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Why Stallone Killed Off Adrian In Rocky Balboa (Was It A Mistake?)

Here’s why 2006’s Rocky Balboa famously killed off Adrian Balboa, and whether or not it was a mistake to do so. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Adrian’s (Talia Shire) characters, as well as their character arcs, both complement each other superbly throughout the series. Watching Adrian from Rocky slowly come out of her shell, assert herself more, and gain confidence is one of the more fun, transformative journeys for audiences to follow over the course of the films. Unfortunately, due to a tragic death, her character isn’t present past a certain point in the franchise’s timeline.

The American sports series debuted in 1976. The world was introduced to Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphia-hailing underdog who proves himself against all odds and, eventually, becomes a respected figure within his industry. In addition to his professional trials and tribulations, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky movies also follow their namesake character’s inner battles and familial developments. Of course, the central Rocky and Adrian dynamic is also very integral to the franchise’s plot and overall vibe.

Related: Rocky’s Ivan Drago Spin-Off Can Complete The Villain’s Redemption Arc

Unfortunately, Adrian from Rocky is written to have lost a battle with cancer off-screen in the time between 1990’s Rocky V and Rocky Balboa. While promoting Rocky Balboa in a 2006 interview with Moviehole, Stallone explained that Adrian would’ve been much more one-dimensional in the movie’s original storyline (mostly advising Rocky in ways such as “don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that“) – which he didn’t want. He also preferred that the film had a “visceral, emotional journey” in lieu of its original plot, which was more focused on Rocky saving his gym. He eventually landed on Adrian’s character being cut from Rocky Balboa via an unseen yet gut-wrenching death as the vehicle to get to embed this “journey” within the movie because “there’s nothing more traumatic than taking Adrian out of his [Rocky’s] life.”

In a 2006 article from USA Today, Stallone also noted that, though it was hard to tell Shire about Adrian’s fate, she handled her character’s death and exit from the franchise “with such dignity.” In addition, Shire herself speaks positively about the creative call within the piece: “The film has great regard for the process of mourning. Sly utilizes mourning to empower Rocky, and Adrian is made very mythical.” This is true, as right from the film’s opening scenes, a weighty absence is felt. Though it’s the first entry without her in it, she’s still very much a part of it, and a propulsive force at that.

Choosing not to put Adrian in Rocky Balboa was a dicey venture to an extent, but it certainly paid off. Plus, her non-returning Rocky character wasn’t just telling the titular boxing star what not to do, as Stallone himself acknowledges had been planned. As any TV/movie lover knows, there are times when characters are sloppily written out of a series or even taken out of the equation in a bungled manner that had good intentions behind it regardless, but the real skill is in the execution. The opposite is the case for Adrian’s off-screen exit in Rocky Balboa. Actor Burt Young (who played Adrian’s brother, Paulie) summed it all up well in the USA Today piece: “Adrian’s probably more prevalent by not being in this movie than if she was.”

The original story of Rocky Balboa was supposed to see the main character fighting solely for his gym and his family. However, these factors alone might not have been able to drive Stallone’s character Rocky in an interesting way. Choosing to focus the film around the boxer’s grieving process after the death of his one true love – one of the few problems he can’t punch his way out of – made for a richer and more heart-wrenching narrative. Coming out with another movie for a franchise after 16 years is risky business, and most don’t expect the newer film to have the same panache as the originals. However, Rocky Balboa was able to deliver as a direct result of the tragic but necessary absence of Adrian’s character. It gave Rocky a purpose outside himself and provided a plausible motivation for revisiting the main storyline. If Adrian were to have fulfilled her original role in the movie, it would’ve done an injustice to the character and could’ve subsequently thrown away her arc and Rocky’s resulting journey.

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