Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thinking: Shhh! Spoilers! (Does Not Contain Spoilers)

Spoilers. Not only one of the most divisive topics in a lot of geek conversation these days but also one of the hardest to actually quantify. Creators particularly seem get riled about them, Doctor Who’s Stephen Moffat probably being the most recent, but he’s far from the only one – I know people who won’t read the episode summary in the TV guide for fear of being spoiled, and I know people can’t stop themselves reading up the Wikipedia summaries of shows long before they’re watched or always skip to the last page of books first.
But what is the fuss about?

When I was on holiday the other week I saw a bloke in the pub wearing a t-shirt that sums up the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in a couple of sentences, and a couple of thoughts sprang to mind. The first one can be summed up as “wanker!”, at least in part because if you cared about such things you’ve just found out without your consent. Which is inconsiderate. But then I thought “actually, who cares?” And that’s what got me thinking further. Do spoilers actually ruin a story?

Because if the answer is “yes” then isn’t that a bit of a damning verdict on the story? It’s like saying that the story simply boils down to its ending, that the journey is nothing – and clearly that’s a pretty daft position to hold. Of course Harry is going to triumph and live happily ever after; it’s that sort of story. The nature of that triumph of Good vs Evil is what makes Deathly Hallows work, not the simple fact of it. Sticking with the theme, the more famous “twist” ending of Half-Blood Prince caused all sorts of spoiler “griefing” across the internet and beyond but millions of people still went to see the movie, and I've read the book twice, so once again, knowing the end hardly spoiled my enjoyment.

And the idea that not knowing what is coming is integral to enjoyment clearly doesn’t hold water. Speak to anyone and they’ll talk about favourite books or films they’ve seem dozens of times, and the massive boom in both TV and film adaptations of established properties speaks of the mileage in such familiarity. More personally, we watch a lot of TV behind the times, often whole series or more, and whilst I don’t seek out spoilers they’re hard to avoid, just in general discourse. I didn’t enjoy Lost any less, nor Fringe, despite knowing most of the major plot points, and they’re both “mystery” shows that leverage their secrets and story-arcs as key selling points.

Now I’m not advocating some sort of spoiler–heavy lifestyle, because I do like to be surprised, and I do like guessing at the mysteries put in front of me. And many creators go to great lengths to build in twists and surprises and it feels disrespectful go against that. And there are many examples of stories that do live or die on their twists, especially when you get into murder mysteries and the like. If you ever read any Agatha Christie, the great strength of her books is that they are structured like a puzzle you read; both Poirot and Marple can be slightly passive, underwritten figures that keep their knowledge close to their chests, leaving the reader in the position of trying to decipher the clues themselves. And that’s brilliant, and almost certainly a big part of Christies’ success. But re-readable? Not so much.

The way we absorb modern storytelling however seems to making this a bigger issue. I suspect most people are moderately relaxed about minor spoilers but we seem to spend time in elaborate dances about what people know and what they don’t. George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a current culprit – some people are torrenting the US versions (or live in the US), Some people watch it on UK telly. Loads of people timeshift it. Some people have read the book, others haven’t, and some of each camp have different views on what’s a spoiler for the TV version of a book they’re read! Never mind the additional confusion of who has read how far down the whole series, something that’ll get worse in July when A Dance with Dragons comes out. I don’t know about anyone else but I find it safer not to talk about it than get into tentative “so...how far through are you?” conversations.

It’s interesting that the adaptation of The Walking Dead is trying to split the difference, and made some big changes to its early storylines to try and get around this problem. This leaves viewers uncertain of where it is going other than its stated aspiration to hit some of the big stories on the comics, but maybe in a different way or in a different order. I think that’s a sensible course for a show like The Walking Dead, but of course this leads to criticism from some quarters that they’ve messed with what wasn’t broken, and we fall straight into the other great trap of fandom – the desire for more of the same, just different.

But thats a different story...