As part of my continuing series addressing important questions in modern geek culture, this time I’m going to discuss the concept of the “spoiler”.
There’s a rumour, or at least a legend, that Herman Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Citizen Kane, used to stand outside movie theatres where it was playing and yell, “It’s the sled!” Mank was my kind of guy. Other than being a general malcontent and chronic agitator, he intuitively understood the experience of storytelling enough to realize that sometimes knowing “what happens” in a story simply isn’t that important.
Kane is actually a perfect example of that. Knowing that Rosebud was Kane’s sled makes absolutely zero difference to one’s enjoyment of the film, unless you happen to view art as a puzzle to be solved rather than an experience to be enjoyed. There are no “spoilers” in Kane, because the experience can’t be spoiled. Nor can Hamlet (spoiler: he dies), or Romeo and Juliet (spoiler: they die) or The Wrath of Khan (spoiler: Spock dies) or A Tale of Two Cities (spoiler: he dies). Imagine you were charged to write a high school level report on any of those texts, and all you wrote was “he dies”. As ridiculous as that sounds, this is a major part of my objection to “spoiler culture”.
Let’s start with the word itself. To suggest that somehow knowing plot details and twists “spoils” a film (or any other kind of narrative text), reduces that text to simple narrative information. In other words, it implies there’s no difference between seeing a production of Macbeth and reading the wikipedia summary of the plot. Because, so the logic seems to go, if you know the plot, your experience is “spoiled”. It doesn’t matter what poetry is in the language, the storytelling style, the acting skills (when appropriate), the setting, the historical resonance, the metaphors, etc etc: all that matters is knowing what happens in the plot.
This is, I hope we would all agree, a very simplistic and superficial way to experience art. It’s literally the “lowest” level, the one most easily absorbed and digested, and the one beyond which you need to move in order to perform even the most rudimentary of analysis. Again, this is freshman year English-type stuff, but the passion with which people will fight for that low-level experience is amazing.
Obviously some texts get a substantial amount of their power from some plot twists. Certain mystery and suspense stories turn on sudden revelations that are fun to read. But even these, if they add up to anything at all in terms of drama or literature, survive a second or third experience, in which the plot twists are known and the text can be appreciated on a higher level.
Then there’s the anger, or at least, the passion of people who speak out when a writer like myself releases what they consider to be a “spoiler”. It’s amazingly vehement, and startling. For goodness’ sake, it isn’t a crime (at least not yet) to reveal what happens in the next episode of Game of Thrones. And if it is, then think of how much that diminishes the show. To repeat: if knowing the plot of any given episode of Game of Thrones completely ruins that experience for you, then I’m sorry that you’re unable to have a deeper experience with this text.
Another criticism is that to reveal spoilers is “selfish” (which presumes that the writer watched whatever is being discussed “spoiler-free”), or “lazy”. Once again, I must draw attention to the language being used. I’m not used to hearing that kind of charge from friends or colleagues. Parents maybe, when I was a child. This level of discourse must change.
Sometimes it’s impossible to have a meaningful discussion about a text without discussing the plot or the ending, but I can’t think of an example. I was once giving a lecture about Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons and started discussing how the ending was changed by the studio and the last 40 minutes of the film were re-shot without Welles’ involvement. This aspect of the film, to me and to most film scholars, is absolutely essential to know, going in. Otherwise a first-time viewer might come away thinking, “What’s all the fuss about that?” Sure enough, someone in the front row interrupted me with a sentence that is forever seared in my memory about the maturity and intelligence of an audience: “Dude, don’t tell us how it ends!!”. At the time, I was so shocked by the attitude that I didn’t know how to respond. It’s just a different audience, and a different experience than I’m used to.
There’s no resolution in this piece: I have no easy answers for those who demand “spoiler-free” sections other than to continue what I’m already doing. But I strongly feel that if we’re ever going to raise the level of discussion of popular and geek culture beyond a certain point, we have to accept that any art worthy of the name is never “spoiled” by knowing the plot. And since I consider what we discuss (film, TV, comic books) to be legitimate art forms (rather than simple entertainment), I’ll always struggle with how to discuss it without “spoiling” the experience.