Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why We All Need to Stop Caring About Spoilers

Though the concept of a spoiler has been around since before the advent of the internet, it's a concept that has blossomed and is thriving in internet-savvy culture. Homicidal outrage is expressed whenever crucial plot points are revealed on social media and everything, from reviews to forums to twitter feeds to recommendation lists, is littered with spoiler alerts. I've warned readers of spoilers myself, if only to avert the seemingly inevitable explosion of gut-wrenching ire. Though the most frightening reactions tend to be over television spoilers, films and books are often the focal point. One of the most famous episodes of extreme outrage over a "spoiled" story happened in 2005 when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out and - obligatory spoiler alert - Dumbledore dies at the end. People went bananas, but it wasn't really because of what Dumbledore's death meant for the books themselves. People were furious because they knew it had happened beforehand. The spoiler was everywhere and even those who weren't reading Harry Potter lost their minds. Ten years later, the spoiler alert has perhaps equaled the cat video in ubiquity. But it's really time we stopped caring.

Though one study indicated that spoilers may actually enhance our enjoyment of the story, that's only one - and perhaps the simplest - reason to stop caring if a story is "spoiled" for us. The idea that knowing plot details beforehand could "spoil" a story is in and of itself a fallacy because it's predicated on the assumption that a story is merely a plot. A story, however, is much more than that and what happens is rarely as interesting as why. Plots are essentially unoriginal, variations on ancient narratives that might evolve, but retain a central thread  - the wanderer journeys home, the lovers are separated and reunited, good battles evil and the world is redeemed, etc. We actually know the outcomes of most stories immediately based on superficial factors, like genre. Caring about spoilers means believing that character, nuance, setting, and ambiguity are mere trimmings, while plot reigns as the god of fiction. It encourages stories with shock endings and twists, which often lead to inconsistent characterization, sensationalizing, and lapses in logic. It becomes more important to surprise the viewer or reader than involve her in the story.

In a lot of cases, caring about spoilers is a lost cause anyway - Odysseus returns to Penelope, Jesus dies on the cross and is resurrected before ascending to Heaven, Romeo and Juliet die. But, even beyond ancient stories that sustain our cultural consciousness, some books and films have been permanently "spoiled" and that's just the way it is. Harry Potter defeats Voldemort and you know that whether you've read the books and seen the movies or not. Norman Bates did it in his mom's dress and you know that whether you've seen Psycho or not. Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy get together in the end and you know that even if you've never read any of Jane Austen's novels. Every single person watching The Tudors knows Anne Boleyn's head is going to roll.

Genre can be a complete giveaway and so can design. Even if a reader knows absolutely nothing about The Talented Mr. Ripley, the book is a crime novel, shelved in the mystery or crime fiction section. My own copy, a red Vintage edition, has the outline of a body on the cover. Ergo, somebody is going to be murdered and it's essentially impossible not to know that going in. Romance books and movies in ninety nine cases out of a hundred end with the lovers reunited. American films made between the mid 1930s and late 1960s will never let a criminal get away with it. Almost every fantasy novel (or movie, or TV series) paints a scenario in which good is pitted against evil - good always wins. In fact, the only fantasy series that I can recall the final ending of which remains in serious doubt is George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and that's because he's twisted the morality of his characters so far beyond moral duality that there are no good guys left.

Bizarrely, the film industry relies very heavily on familiar material - books, comics, and stories "ripped from the headlines." All films adapted from other material, particularly from recent news stories, are, by their very nature, "spoiled." Any adult watching Reversal of Fortune almost certainly knows that Claus von Bulow was acquitted on appeal of the attempted murder of his wife, but that doesn't make the film less interesting. It becomes far more interesting and what's more it gives the filmmakers latitude to play with narrative ambiguity, teasing out alternate scenarios and interpretations without ever settling on a definitive truth. Because we know the verdict going in, it can be set aside and our attention can be focused on the whys and why nots, the deeper, less knowable, and perhaps unknowable aspects of the case. Some of the greatest mystery films do the same thing. In Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, the first scene is also the last - we don't know how Walter Neff came to be stumbling into his office bleeding to death in the middle of the night, but we do know he's bleeding to death in his office.

In more than one case, I wish I'd had spoilers. Our Mutual Friend quite literally infuriated me - not because I knew what was going to happen, but because I didn't. In Dickens's last novel, Bella Wilfer, a coddled young woman hoping to marry her way into a fortune, is taught a lesson by her guardians and husband, who deceive her for over a year to cure her of her mercenary ways. Although her husband is actually a wealthy heir, he fakes poverty and isolation to inspire Bella's pity and convince her to marry him, giving up all her hopes for a comfortable life. She does. Dickens keeps this dubious scheme, which he purports to be a most moral one (though it sounds like coercion and infantilization to me), completely hidden from the reader. We discover with Bella her, and our, deception, and though she is delighted with her moral reeducation, I am not. I don't need to agree with the morality of either authors or characters, but this particular deception is neither entertaining nor convincing. Despite meticulous plotting, this twist comes out of left field and our understanding of the characters' personalities and motivations collapses. Our Mutual Friend would be a much better novel if the reader knew the deception being practiced upon Bella, if only to be able to make sense of the bizarre denouement. Had the novel been "spoiled" for me, the final revelations might have been strained and tiresome to reconcile with the characters as described, but perhaps not so completely impossible to swallow.

If a spoiler really does "spoil" a story, then that story didn't have much merit to begin with. In fact, only once in my life has a spoiler so totally destroyed my enjoyment of a book that I didn't bother finishing it. In my case, the book, or rather books, in question was the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. I had read the first novel for a book club and continued the series. At one point, I was confused about a character and went on the online wiki, only to learn that the main character, Tris - okay guys, here's the spoiler - dies at the end. I never finished the series. Why? I didn't bother because I didn't actually care about Tris or Four or any of the other characters, whose names I swiftly forgot. I didn't care what happened to dystopian Chicago or the faction system. I was just as satisfied reading a short plot summary as I would have been actually reading the book or watching the movie. The problem wasn't that I knew what happened - the problem was that I didn't care why it happened. And why waste time on a story if you don't care about the characters?

If a spoiler really can spoil a story, then the story isn't worth telling. There are too many great books, films, and television shows out there to read or watch something solely for the plot when one could get a great plot, and great characters with complicated motivations, and a fascinating setting, and more profound meanings and ambiguities. I'd rather know why than what every time.

1 comment:

  1. I think there's a whole category of movies (generally historical) which are their own spoiler alerts, and manage to transcend them anyway. Case in point: "United 93".....everyone knows what's going to happen, yet director Greengrass managed to make it tense and have viewers hoping against hope anyway. "Apollo 13" is another. No matter how many times I see it, I am always unsure that the astronauts will get back to earth safely.

    Interesting point about "Double Indemnity". I guess it worked so well that he used the same idea again in the opening of "Sunset Blvd.", with Holden's corpse floating in a pool.