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Who Spoils the Spoilers? On the Right Not to Be Spoiled…

Apparently, spoilers are good for you. Well, that’s what one survey from August suggests:

UC San Diego psychology researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt wanted to test if being spoiled hurt someone’s enjoyment of a story. So they took 30 test subjects and let them read 12 short stories by famous authors like John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver. Some they just read straight, others they read with a paragraph beforehand that ruined the ending or major twist in the piece. In almost all of those cases, the reader liked the story more when they were spoiled.

Published way back in August, this generated quite a bit of on-line discussion, and a lot of people were quick to suggest that the logic held true for movies as well, and modern blockbusters at that. It seems like a ready-made defense for those posting a constant stream of spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, or leaking plot twists for various popular television shows. However, I’m not necessarily convinced by this logic.

This survey is suspect…

I do have a couple of problems with the methodology used in the survey, but I also have some more fundamental objections to the way that people seem to treat this as “vindication” for all sorts of reckless spoiler-related activities. I should confess that I am not the strictest spoiler-phobe. I do believe that a basic level of knowledge before watching a television show or a movie can add to the enjoyment. I don’t consider it a spoiler, for example, to suggest that Bane and Catwoman will feature in the sequel to The Dark Knight, nor to mention that We Need to Talk About Kevin involves a mother coping with her son’s involvement in an atrocity.

While they involve revealing some aspect of the production that wouldn’t be apparent to anyone “going in completely blind”, they will undoubtedly form part of the advertising campaign or interviews or press releases, and could be more aptly described as a “summary” of the work – a snippet to give the reader a bit of context about the production. I also believe that there’s a “fair game” rule, where there’s no point holding back stuff that everybody knows going into the film. If it’s an adaptation of Hamlet, I’d consider it fair to point out that pretty much everybody dies. If it’s based on true events of a well-known story, then I think it’s reasonable to discuss.

I see controversy…

There are no hard and fast rules. When I studied law at college, judges were very fond of espousing “a reasonable man test” for these sorts of arbitrary and hard-to-quantify dilemmas: the central crux of the argument being that the person involved should be judged by the standards of a fictional “reasonable man.” Of course, this leaves a lot of lee-way, because “reasonable” is so subjective, but I’d advocate something similar here. If a “reasonable” person could deem it a spoiler, give some measure of warning. It’s trite to describe it as “common sense” (and there’s a lot of stuff that will be “on the line”), but I think that spoilers work best that way. Obvious examples include: stuff that’s intended as a big twist, any ending that isn’t a foregone conclusion, shock character revelations, cameos that haven’t been discussed in publicity, that sort of thing.

I think it’s only reasonable to post these sorts of things with fair and reasonable warning – and to try to avoid placing them in headlines. Even if the headline opens with “[spoiler]:”, there’s little chance that people will be fast enough to catch themselves before their eyes pass over the offending word in the headline. Of course, this era of “search engine optimisation”and the drive for clicks makes it more important than ever to grab those gossip-hungry readers who trawl the web for these spoilers, so it’s generally a good idea for the site’s statcounter if you put the spoiler up in the actual headline. I know quite a few major websites that do this sort of thing, and it ticks me off no end. I don’t mind them publishing stuff, but give readers a chance to avoid it if they just come for your features or interviews.

Don’t tell me how the war ends…

Of course, those websites will point to this new research and argue that they are vindicated. They’re only giving the people what they want after all, even if some of us don’t claim to want it – I mean, who are you going to trust? Those guys saying spoilers are good for you have actually qualifications, while the guy adding a firm but polite comment to your site might as well be a nobody, right?

Well, there are some things worth noting about the survey. The first is pretty obvious. It’s about books, rather than films. It might seem like an elementary distinction, but I think it’s a valid point. The two forms of media may feed into one another (after all, there was the book of the film of the book – Fred Saberhagen’s adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but they are quite distinct. Books are typically enjoyed over a prolonged period. Even the most avid book reader might get through one book in an evening, while most of us might spread our enjoyment of a novel over a week or month (or longer).

It doesn’t count if the spoiler’s in the title…

As such, the enjoyment in a book is largely of its individual and distinct components, which tie together as a greater whole. Unless you’re one of those “reading it so you can say you’ve read it” type of folks, you’re reading the book because you savour it, and you enjoy it. You read a chapter at a time, and you expect each one to be entertaining, while building to a larger story. Because you digest the book in “chunks”, you expect some measure of enjoyment to be savoured in each individual component, even if it gets richer as each builds off the next.

Films don’t work like that: they offer two hours of sustained entertainment. It’s a very stupid and ill-advised decision to enjoy Demolition Man in ten-minute chunks over a period of a week-and-a-bit. You generally sit down and enjoy it in one sitting. If you have to split it, it’s rare to split it into chunks smaller than a half. Each moment builds to the next and the next and the next. You don’t mind if you have half-an-hour of set-up, because it’s directly followed by an-hour-and-a-half of pay-off. The film, as a whole, feels much more integrated than the book, if only because we tend to devour it in one huge chunk rather than a piece-at-a-time.

… or the cover…

So spoiling the ending of a book reduces one aspect of the story to a predictable paint-by-numbers moment. You still have the joy of getting there, and you can divorce the outcome of events from journey it took to get there. Films feel much more integrated, and it’s harder to remove the spoiled component. The types of films that are being spoiled, blockbusters and films with twists “worth” hiding, tend to put a lot of weight on those elements, so removing them tends to cripple the entire film.

Even if you accepted that it’s sound to compare reading a book to watching a film, there’s also the matter of the authors chosen. John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver” aren’t exactly your typical writers. They’re iconic, and legendary. Even Christie, famous for writing mysteries that rely on a “twist” ending, is a literary giant. The stories by these authors are classics and are recognised around the world – they’re the very best at what they do. These aren’t writers who build the literary equivalent of blockbuster entertainment – the better comparison is Citizen Kane. Regardless of whether you know who or what “Rosebud” might be, that’s still an iconic and important movie, and it’s still a beautifully made one, with or without spoilers.

Suspense is for Zuckers…

However, very few websites out there make a living posting spoilers for cinematic fare like that. It would be equivalent to spoiling The King’s Speech or The Social Network, which are very much measured as masterpieces of cinematic art – they’re beautifully-crafted prestige pieces that are intended to stand as monuments to their era. I don’t mean this as an insult, but most blockbusters (especially those that can be “spoilt”) are not cinematic masterpieces. I don’t mean it as a sign of disrespect, as I adore pulp cinema, but it’s comparing apples with oranges.

Super 8 and Inception aren’t movies you measure against Checkov or Updike. You compare them to Stephen King or Michael Crichton – and I don’t mean that as an insult. Those two writers get an unfair time because they craft (or crafted) entertaining and witty stories that are aimed at people simple wanting to read a good book, rather than for “the more distinguished reader.” And I imagine the spoiling an ending to a novel by Tom Clancy or Dan Brown is very different from mentioning how War & Peace ends. Just as revealing the third-act twist of The Dark Knight Rises or the “shock! twist!” of a given M. Night Shayamalan film is very different from discussing the fate of individual characters in The Godfather.

I dream of a world where people aren’t spoilt against their will…

However, my real problem isn’t that the survey isn’t applicable, comparing high literature to pop cinema. I don’t think it’s fair to try to justify spoiling somebody’s enjoyment of something. You have a right to talk about that sort of stuff – and I’ll even chime in from time to time – but that also involves being respectful of that fact that some people just don’t want to be spoilt. I’ll discuss film endings here, but I’ll keep the spoilers out of the header and post a warning on the article, and I think that’s a reasonable standard of care to take. You can’t vindicate taking away somebody’s enjoyment of a thing by pointing to a survey. Even if the survey suggests those people might enjoy it more after being spoilt, that mean you have the right to choose for them.

After all, you only get to see a film for the first time once. You can buy a film, take it home and watch it as many times as you like, but you only get the opportunity to see it for the first time once. After that, you know everything that’s going to happen, and how it ends, how the characters react. It might not diminish the enjoyment of watching it again (and I’d advocate that the sign of a great twist is that the movie is as good the second time you watch it), but you don’t get a second chance to come at it fresh. I might be a romantic, but I think everybody is entitled to see The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense blind, because it’s the kind of thing that only happens once – even though you might buy the DVD, you’ll never watch the same film again. (And this comes from someone who doesn’t think The Sixth Sense holds up to repeated viewings.)

(Spoiler): Clark Kent is Superman…

So, spoil away, but try to respect those who don’t want to join in the fun.

2 Responses

  1. Pure bullshit.
    The moment when I will not see the trailers before other movies will be the time when I’ll stop spoiling things. Half a measure is ridiculous.

    On the other hand I want to let you know that Keyser Söze was dead all the time.

  2. I agree with your assessment of what a spoiler should be. If an element of a movie is meant to surprise the audience, especially if the entire movie builds up to a climactic moment that is unexpected, then revealing that element or moment will undermine the enjoyment of others. There was a reason why people who saw “The Sixth Sense” or “The Crying Game” told others that they had to see the movie but were not going to tell them what the twist was. The enjoyment was in discovering the twist firsthand. “The Usual Suspect” and “Seven” were similar in that if you knew the twist ending before seeing the film for the first time, then it would take away the suspense and surprise. However, would it ruin “Raiders of the Lost Ark” if people knew the fate of the ark? Or whether or not E.T. was going to get home?

    Robert Zemeckis holds the opinion that you should spell out the “good stuff” in a trailer for the movie so people will know what to expect when going in. It’s one thing to prep the audience for what to expect in general and it’s another thing to give away all its best parts. For instance, in that research that was conducted, if they just handed out a story for people with no knowledge of what they’re reading, their reaction would probably be, “Eh, what is this? I don’t want to put out the effort for something I may not like.” But let’s say you tell them ahead of time, “It’s a dark and twisted story about a guy who’s taking care of an old man with a bad eye. The caretaker gets paranoid, thinking that eye is watching him all the time, so he goes crazy and kills the old man.” Then you’ve gotten their interest up so as they read the story, they know what to expect…though they don’t yet know the big twist at the end. They’ll have a bigger satisfaction from the story when they reach it because they’ve already been prepped to enjoy the story and then they’re been thrown a curve.

    It’s okay to tell an audience what to expect from a movie–Bane and Catwoman are in “The Dark Knight Rises” and Bane will fight Batman in a city brawl while Catwoman rides a motorcycle. But let us find out by watching the movie how Batman goes about beating Bane, and if Catwoman is friend or foe.


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