Monday, January 20, 2014

Spoilers (1 of 2)

So, what exactly am I spoiling when I tell you (presuming you were, until recently, a mountain dwelling hermit or one of the other 7 billion people who might not be familiar with movies made in North America 37 years ago) that Darth Vader is Luke's father? The surprise, obviously. Like letting slip that we didn't forget your birthday, and everyone is waiting at your mom's house to leap out and shout, "Surprise!" when you walk through the door, I have short-circuited the shock of revelation. Rather than being confronted, suddenly, with something that radically alters your view of the situation, kicking your mind into high gear as it scrambles to integrate this new thing you’ve learned into a coherent view of what’s happening right now, I’ve prepared you beforehand. So, when you hear Darth Vader say, “I am your father,” (or everyone shout “Surprise!”) you’re ready for it. You’ve already adjusted to the situation before it happened.
Noooo! I haven't seen that one yet!

In many an area of life, this is rightly considered a good thing, this preparation beforehand.
When someone has a project at work, their boss leaping out from behind the cubical wall and saying, “Surprise! The dead line was moved up to this afternoon!” is not pleasant; although in this case, as in the case of the birthday party, you are surprised. But, when it comes to movies, TV shows, and books, people usually don’t want to be prepared.

The question is whether this has anything to do with the story, or even the appreciation of the story, or whether it is merely a preference on the part of the audience to feel the excitement of surprise. Does a spoiler only spoil the surprise, or does it somehow spoil the story itself?

Consider that, for Luke Skywalker, the surprise is never spoiled because, even though you can watch the movie over and over again, at that point in the story, Luke does not know that Darth Vader is his father, and he never will. So, one thing about not knowing that Luke is Vader Junior when you watch the movie is that you are more like Luke; you and he are both surprised by the revelation, and that similarity to Luke is forever gone after seeing the movie for the first time.

But, that is one point of similarity to Luke Skywalker in a big pile of dissimilarities. Luke has to live with having an iron-lung wearing murderer for a father for the rest of his life. You, presumably, do not. Luke, at that point, is hanging above a giant pit inside a floating city never visited by OSHA (or the long time ago, far far away equivalent). Whereas you, at that point, are probably sitting on a couch, in a climate controlled house, and maybe you’ll pause the movie to get a cup of tea or something. Whatever kind of empathy we have for characters in a movie, it is not by being like them that we achieve it, except by being human. What we don’t know and what Luke doesn’t know (while factually the same) are so different in context that when it is revealed, it’s going to take a good bit of imagination to empathize with the character at all. How much harder would it be to also imagine we’re hearing about it for the first time?

So, in terms of knowing, understanding, or thinking about a story, spoilers don’t spoil it. Which I think means they don’t spoil the story itself. The story is the same after you’ve read it as it was before, and certainly you’ve learned all the surprises by that point, and you must have if you’re going to think about it.

But, does that leave us saying that spoilers merely deprive us of an exciting sensation? Or is there something else we lose?

© 2014 John Hiner III


  1. I think part of what makes a spoiler a spoiler at least in the case of a birthday party is that appreciating how unique the occasion is in comparison to everything else is more difficult because someone is acting as though it is simply a casual occasion.

  2. But isn't being like (empathy for) the characters in a story essential? As you say, it seems that part of the story are the character's reactions to things. But part of understanding those reactions is being able to imagine ourselves in the character's position and, thus, necessary for understanding the story. It seems hard to (plausibly) imagine how I would react or what I would do in such a fantastical world as Star Wars, but it seems even harder once I know that Vader changed his name from Skywalker. - EC

    1. EC,

      What I am suggesting is that the experience of seeing someone else go through something (or a character go through it) is so different than going through it oneself, that the skills of empathy are essentially skills of the imagination. They have to do with extrapolating from one's own actual experience and applying the result to the other.

      The point being that it would be false to call the surprise I feel at a revelation in a movie the same as what the character would feel at that revelation, just because they are both called "surprise".