Titanic (1997)

Everyone enjoys a good love story, don’t they?

They may not be the highest-grossing movies of all time (if James Cameron isn’t directing, that is), but romantic movies can elicit some strong emotional responses when done right. Watching passion overcome adversity, seeing two people connect on a profound level, witnessing a giant ship sinking in icy waters. The heartstrings tremble, they also seem to set up impossible romantic ideals for us mere mortals to live up to.

With the potential relationship pitfalls that come from movie expectations, I got to thinking… are romantic movies really the best love stories?

The Answer: Not at all. Most are actually pretty messed up.

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Before we can completely examine this question, let’s look at some of the most popular romantic movies. While I don’t always like to rely on box office returns to determine the quality of a film, it is definitely a measure of its success. BoxOfficeMojo.com breaks romantic movies into two main categories: Romantic Drama and Romantic Comedy. (Also note that most of the site’s box office data only goes back to 1980, so these lists are far from complete in terms of the history of cinema.)

This is not an arbitrary distinction because romantic comedies have a very different structure, very different character arcs, and very different outcomes than romantic dramas. While rom-coms are far from realistic in their own right, they tend to be formulaic stories with meet-cutes and happy endings. Sure, guys may be annoyed with these standard chick flicks from time to time, but as long as you don’t mind admitting you’re wrong from time to time and throw in a few symbolic grand gestures now and then, you’re pretty safe.

Romantic dramas are a different story. If you want to keep a relationship going, don’t plan your relationship like one of these movies. The consequences can be quite dire.

Take a look at the top 20 grossing romantic dramas:

      1. Titanic (1997)
      2. Ghost (1990)
      3. Pearl Harbor (2001)
      4. Jerry Maguire (1996)
      5. The Great Gatsby (2013)
      6. An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
      7. The Vow (2012)
      8. The Bodyguard (1992)
      9. Indecent Proposal (1993)
      10. Cold Mountain (2003)
      11. Out of Africa (1985)
      12. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
      13. The Notebook (2004)
      14. Dear John (2010)
      15. City of Angels (1998)
      16. The English Patient (1996)
      17. The Horse Whisperer (1998)
      18. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
      19. Safe Haven (2013)
      20. Legends of the Fall (1994)

Fifteen of them – a whopping 75% – involve some sort of love triangle or extra-relationship tryst. Eight of them (Titanic, The Great Gatsby, Indecent Proposal, Out of Africa, Brokeback Mountain, The English Patient, The Bridges of Madison County, and Legends of the Fall) involve outright infidelity. Of these, only Titanic does not include marital infidelity because Rose (Kate Winslet) and Cal (Billy Zane) are only engaged.

This is all presumably forgivable in the grand scheme of the film because the people getting cheated on are usually scoundrels themselves. (Of course, that should tell you something about the people getting involved with the scoundrel in the first place, but that’s an argument for another day).

Outside of the strict romantic drama category, you have films like The Twilight Saga and even The Hunger Games that rely on a love triangle to keep fans interested. In the end, someone has to choose.

It’s not surprising to learn that cheating is a bad thing for relationships. Unfortunately, it also appears to be standard human behavior. More than half of men and women admit to being unfaithful in at least one relationship. When infidelity happens in a marriage, it results in divorce about one-third of the time. So while these figures show that people can be forgiving, cheating happens. A lot. However, they still happen in love stories more than in real life.

But it’s even worse because…

Most of the time, the lovers don’t end up together

The Notebook (2004)

Once again referring to the top 20 grossing romance dramas, the lovers don’t even end up together by the end of the film. The couples figuratively ride off into the sunset in only six of these movies (Pearl Harbor, Jerry Maguire, The Vow, Indecent Proposal, Dear John, and Safe Haven). In An Officer and a Gentleman, the characters literally walk off into the sunset, which must count for something.

The Notebook is a slightly different story, considering the lovers don’t actually end up together until after the story is told. And even then, she can’t remember a damn thing about him in the end, anyway. How’s that for irony? Nicholas Sparks, you devil!

That leaves 12 of these movies – amounting to 60% – in which the lovers’ time together is limited in some way. And just because this list is for films made since 1980 doesn’t mean the trend started there. Some of the best-known historical romances feature the main characters going their separate ways. From Gone with the Wind in which Rhett Butler doesn’t give a damn to Casablanca (which again features some infidelity) in which Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) leaves Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Renault (Claude Rains) to live happily ever after together.

In fact, romantic dramas don’t just make a point to split characters up. They keep them apart through much of the movie, as you’ll see in the wildly popular Doctor Zhivago, as well as the more recent Top 20 films like Cold Mountain and Legends of the Fall.

But being apart isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you in a romantic movie because…

You just might end up dead

Titanic (1997)

That’s right. For all the bellyaching about death and violence in cinema, it’s the romance dramas that have a penchant for killing off their characters. Going back hundreds of years before movies existed, William Shakespeare wrote a little play called “Romeo and Juliet.” Yeah, they both die in that one. Spoiler alert: it’s become a popular trope.

Fast-forward to the Top 20 list, and you’ll see that one of the lovers die in ten of the films (Titanic, Ghost, The Great Gatsby, Cold Mountain, Out of Africa, Brokeback Mountain, The Notebook, City of Angels, The English Patient, and Legends of the Fall). That’s a 50% chance of death. You’d have better odds playing Russian roulette… twice.

Of course, if you count the death of someone in one of the aforementioned love triangles, the odds are worse because that puts Pearl Harbor on the list. And if you count the other Nicholas Sparks movies (in which someone close to the main characters always ends up dead), you’ve added two more to the list for a grand total of only a 35% chance of survival in a romance drama. Slasher films are starting to look like the safer bet at this point.

So the next time you decide to watch a romance on date night, you might consider the corny rom-com instead of the unfaithful, divisive, and mortally dangerous romance drama.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Ghost (1990)

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