Take a deep breath: Plot spoilers aren’t everything

Graphic by Fani Hsieh

Graphic by Fani Hsieh

Do you hate spoilers? Do you think a movie is ruined once you know what happens?

If you do, you are holding the rest of society back and should have your popular media privileges restricted. Why?

Because the best movies, TV shows, books, plays and other forms of narrative media get better once you know what happens because then you can focus on how it happens.

Let’s start with the science.

A study out of the University of California looked at this issue by giving students different amounts of information on the narratives of the books they were reading in their classes. Some students went in cold, others read small summaries and descriptions of the plots before entering the book. In a surprise twist that should shock no one who thinks about art in a critical way, those who knew more about the book beforehand enjoyed the book more.

This is because our experience of art has almost nothing to do with the events in a story and everything to do with how they are expressed and depicted. When you know what is coming you are more receptive to the literary devices we all learned about in high school.

Thematic objects, motifs, foreshadowing and irony are all qualities of a text that is enhanced by knowing what is coming. Romeo and Juliet is a better play because you know they die at the end. You see the tragedy building between these star-cross’d lovers as they act in supremely stupid ways.

I blame a few different things for our current spoiler-obsessed culture. One is mystery novels. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, while great writers, hurt literature with their focus on the whodunit. It primed readers for TV shows that built up big mystery plot points like “Who shot J.R.” on Dallas (it was Kristin Shepherd) and “Is Jon Snow really dead?” on Game of Thrones (of course not).

Then you have M. Night Shyamalan who birthed the modern idea of a twist ending in The Sixth Sense (Bruce Willis was dead all along) alongside The Usual Suspects (Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze) and The Empire Strikes Back (no Luke, I am your father).

Hiding twists from the viewers is a marketing tool pure and simple, and society took it up, giving media industries an easy way to make you think you need to see films just to know what happens.

That’s not to say that some creators aren’t using this tool effectively. Game of Thrones spent two full episodes playing with the audience concerning Jon Snow. The end of the second episode features a solid five minutes of screen time just waiting, building suspense. And this worked for all viewers, whether you were convinced he was dead or not. The tension was what made that episode great, not the shock of him actually waking up.

Game of Thrones used our spoiler-obsessed culture to create an incredible piece of pop art, but they aren’t the only ones.

Director David Fincher and Author Gillian Flynn took Flynn’s twist-heavy book Gone Girl and made a movie where the twist wasn’t the important part. Almost everyone who went into Gone Girl had already realized that Amy wasn’t actually dead, which made the process of getting to that revelation more interesting.

And this speaks to a wider point about spoilers; when we focus on what happens, we ignore quality. I grant you that there are movies that are worse when you know the spoilers. But this isn’t because the spoilers ruined the movie, its because the movie wasn’t that good to begin with.

If you look at any list of the best movies of all time, do you think those movies were only viewed once by critics and scholars?

No, of course not. The best movies are ones that hold up to multiple viewings. They get better the more you watch them, meaning they get better the more you know about them.

Now, this isn’t an excuse to be an asshole about spoilers. As much as I think everyone should get over themselves and embrace spoilers, I know some people won’t. And we enlightened few shouldn’t be mean about this, but we also shouldn’t sacrifice the incredible cultural value of discussing the media we love in public because some people haven’t seen the movie yet.

So, to the author of that “Dear Life” a few weeks back who whined about spoilers in a film studies class: spoiler, you’re wrong.

You should stop whining and start enjoying the process of analyzing a film. You will start enjoying your media more.

And on top of that, you’ll get better marks in film studies because of all people who don’t care about spoilers, film professors care the least. They set a good example that we should start following.

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