Thursday, November 09, 2017


Once upon a time, the only way to watch old movies was to wait for them to show up on late-night television or possibly on weekday afternoons in lieu of soap operas. And those were OLD films. TV channels didn't start airing more recent movies in prime time slots until sometime in the 1960s, if I recall correctly. (I remember what an exciting novelty the feature "Monday Night at the Movies" was.) We had three television networks (aside from the few people who went to the trouble of installing UHF reception equipment). If you didn't catch an episode of a show, you'd simply missed it and had to hope a rerun would eventually appear. I remember wanting to see the episode of the one-hour TWILIGHT ZONE featuring Hitler's ghost and being bitterly disappointed that I managed to miss it each time it was on. (About fifty years later, I finally viewed it by buying the DVD of the season.) All we knew in advance about TV shows was what we read in the newspaper TV schedule blurbs. The only prior knowledge of movies came from theater previews, studio ads, or maybe information that "leaked" in magazines for fans. So getting "spoiled" with plot details was practically impossible.

Nowadays, of course, we exist in a media environment that's the extreme opposite. Thanks to the Internet and cable, it's almost impossible to avoid spoilers. The era when an entire audience waited week by week to watch each new episode of a program at the same time has vanished. Fans view shows on demand, in some cases even before broadcast. This past Sunday, for instance, a fellow OUTLANDER fan mentioned to me that she planned to watch the latest episode during the day, several hours before its official network debut in the evening. People "binge-watch" entire seasons within a span of hours. We can buy recordings of programs and movies to watch over and over, memorizing every detail of our favorites. If we want to avoid surprises and see an episode or movie "unspoiled," simply not reading reviews isn't enough. We have to purposefully stay away from social media, online fan discussions, entertainment news sites, anything that might reveal what we don't want to know.

Some classics carry their own inherent "spoilage," because their basic premise pervades our culture, even among people who've never read the books or seen adaptations of them. Everybody knows Frankenstein created a monster and Count Dracula is a vampire. The first readers of those books upon original release didn't, unless they'd picked up reviews first. Adaptations of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE always show the doctor's fateful transformation early in the story; in Stevenson's novella, the truth about Hyde is a mystery not solved until near the end. TV Tropes has a page about this phenomenon titled, "It Was His Sled," referring to the revelation in the final scene of CITIZEN KANE that's no longer a secret to anybody with even a casual knowledge of classic films.

Personally, I don't mind being spoiled—except maybe in the case of mysteries. The first time around, I don't want to know in advance who the murderer is. Even in that genre, though, I do reread and re-view favorite mysteries. There's so much more to enjoyment of a story than being surprised. The second and subsequent times, one can have the pleasure of noticing the clues and how they fit together to lead to the forthcoming revelation, which we couldn't have fully realized on the first reading or viewing. We're not looking so much for surprises (as C. S. Lewis says somewhere), but for "a certain surprisingness." The anticipation of knowing what's coming can actually enhance the pleasure of the suspense. Sometimes I want to know just enough about the ending to be sure my favorite characters survive. When the catastrophic series finale of FOREVER KNIGHT aired, I was glad I'd read a summary of the plot in advance, because the knowledge enabled me to brace myself for the worst. Upon actually watching the episode, I was able to think, "That wasn't quite so bad as I expected." On subsequent readings or viewings of a work we've enjoyed the first time around, we're no longer consumed with the drive to find out what's going to happen, so we can savor other aspects of the story, themes, and characters.

In AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM, C. S. Lewis says that an invariable trait of what he calls "unliterary" readers (casual readers, who would find our devoted absorption in books bewildering) is that they never voluntarily read anything more than once. True book-lovers, on the other hand, often read their favorites multiple times over the years. How do you feel about being "spoiled"? Do you want to know nothing at all in advance? A tagline of TV GUIDE length? A back-cover blurb? Or do you not mind knowing some details of the plot or even a hint about the ending?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Oops. In the second paragraph, of course I didn't mean "to avoid surprises." What I was trying to say was something like "to be sure of getting surprised" -- the opposite!