rose over and killed her as well. Perhaps, despite any realistic way that Jack could have survived the end of the film, it wasn’t the fate that awaited him (unless he really was a time-traveler).

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Ultimately, as Cameron explained to Vanity Fair in an interview later that same year, Jack’s death — even if preventable — was a vital piece of the story. “Had he lived,” Cameron explained, “the ending of the film would have been meaningless…the film is about death and separation; he had to die, so whether it was that, or whether a smoke stack fell on him, he was going down. It’s called art, things happen for artistic reasons, not for physics reasons.”

In that sense, there was never a means of saving Jack, as he would have been struck down by any sort of fatal threat. Jack’s death serves as the emotional crescendo of the film, turning the soaring romance into an enduring tragedy, and as Cameron notes, the fact that over two decades later people are still debating it speaks to the enduring elements of Jack and Rose’s story — without his death, who knows if it had struck such a chord with audiences.

Brandon Zachary is an Associate Writer with Comic Book Resources and has written for CBR since 2018. He covers breakouts on comics, film, television, video games, and anime. He also conducts industry interviews, is a Rotten Tomatoes certified film critic, and knows SO MUCH about the X-Men. For requests, comments, or to hear his pitch for a third Avatar series that incorporates robots, you can contact him through bs.zachary@gmail.com.

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