I recently had the pleasure to see the re-release of James Cameron epic as Titanic 3D. While I had seen pieces of this behemoth before, I never really saw it from beginning to end nor had I ever looked at this in terms of story. After watching I can only marvel at the culmination of elements that conspired to make it a true modern 'epic.'
Examining the story it seems to be a very simple romance. The boy from the wrong side of the tracks, the rich socialite that wants to escape her confining life, the jealous bad-guy fiancé and the helpful friends. On paper this sounds rather mundane, it very well sounds like almost any other romantic story in existence. So, where does this story become an epic?
The setting for the story is aboard the ill-fated cruise ship in 1912, this is not an original setting by any stretch of the imagination, There are no fewer than fifty different movies about the ship not counting the hundreds of documentaries. If we look at strictly the literary scene there are thousands and thousands of fictionalized accounts with a large percentage of them as romance stories. While tragic, this setting does not necessarily equate to an 'epic.'
If it's not the overall story or the setting, one might wonder if it's the characters that make this such a significant story. The characters are quite flat overall with a street kid, the socialite cheating fiancée, a controlling millionaire, and countless other rather flat characters. The superficial details to their lives, the personality traits and their interactions do not even pertain to an 'epic story.' Just sampling quotes reveals how dull or predictable most interactions are and how unusual some of the dialogs are.
Are the Events of the story what drives it to epic status? Outside of context you have a poker game, a guy that talks a socialite out of suicide, a dinner where socialites discuss status, a number of conversations about foreshadowing, a 'low-brow' party, a violent outburst from the millionaire towards his fiancée, a drawing session, a romantic moment between the star-crossed lovers, a moment of false imprisonment, survival on the sinking ship, treading water, character death and finally the heart/staircase. Is it the events that make this story epic? If it is the case then the story should be able to be moved to any other setting and have the same results.
The romantic story feels unique and new because the characters are drawn together in a believable way, reacting in an expected but emotional manner. The characters conveyed the emotions of each event in such a manner that even years after everyone knows the whole plot that people still react emotionally to Jack attempting to escape from the handcuffs or when Rose is slapped. The setting keeps the story together, it makes it a period piece that never feels out of place where technology can give away the age of the piece and pull the audience from it. These emotional punches culminate with the very moment that makes it an epic. Jack's death.
If the story had concluded with Jack and Rose making a new life together it would certainly be a happy ending but it would never even touch epic status. The only plausible ending was to take the one thing that the audience became so attached to throughout the journey, their relationship, and breaking it with something beyond their control. Old Rose's photos and the staircase scene give a sense of completion but also convey immense emotion. Even to this day, the audience can see an image from one of the 'emotional hits' and immediately feel it personally.
So what makes a story an epic? Is it unhappy endings? Is it the story alone? Is it the characters, their lives, the setting or the events? It is a culmination of all of these elements, each element that comes with it's own emotional hit and is then tied together. Creating a Titanic story is not about the individual elements or what they represent but the emotions that they convey.