Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson
You’ve seen this movie before, probably a few times: Two characters fall in love even though one suffers from a terrible disease or affliction that will kill him or her (usually her) before credits roll, but not before she or he imparts important life lessons to the surviving lover. When executed poorly — which they usually are! — these films can verge on distasteful, exploiting real-life illnesses for cheap tears. But from Love Story to Sweet November to A Walk to Remember to The Fault in Our Stars, Hollywood can’t seem to quit making terminal romance movies — and who knows, maybe there’s even one in theaters right now. In memory of all the fictional characters that gave their lives so that their sweethearts could lead more meaningful ones, here is a ranking of 18 terminal romances.
18. A Little Bit of Heaven (2011): Kate Hudson has made some bad choices in her film career, but few worse than this stinker in which she plays a cancer patient who is granted three wishes by God (Whoopi Goldberg). She also falls in love with her doctor (Gael García Bernal) and expires just as her best friend is giving birth. Astonishingly, that “circle of life” ending is one of the least hoary tropes in this movie.
17. Here on Earth (2000): Remember when Chris Klein, Josh Hartnett, and Leelee Sobieski were supposed to be the next generation of Hollywood royalty? That didn’t work out, and neither did this teen weeper starring Sobieski as a girl who is diagnosed with bone cancer and caught in a love triangle between the boy she’s always liked (Hartnett) and the rich jock she just met (Klein). Spoiler: She picks Klein and drops dead.
16. A Walk to Remember (2002): Leave it to Nicholas Sparks to write a novel about the death of a teen that makes your eyes roll instead of water. In the movie adaptation, Mandy Moore plays Jamie, a minister’s daughter secretly suffering from leukemia who helps troubled popular kid Landon (Shane West) learn his lines for the school play. They fall in love, and after she kicks the bucket Landon enrolls in medical school in hopes of curing cancer. This is one walk you can definitely forget.
15. P.S. I Love You (2007): A twist on the genre: Holly’s (Hilary Swank) husband Gerry (Gerard Butler) dies from a brain tumor at the beginning of the film — but he still manages to teach her a lesson via a series of posthumous letters (all ending with “P.S. I love you”) that lead her on a scavenger hunt to his native Ireland, where he throws her into the arms of his childhood best friend, William (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Way creepier than sweet.
14. Now Is Good (2012): Tessa (Dakota Fanning) has been undergoing chemo for several years to treat her leukemia, but it isn’t working. She draws up a bucket list, which includes finding love with her neighbor Adam (Jeremy Irvine) even though he’s caring for his ill mother and mourning his father’s death. Doesn’t he already have enough to be sad about?
13. Restless (2011): Hopelessly twee and too hip for its own good, this movie even has a manic pixie dying-of-cancer girl. Gus Van Sant directs Henry Hopper as Enoch, who visits other people’s funerals for no apparent reason. He meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) at one, but Enoch doesn’t mind that she’s terminal because he has lots of near-death experiences and is more obsessed with love and death than Morrissey, especially when he forgets to take his mood stabilizers. She dies, he speaks at her funeral, and all you’ll be able to think about is how they have the exact same haircut.
12. Sweet November (2001): This remake of a 1968 film stars Charlize Theron as Sara, a woman with leukemia who likes to have monthlong affairs with certain gentlemen. Her “November” is Nelson, Keanu Reeves at his saddest. There’s zero chemistry between them, and their repeated breakups and reunions continuously strain credulity.
11. Love and Other Drugs (2010): I hate to break it to all of the Hathahaters out there, but Anne Hathaway’s character — a woman with early-onset Parkinson’s — does not actually die at the end of this movie. She does, however, fall in love with a young pharmaceutical rep, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who makes a mint selling Viagra. Though she shuns most men who try to get close to her, she falls for Jake, who eventually goes to medical school in hopes of helping her. At least Gyllenhaal fans will get what they want: plenty of shots of his shirtless torso and bare ass.
10. Me Before You (2016): Will (Sam Claflin) is paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and decides to commit assisted suicide. But his mom persuades him to wait six months in hopes that he might change his mind, maybe after he meets his attractive new caretaker, Lou (Emilia Clarke). The pair fall in love, but he offs himself anyway, which inspired a boycott and the hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia on Twitter. The film’s detractors are not wrong about how clumsily Will’s decision to end his own life, rather than live in a wheelchair, is handled, and it mars what is otherwise a sweet film that has all of the genre clichés you could imagine.
9. Dying Young (1991): Really only suitable for those who feel the need to see every film in the Julia Roberts oeuvre, this sad tale was an early career misfire in which she plays an aimless young woman named Hilary who ends up nursing rich-kid Victor (Campbell Scott), who is dying of leukemia. He can’t decide whether he wants to forgo treatment and enjoy the few months he has left or undergo taxing chemo that may save his life. Eventually, Hilary confesses her love and convinces him to fight for his life. We don’t find out if he lives or dies at the end, but I’ve always imagined that he croaks and bequeaths Julia Roberts a huge amount of money to go on a spending spree.
8. Keith (2008): A small, lesser-known indie in which the death of a teen fails to inspire his surviving lover to greatness and instead turns her into as much of a slacker as he was. The guy is Keith (Jesse McCartney), a cancer-ridden no-goodnik who tells goody-goody Natalie (Elisabeth Harnois) — who is trying to get a tennis scholarship to Duke — that she needs to relax. They fall in love, he dies, and her tennis game suffers (and, along with it, her chances for that scholarship), so she takes to driving Keith’s beat-up yellow truck around and entering it in a car show.
7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015): This Sundance hit that failed to impress at the box office was brazen enough to spoil its ending right in its title. The “Me” is high-school senior Greg (Thomas Mann, not the novelist), who puts his studies on hold to care for his childhood friend Rachel (Olivia Cooke). He and his co-worker Earl (RJ Cyler) make funny film parodies that amuse Rachel, so they get the idea to make a film for her before she dies. Of course she does (leukemia again), and at her shiva, Greg learns that she wrote a letter to the college that rejected him explaining that his application stunk because he spent so much time taking care of her. (He’s eventually accepted.) Aww. Isn’t that the sweetest thing that ever happened?
6. Bright Star (2009): The most artful and delicate film on this list, Jane Campion’s gorgeous meditation on doomed love follows Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) as she and poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) tumble into romance just in time for him to contract tuberculosis. He goes to Italy to recover but never makes it home. The film is shot beautifully and the performances are fantastic. The script is so smart and understated that you’ll barely realize you’re watching a terminal romance movie.
5. Harold and Maude (1971): In this one, the terminal disease is old age. Rich 20-something Harold (Bud Cort) doesn’t know his beloved Maude (Ruth Gordon) is going to kill herself before the moment she does it — or does he? She did tell him, after all, that 80 was the perfect age to die, and then she swallows a handful of sleeping pills at her surprise 80th birthday party. It’s a fitting end for the bizarre romance between this death-obsessed pair.
4. Leaving Las Vegas (1995): Nicolas Cage may have made a few stinkers after starring in this film, but he certainly deserved his Oscar for playing Ben, an alcoholic who goes to Las Vegas to literally drink himself to death. Elizabeth Shue plays Sera, the prostitute whose love isn’t quite enough to save him.
3. Moulin Rouge! (2001): Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, but between the killer mashup soundtrack, the glorious art direction, and one of the best performances of Nicole Kidman’s post-Cruise resurgence, it’s probably more loved than it is hated. Kidman plays Satine, a courtesan and singer who entrances Christian (Ewan McGregor), a poor young writer who has moved to Paris to become an artist. They try to create a Spectacular Spectacular at the titular cabaret even as Satine rebuffs his advances for more wealthy suitors. Eventually she gives in to their love just before she dies of consumption.
2. Love Story (1970): It is probably because of this old gem — one of the saddest and most romantic movies of all time, which was nominated for a slew of Oscars, won five Golden Globes, and conquered the box office — that we have this entire genre in the first place. At Harvard, rich boy Oliver (Ryan O’Neal, before he was totally crazy) falls in love with working-class Jenny (Ali McGraw) and marries her even though it means that his father cuts him off financially. After Oliver becomes a successful lawyer, they find out that Jenny is dying of leukemia, so they ask his father for money for her costly treatment. Because this is the way terminal romance movies work, she dies anyway.
1. The Fault in Our Stars (2014): The elusive good “teens dying of cancer” movie! Shailene Woodley gives an excellent performance as Hazel, a teen with thyroid cancer who meets the love of her life, Augustus (Ansel Elgort), at a support group for teens with terminal illnesses. The twist is that Augustus is in remission, but he gets sick again and Hazel ends up surviving him. (Finally, a cancer-ridden teen girl who makes it to the final credits!) This film is responsible for more teenage female tears than One Direction breaking up, Colton Haynes coming out, and Justin Bieber abandoning his pet monkey, combined.