Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Ethics of Spoilers, Part I

Last week, for a reason that escapes us now, the Ape was discussing The Godfather Part II with a few students after class. In the course of things, the Ape posed the opinion that Michael's motivation for killing his brother Fredo was completely believable. This was met with a series of incredulous gasps: "I can't believe you just told me the end of the movie."  The Ape was at first remorseful; we did not want to ruin a fantastic film for these eager, if ignorant, youngsters. Later though, this seemed wrong-headed. It is canonical film and has been around for more than 30 years. Surely, the statute of limitations has expired on "spoiling" The Godfather series.

This is the kind of thing, though, that tends to rattle around in the recesses of the Ape's mind. What are the rules for spoilers exactly? Just new works? What about if the spoilee is young? What harm does a spoiler really do? Does knowledge of the end of The Godfather Part II really spoil the work?

And while the Ape takes great pains to avoid both spoiling and having things spoiled for him, we can't think of an instance where such information really lived up to the spoiler name; this would seem to suggest that the issue with spoiler's isn't material harm, but a lapse in some sort of code for discussing plot-driven works of art.

A more complete "logic of spoilers" is in the works, but we wanted first to pose the general question: What's the big deal about spoilers?


  1. Here are a couple of examples of things that my students considered to be "spoilers" and I disagreed: Macbeth murders Duncan, Julius Caesar dies, and John Keats died at age 25. From my perspective these were not "spoilers." Indeed, I reread Macbeth, Hamlet, and other Shakespeare plays without losing interest, even though I know how they end. Strangely, Pride and Prejudice holds me in suspense, no matter how many times I read it. In these works the end is not so important as how you get there. Knowing how the work does end is in a way freeing, because it allows me to focus on how the writer and the reader get there together.

  2. I don't want to be a bore, but Godfather I & II are 2 of my favorite movies, and the relationship between Michael and Fredo is one reason why. For instance, in the nightclub scene, when Fredo gives himself away, and Michael realizes Fredo betrayed him: great moment, must be watched several times. Also, I believe you can see the moment when Michael decides he will have Fredo killed (of course he has to wait until their Mother dies).

  3. I will be interested to read what you come up with once you have formulated the Spoiler Rulebook, but here are two things that bother me about spoilers:

    #1, when a spoiler creates unreasonable expectations and you end up being disappointed as a result.

    #2, when you don't know the big reveal, you get to feel that delicious "what IS going to happen?" feeling that you don't feel when you already know what is going to happen. Or, even worse, missing out on that delightful frisson of wide-eyed realization you get from figuring it out just a beat before you're actually told.

    One of your main "spoiler rules" should be a prior warning, with an opportunity for the spoilee to plug their ears (or their eyes, as the case may be).

    I think your Spoiler Rulebook's final format should be a flow-chart. ;)

  4. Goodreads has a "contains spoiler" option for reviewers to tag posts. In the context of a conversation, you can't always warn your audience that a statement you are preparing to utter may contain a spoiler. When it comes to sporting events a rule of thumb is to ask someone if you can talk about it. I've learned that whenever I don't want a sporting event spoiled, inevitably, it is (most notably, every day of the Tour de France).

    I'm rambling. To answer your question, the one who risks being spoiled accepts all responsibility for avoiding anything that may result in spoilage. I don't think the spoiled has any right to remedy except in cases where the spoiler intentionally spoils. In that case, I think the spoiler should be sentenced to 48-hours of Titanic with Burger King commercials every 15 mintues.

  5. @bibliophilic- That's was sort of my initial thought to, but then again what if you didn't know that Macbeth murders Duncan or that Mr. Darcy isn't really such a prick (or rather that he is a prick, but not really. sort of.) Still thinking about this. And perish the thought of being a bore; I can suffer anyone who bows at the altar of the Corleones.

    @Kathy A flowchart is a fantastic idea. I wish I thought of it and might just steal it. And it does some seem something of a cultural crime to deprive someone of the particular anticipation of a really great reveal.

    @Clint- I'm with you on fair warning, but it feels weird to say something like "You know how at the end of the Iliad *spoiler alert* Achilles kills Hector..." As for punishment, how about just "My Heart Will Go On" on a loop for 3 hours. No reprieve with commericals either

  6. Im ok on spoilers for films unless the while film is balanced on it for example The Village and The sixth sense.

    Spoilers in books just drive me nuts

  7. I'm not sure if my views are going to be relevant, but here goes.

    If a book as captured me, drawn me in and engaged me in a total state of sensual flow, then a spoiler will upset me.

    On the other hand, if the book has failed to engage me, I don't usually care.

    I think it's difficult -if not impossible- to filter out spoilers/knowledge about well-known books or stories which comprise part of the cultural canon. Macbeth is an example mentioned above. Perhaps if you're studying it at high school for the first time, you might be irritated with by a spoiler, but by the time you're 30...?

    Also, I loved Clinton's comments about Titanic, Celine Dionne and Burger King. I am one of only 8 living Australian who HASN'T seen this movie (Titanic) and NEVER will!

  8. Sometimes I worry a bit that my book reviews give away spoilers, even though I try and avoid them when I can. But the problem is how can you properly review something without spoing some things? You can sometimes, but not all the time. Sometimes spoilers are unavoidable

  9. I like the idea that certain types of books are more "damaged" by a spoiler.

    A comprehensive guide to spoilers is coming the week, so stay tuned.