In film and television, everyone has a character arc. Some characters stay relatively flat and disappointingly two-dimensional, while others become rounded and fleshed out. Many characters do a complete 180, and their traits are reversed. Some heroes fall by the wayside, and become the villains, while some villains realize their wrongdoing and change for the better.
Great shows and films depict this transformation of character in stunning, believable ways. All of the shows and films depicted on this list are great. In the best shows and films, many viewers’ least favorite characters become their favorite, and many beloved characters become the most despised.
It only makes sense that characters change and progress through a film or series, both intellectually and emotionally. By the end of some of the best and most memorable series or films, the character you once knew is long gone, and has been replaced by something completely different. These are ten characters in TV and film who, in the most shocking ways possible, ended up as completely different people than when they started.
*Be warned: Spoilers!*
10. Peggy Olson (Mad Men)
Peggy Olson is perhaps the biggest turn-around character in the hit AMC show, Mad Men. Portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, Peggy starts as an innocent, determined secretary to Don Draper. Draper, seeing her potential, has her promoted to copywriter (the first female at the firm in over 20 years). She follows Draper to a new firm, and by the end of Season 4, Peggy has her own team, and is second in command in the creative department.
Until becoming a powerhouse executive, Peggy is the butt of jokes throughout the show – whether it’s because of her weight gain, the clothes she wears, or her innocent attitude.
Yet, she becomes one of the most demanding, harshest, and ambitious characters in the show, always on the up-and-up. Her creative team fears her. Her love life is always rocky. She has a bad temper. She even gives away a baby that she had with Pete Campbell, out of wedlock, without Pete even knowing it.
Of all Mad Men’s character arcs throughout its seven seasons, in the end it is clear that Peggy Olson has gone through a bigger transformation – both in her career and personal life – than any other character.
9. Jaime Lannister (Game of Thrones)
This spot could have gone to any number of Game of Thrones characters – including Arya or Sanza Stark, Daenerys Targaryen – but Jaime Lannister is as deserving as any. The son of Tywin Lannister, twin-sister to Cersei, and incestuous father of three, begins the show as one of the most hated characters. Played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jaime is snide, angry, and arrogant, just like the rest of his family.
Jaime is cruel to his dwarf brother, Tyrion, and has a shamelessly inappropriate relationship with his sister. During a key plot-point when he is prisoner to the Starks, the matriarch Catelyn releases him after he promises to return her daughters, Sansa and Arya, back to her. He is escorted by Brienne of Tarth, and this is truly when Jaime becomes humanized and vulnerable.
He has his sword-hand cut off, he becomes destitute and grizzled during his travels, and it becomes easy to sympathize for the man that was so hated just a season before. He saves Brienne of Tarth, and he even ends up escaping his brother Tyrion from prison for a murder he did not commit.
In all, Jaime changes from one of the most loathed characters on the show, to one of the few protagonists. His anger is calmed, his arrogance is humbled, and he becomes one of the most well-liked Lannisters (behind Tyrion, of course).
8. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel)
Wesley (Alexis Denisof) became Buffy’s Watcher, and viewers immediately dislike him. He was an ineffective fighter, annoying and full of himself, and couldn’t be trusted. He adds a comedic level to the show, but creators have stated that he was meant to be killed off quickly. Creators liked writing for him, however, and gave him one of the biggest turnarounds in the series.
When Wesley appears in the first season of spin-off show Angel, he is a self-proclaimed “rogue demon hunter.” He is kidnapped and tortured in the show, he betrays his former colleagues to save Faith, he is shot trying to protect Gunn, he becomes an effective and ruthless leader – he is the polar opposite of who he was in Buffy.
Through the third and fifth seasons of Angel, Wesley suffers tremendous losses, goes from being demonically influenced, homicidal and misogynistic, to sympathetic. Just about all of his romantic interests end up dying, he spirals into alcoholism, and then proposes an attack that leads to his demise. All of this from the character who began as a useless, untrustworthy comedic character who was meant to survive for a few short episodes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
7. Neville Longbottom (Harry Potter)
Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) begins as a bumbling, disorganized student whose only gift is being a good herbologist – a magic plant guy. But when it is discovered that his parents were tortured to insanity, the character starts to grow some legs. Throughout the first few movies, he is forgettable and the butt of jokes, even from his friends. He lives in the shadow of the famous Boy Who Lived, Harry Potter.
But one moment in The Goblet of Fire shows the first shift in Neville’s character. The scene is when Neville is asked to name a curse to learn, and he names the one that was used to torture his parents. Later on, he joins Harry’s cause, takes a stand, and becomes one of the group’s leaders. He becomes one of the bravest characters in the films – using his knowledge of herbology to protect his group, and helping wherever possible, including in attacking Voldemort.
Neville ends up decapitating the snake Nagini, thus killing Voldemort’s final Horcrux, and helps Ron defeat Fenrir Greyback. In the epilogue of Deathly Hallows, he becomes Herbology Professor at Hogwarts. As IGN wrote, Neville was “the quintessential dimwit-turned-hero.”
6. Derek Vinyard (American History X)
The character of Derek Vinyard helped Edward Norton become the front-runner for a Best Actor Oscar in 1999. American History X is a tragic tale of racism passed down from generation to generation. Derek Vinyard is a vile neo-Nazi who robs and tortures, and who shoots a black man to death who is trying to steal his truck, and curb stomps another. He is sentenced to three years in prison.
In prison, Derek’s partner at the laundry room is Lamont, a black man who’s serving six years after accidentally dropping a stolen TV on an arresting officer’s foot. They develop a rapport over their shared love of basketball. Derek joins the Aryan Brotherhood, but grows disillusioned with the racist gang because of their narcotics trafficking and hypocritically friendly attitude towards a Mexican gang member.
Derek is beaten and sexually assaulted by members of the Aryan Brotherhood for his criticisms. He changes his outlook on life, even while his younger brother becomes involved with neo-Nazis. Derek leaves prison a changed, learned man. He tries to persuade his brother out of the neo-Nazi movement, who eventually agrees, but ends up getting shot by a black student the next day at school. The film ends with Derek’s voice-over, stating, “Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.”
5. Carol Peletier (The Walking Dead)
Although Rick, Michonne, Glenn, or even Karl could have taken the spot for biggest turnaround character in The Walking Dead, we opted for Carol Peletier (Melissa Suzanne McBride). Carol is a survivor of the outbreak, along with her abusive husband, Ed, and her daughter. When her husband is eaten by Walkers, Carol is the one who bashes his head in to make sure he won’t reanimate, and she is shown recalling her years of rage and anger.
Initially a weak character, without much to offer, Carol gains inner strength, a knowledge and proficiency with weapons, and medical experience, making her one of the most valuable characters on Rick Grimes’s team. She becomes looked up to, is the only female survivor from the original Atlanta group, and is the pragmatic voice of reason for the survivors. She isn’t afraid to kill people to protect the others (which she does on multiple occasions, including a psychopathic child).
Carol is like the mother to the other female characters on the show. She becomes the matriarch of the team, in a way, and even ends up saving the entire group in the most badass way possible (blowing a lot of things up) from cannibals who have them captured. Throughout the series, Carol transforms from abused housewife, into Rambo.
4. Sarah Connor (Terminator)
The development that Sarah Connor sees from The Terminator to Terminator 2 is one of the most memorable turnarounds in film.
In the first film, Connor is a timid, sobbing victim who has to be protected by her future son’s friend at every turn. She is inept and weak. Ten years later, in Terminator 2, she has transformed into a ferocious, fit warrior, and a bit crazy to boot.
In Terminator 2, Connor has fallen off the grid. She’s become a fugitive and a survivor, and somewhat of a terrorist. Needless to say, the transformation of Sarah Connor through the two films is stark. She is the woman who will teach her son how to lead the resistance against Skynet, and she will sacrifice everything for the sake of humanity – and her son’s – future.
In the first film, Connor is a waitress, with a boss and friends. She becomes crazed in Terminator 2, and resourceful, and she’s not to be messed with. With Sarah Connor we see one of the harshest, greatest character transformations depicted on the silver screen.
3. Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars)
Although Luke Skywalker could have easily taken this nomination for Star Wars, as he transformed from a whiny water farmer to a Jedi master – it is arguably his father who goes through a bigger transformation.
Anakin starts as an innocent, nine year old slave in the prequel, The Phantom Menace. He is a gifted pilot and engineer, and eventually he wins his freedom and becomes a Jedi.
Anakin is at first an apprentice and friend to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Senator Palpatine. When he is denied the rank of Jedi Master in Episode III, he begins to lose his faith in the group. He becomes Palpatine’s puppet, and saves his life. He has children Jedi killed, assassinates leaders, and fights his former friend Obi-Wan. He loses, nearly dies, but Palpatine has him constructed into who we all know and love, Darth Vader.
Vader’s one redeeming act comes at the end of the Return of the Jedi, when he agonizes at seeing his son being attacked by Emperor Palpatine, and he throws Palpatine to his death. Anakin Skywalker is the eponymous example of what it means to “go to the dark side,” and he had a huge shift in character, from an innocent slave-child, to a Jedi, to a Sith Lord, and, in the end, to redemption.
2. Michael Corleone (Godfather)
Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, has been called a tragic hero by critics, as well as the 11th most iconic villain in film history by the American Film Institute. Corleone and Tony Montana are probably Pacino’s most iconic characters, and the transformation that Corleone goes through is particularly startling.
In the first Godfather, Michael shuns the family business. He wants to lead an honest life, just as his father, Don Vito, wants him to finish his education. Michael leaves Dartmouth and enlists and fights in the Marine Corps when the US enters World War II in 1941. He returns as a hero in 1945. After his father is nearly assassinated, twice, Michael is thrust into the criminal world when he kills a drug kingpin and crooked cop to protect his father.
After his older brother Sonny is killed, Michael takes over the family business. During his nephew’s baptism, Michael has all of the rival mafia heads murdered. He has his sister’s abusive husband executed. In the second film, he strikes his wife, banishes her, divorces her, and eventually has his own brother killed. Michael Corleone is the perfect example of a good man who has fallen by the wayside, and in the end he becomes everything he hated and wanted to escape from.
1. Walter White (Breaking Bad)
Perhaps no other character in recent memory – or in film history – went through as big a transformation as Walter White did in the stunning drama Breaking Bad. Played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, if you don’t know White’s story, you’ve been living under a rock. He was once a promising chemist, who became a high school teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was then diagnosed with Stage IIIA lung cancer.
To ensure his family’s financial security when he dies, he resorts to manufacturing and dealing meth with one of his students, Jesse Pinkman. Despite starting off as a “good guy” drug manufacturer, throughout the seasons, White delves into the darkest depths of humanity, and becomes less and less sympathetic anti-hero, and more and more outright villain.
The character arc of Walter White is a disturbing spectacle to behold. Despite starting off with good intentions, by the end of the series, he has become ruthless, despicable, and evil. As the man himself famously says, “I am the danger.” Creator Vince Gilligan has stated that his goal with Walter White was to “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface,” and he does it with unequaled intensity and success.
Wikipedia.org, Reddit.com, FilmSchoolRejects.com
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