Spoilers as Pointers

Last week, I wrote a review of Gone Girl, the movie adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s wildly popular book, and I caught myself tiptoeing around the story trying not to drop any spoilers. Now as I think back to it, that episode leads me to a minor revelation.

Why do I have to be so extra careful? The answer is obvious enough. If I just hint at what the major twist is, I’d be giving away the story, largely diminishing the viewer’s enjoyment, eliminating the element of surprise. In reply to some comments, I’d even suggested to people not to read the book first if they are going to see the movie.

Here’s the question I’ve been mulling over this past week, and I can’t help but be a bit amused. I don’t think I’ve ever written a post in this state of mind before. The word used by a commenter was ‘restraint’. I felt more like ‘silenced’.

Did I put a “Spoiler Alert” at the beginning of my review of say, Anna Karenina (2012)? Since its publication as a serial in the 1870’s, the trajectory of this extra-marital affair is well-known; critics are not muffled from discussing the tragic end of that gone girl. Revealing the storyline has not dampened people’s interest from reading the book or watching its movie adaptations, ten of them so far, as full features or TV series.

Or take The Great Gatsby, that fateful yellow car ride ultimately leads to the end of Gatsby. Ooops, there goes the spoiler. With this, have I killed the movie for would-be viewers? I don’t think so. Why? Simply because that green light blinking across the shore is so powerful a lure, driving a man to dream the impossible dream. And we want to see the elaborate efforts this enigmatic character exerts to strive for that unreachable goal.

Or, let’s say, 12 Years A Slave (2013) based on Solomon Northup’s memoir. Here, the title is the spoiler. The slave had to survive the twelve years in order to write his own memoir. But of course, we want to know how he survived, his resilience, and what he has to say about the slavery system, about human nature.

Or take a contemporary novel, Life of Pi (2012). After a shipwreck, a 16 year-old boy adrift on the Pacific Ocean for 227 days on a life raft is finally rescued and lives to tell his tale. Now that’s giving away the whole story. Does that spoil the fun of watching the movie? Not at all. Why? Because we see spectacular scenes of the boy pitted against nature, persevering over perils that could shatter or enhance his faith, dealing with personal loss, recapturing memories and reality … we are hooked because there are rich layers of meaning packed inside a simple storyline.

So, for stories that explore more than the plot can tell, even though we may know the ‘what’, we want to see the ‘how’. We want to get on the ride and enjoy the scenery, for there are interesting and intriguing sights along the way.

To spoil or not to spoil… depends if the book is just only about the plot, manipulating the twists and turns to shock and surprise, yes, a clever page turner, then a spoiler would definitely diminish the enjoyment, robbing the viewer of the element of surprise and entertainment.

But if the kind of reading or viewing offers a deeper exploration of characters and the human condition, or framing from a historical or social backdrop to confront issues, or depicting scenes of a shared humanity, or unpacking subtext and meaning… then, dropping a spoiler may not be so disastrous.

I know, there are exceptions and I’m not trying to generalize, but, could the acceptability of spoilers be the pointers to the difference between literature and pulp fiction?

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Related Movie Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Gone Girl (2014)

12 Years A Slave (2013)

Anna Karenina (2012)

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Life of Pi (2012)

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

23 thoughts on “Spoilers as Pointers”

  1. I didn’t comment on your review of “Gone Girl” earlier, partly because what I wanted to say would have been a big spoiler! So I know what you mean about being silenced.

    The author is from my city, so our book club was very enthusiastic about reading this book for that reason, although it’s not what we usually read. A bonus was that it was a very entertaining book, even though I did guess one big twist fairly early.

    I’ve watched documentaries and movies based on real life, and even though I know what’s coming, I still find myself anxious and sitting on the edge of my seat.

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    1. Cathy,

      I must stress one point first: we need both literature and pulp fiction. Each brings different kind of enjoyment. And for books/movies that rely mainly on surprises, I think not knowing the major twist would be better so to reap the highest effects. (You’re smart to have guessed it.)That’s great that GF is from your city, you might have the chance to actually meet her, and maybe interview her? I’ve seen her interview on TV and glad for her to have achieved success with her books. And from reading about her, how she wrote Gone Girl after being laid off from EW after ten years working for them. One door closed, another opened… and this one, much widely and into unimaginable opportunity.

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  2. I remember when “The Crying Game” came out and people were asked not to reveal anything. I think a “spoiler” would not have been that important because the real story was about atonement and sacrifice. I read “Gone Girl” and cannot remember the ending. Now, I either re-read it or go to the movie, but I’d rather someone tell me.

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    1. theenglishprofessoratlarge,

      Exactly, some books/movies even you know about the plot you still want to read/see it, because there are more than just the twists and turns that are gratifying but the subtext or meaning, if you will. As for the ending of Gone Girl, the movie is slightly different from the book. And, no matter which one, I don’t think you can find it at the pond here. 😉

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  3. After I read your review of Gone Girl, I looked up the synopsis on wikipedia. I get creepy about some movies and don’t want to go in blind. Would it have bothered me if I knew Norman Bates was his mother in Psycho? No, I would have been relieved. I don’t go to see things I know I’ll find upsetting if I’m not prepped before. (I have avoided the Downtown spoilers, but then guessing is part of the fun and you don’t have to wait too long for gratification. And I knew Matthew was going to die and did it spoil the episode? Not a bit.)

    I do think the thing about spoilers is having the spoiler alert prominent and at the top of something. Then it’s up to the reader to make a personal decision. I know my film friend in CA would cringe (and has if I even tiptoe around something in a preliminary synopsis). But then she wouldn’t have to read it if the alert was prominent.

    I was thinking of other movies that the spoiler didn’t matter. I knew the von Trapp family escaped the Nazis, that Eliza and Henry Higgins wouldn’t part mad, that Owen Wilson would stay in Paris and learn to value the present and that Bertie would conquer his stammer in “The King’s Speech.” And knowing that doesn’t stop me from watching any of them over and over again. And again. And again.

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    1. Jeanie,

      So did you find what you’d wanted to know on wikipedia? I’m very curious to know about that. I know both groups of movie viewers, one are those who love to read all the reviews they can get, to know as much as possible before seeing, and there are those, and I know quite a few people in this group, are those who want to know nothing. So they would go in with an ‘open mind’. You see, I put the words in quotations because in a way, not knowing the genre, the context, or some basic info about the film may hamper the enjoyment or leaving the viewer not knowing what to look for while watching, i.e. might diminish the full enjoyment of it.

      And, I agree with your examples in your last paragraph, well said. 😉

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  4. Good question! If by pulp fiction you mean plot-driven page turners, then I’d said it would certainly be a good indication. But not always. I’m not a mystery/crime novel reader but I do know that genre has some substantial books in it that are more than just the solution. However, I still wouldn’t want to know “who dunnit.” But knowing Anna’ fate or Gatsby’s or knowing that Lizzy and Mr Darcy will get married in the end could never ruin those books. I think if a book or movie is one built around suspense and surprise then “spoilers” would be bad. But if the impact of the book/movie lies elsewhere, then it is really hard to spoil anything.

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    1. Stefanie,

      Yes, definitely there are exceptions, but yes, that’s basically what I mean, a page turner that rely strictly on plot. If a story depends mainly on the twists and surprises, then knowing the plot would definitely diminish the full enjoyment. But as I said in my review of Gone Girl the movie, there are other elements to appreciate too than just the plot. However, to answer your question for me in the comment there, I think you should skip the book if you’re going to watch the movie. 😉

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  5. I don’t have much of a personal opinion about so-called “spoilers,” especially since I’m one who’s been known to turn to the end of a book and read the last few pages before beginning at the beginning. I know. I’m weird.

    What did strike me about the point you’re making is that it’s analogous to the “what is it about?” questions often posed to poets. It’s possible to say that “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is “about” a guy who takes a break on his way home from work, but that doesn’t quite do it. It’s like saying “August: Osage County” is about a family that’s having some difficulties.

    Besides, the books that mean the most to me are ones I’ve read multiple times. There aren’t any spoilers any more, because I know the works so well. But there always are surprises, as I find new treasures hidden in them. That’s the best part.

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    1. Linda,

      You’re probably one of the few who’d turn to the end of a book to read the last few pages before beginning. You’re definitely ‘spoiler proof’. But I’m sure, if you’re going to watch Gone Girl the movie, you just might want to go in not knowing. Here’s the place where you’ll experience the old saying, ‘ignorance is bliss’. Now, would I want to read or watch Gone Girl again, I don’t think so. Don’t think I’ll find many gems in there. But The Great Gatsby? I’ll keep reading and reading yet again.

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  6. If I’m worried about spoilers, I don’t read the post/review.

    But overall, I agree that a reasonable discussion is hard to have without revealing aspects of the story. The discussion can be far more exciting and revealing when there is no ‘restraint’ – so I understand how your feeling silenced is frustrating. Occasionally I have gone and seen or read something after plot spoilers that I wouldn’t have bothered with otherwise.

    With Lit, we often know the classic story and the fun is in seeing someone interpret it on film.

    I think there is a greater danger of ruining a pulp fiction novel/movie with spoilers, certainly, but again, choose. I’ll read your Gone Girl post after I see the movie.

    And no, I don’t read much in the crime/thriller genre… LOL!

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    1. Michelle,

      I’ve come across some sites where people who have watched the movie can freely discuss. So that’s a good alternative. A ‘before’ and an ‘after’ post for people to share their thoughts. But I don’t think I’ll write about it again. However, you’re welcome to stop by and share your view after you’ve seen it, and, sorry to say, with ‘restraint’. 😉

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  7. I have to slightly disagree on Gatsby. It’s very popular in American continent I presume, but it’s not as well known overseas, so giving away the ending is quite spoiler-y. (It wasn’t a spoiler for me as I’ve read and watched it, but just saying :). For Anna Karenina, I haven’t read or watched it, and I found out the ending by mistake a while ago. I know it’s hard to keep off spoiler for a work that old, but I have to say the spoiler does put me off a bit to start reading the book.

    Read Gone Girl, and will be watching it this Friday. Can’t wait!

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    1. mee,

      Thanks for sharing an opposing view with Gatsby and Anna. Knowing their ending could and have had so much impact on you, that you’d actually turned away from reading Anna K. This makes it even more interesting to hear you mention you’ve read Gone Girl but are so eager to watch the movie. Your knowing the story wouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of it? I sure love to hear what your reaction is after that. 😉

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  8. Yesterday’s pulp fiction can become todays literature (says someone who studied 18th-century topical satires), so I think it also depends on whether issues in the fiction reveal interesting ideas about the time period in which the fiction was written.

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    1. Jeanne,

      That’s a good point! Yesterday’s pulp fiction can become today’s literature. I’d love to dwell more on this idea… thanks for bringing it up. 😉

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  9. As the commenter who commended you on your restraint in your review of Gone Girl, Arti, it baffles me why you are now expressing regret as if you self-censored. Frankly, I think if you want to spill spoilers without warning, by all means do so. This is your site and that is your privilege. Just as it is my privilege to stop reading your reviews because I don’t want the twists and turns in a plot revealed. It doesn’t matter if it is a film that opened at the multiplex today or one that first screened 75 years ago. I think giving good review does not mean giving away the story even if a story is a classic and it’s “assumed” that “everyone” knows the plot. That’s an arrogant assumption. A 50-year-old fellow film-whore recently revealed to my friend, Milton, and me before a screening of All About Eve at the New York Film Festival that she had never seen it. We were shocked, but we were not compelled to spill our guts about the story. We promised her that she would love it and she did. Milton avoids reading any reviews until after he’s seen a film or play. He wants to own his own opinion and so do I. A blogger who wrote a thoughtful piece with intelligent insights about both the Gone Girl film and the novel is Nicolas Conley. He was considerate: he gave his readers ample warning that his post was packed with spoilers. I appreciated knowing what I was in for and I enjoyed reading his piece immensely:

    http://nicholasconley.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/gone-girl-so-about-that-ending/

    An analysis of a work that I am familiar with does not offend me, but had I not already seen the Gone Girl film I would have steered clear of his excellent post.

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    1. LA,

      O my LA, I never thought a little reflexive pondering on my own experience would offend you this much. I’ve been blogging for over seven years, writing 500 plus posts, but have never–not that I can remember–regretted writing any of them, and of course, including my review of Gone Girl the movie. This post here is just a little afterthought, and all full of queries even to myself, asking the question: could the acceptability of spoilers point to something about the material itself? Maybe a demarkation, however blurry, between literature and popular (if the word ‘pulp’ sounds offensive) fiction. And, as my reply to the first comment here, both are needed to sooth our weary soul in these troubled times.

      So, from the comments here, you can see there are those who disagree with me and they share their thoughts, and by so doing, enlightening me. I appreciate their thought-provoking response, offering me a different point of view.

      Just to let you know, I treasure your comment in my Gone Girl review as one of the highest praises (as I’d said in my reply) I’ve received in my blogging experience. I mentioned the word ‘restraint’ here in this post not as a slight and with absolutely no sarcasm. I’d used the word ‘restraint’ in my reviews for those acts which I’d truly admired. Take the word ‘silenced’ as an afterthought, in a different mood, and a play on the word as I’m writing about a suspense/thriller/crime genre, but not as a regret for a previous piece of writing. If I’ve offended you, that would be my regret. 😉

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  10. Yes, I tend to think the spoiler issue does relate to a large degree to the difference between plot-driven popular fiction and more “literary” works, but also on popular fiction genre. Spoilers are a big no-no for thrillers, I expect, but not so much for romantic comedy.

    When I first started writing my blog, I didn’t think about spoilers because my blog was replacing my literary journal. That is, I saw it as containing my reflections and I felt it was hard to write full reflections without mentioning the ending. But, pretty quickly I realised this was a public forum – duh – and that others were/would be reading my posts and may not want to know the ending. I became more circumspect and avoided spoilers or inserted a big warning. Over time I’ve written fewer and fewer spoilers and have gradually honed my skill at conveying my reflections without them. I realised that I was writing a “review” rather than an “essay”. I worry less about this though when I’m discussing classics.

    I’m one who avoids reviews until I’ve read a book or seen a film, not for fear of spoilers but for that “open mind” reason. It’s hard not to pick up a buzz at times if a lot of people are talking but I do my best.

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