Warning: the following article contains some serious plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and other film and television franchises. Read on at your own risk.
Last month my partner and I were in a quiet candlelit restaurant in Dorset. A little boy walked in and piped up in a carrying voice: “He killed Han Solo!” The father looked appalled, while a few of the patrons giggled nervously and looked around to see if any offence was caused. I hope none of them were planning on seeing the film the following day.
This struck me as hilarious, but then I’d seen The Force Awakens. If you haven’t (and you’re apathetic enough about the Star Wars franchise to keep reading), Kylo Ren stabs Han Solo, his father, with a lightsaber. It’s the film’s showcase moment.
Everyone seems to have their own Star Wars spoiler story. Anyone who saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 will appreciate the legend of that one mean person who shouted down the cinema queue “Darth Vader’s Luke’s dad!” My own spoiler horror story was when someone told me, while queuing to see Fight Club, that Edward Norton’s character, Tyler Durden, had a split personality.
Online, spoiler culture (and spoiler-phobia) is everywhere. My Facebook feed is crowded on a weekly basis with pleading requests from friends and family:
No Dr Who spoilers, please, it hasn’t aired here in the US yet.
Please note that [so and so] hasn’t seen Sherlock, so don’t give anything away in your statuses.
No Star Wars spoilers, for the love of god – I didn’t get a chance to see it over Christmas.
On Facebook, people are routinely unfollowed and sometimes even unfriended in a fit of righteous pique.
This phobia around spoilers is a direct consequence of the complex ways in which we now consume media. Watching a television show “on broadcast” has become a rarity in a world of competing on-demand platforms and Netflix marathons. With tablets and smartphones we can also choose not only when to watch shows but also where to watch them. But with this freedom comes great responsibility, and there is a growing expectation that if we’ve watched a film or TV series that has been recently released, we just, to paraphrase Tyler Durden’s famous Fight Club rule, shouldn’t talk about it.
For critics this can irritating. After all, how can you properly review something without giving away elements of the plot? In 2006 Jonathan Rosenbaum expressed concern about what spoilers meant for film criticism, arguing that spoiler culture privileges plot and narrative at the expense of other forms of style:
Why is it supposedly a spoiler to say that Touch of Evil begins with a time bomb exploding but supposedly not a spoiler to say that the movie begins with a lengthy crane shot?
If this were true ten years ago, it is far more of an issue today. “Spoilers” are all about plot.
But far more interesting is the etiquette which has grown up around this spoiler culture, the rules of which are being constantly negotiated on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. What is the statute of limitations on a spoiler, for example? Is it after a film has completed its cinema run? X-amount of months after people have been given ample opportunity to binge-watch a series on Netflix? Nobody seems to know for sure. Even the BFI’s Screenonline website has a “beware spoilers” disclaimer on synopses of films which were released up to 70 years ago.
Whether the rules apply to adaptations of books is a bit of a grey area. Game of Thrones fandom has its own vociferous spoiler culture (but to be fair, the plot of the TV show differs from the books enough to make certain plot points surprising even for people who have read them). It’s hard to know if long-time fans of The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter books experienced the film adaptations differently from those who had never read them.
This irritation around spoilers is a new phenomenon. Older novels (the works of Charles Dickens, for example) sometimes contained brief plot outlines at the beginning of each chapter, which effectively set up the narrative landscape and left the reader free to enjoy other elements of the story. As Henry Fielding wrote in Joseph Andrews:
What are the contents prefixed to every chapter but so many inscriptions over the gates of inns … informing the reader what entertainment he is to expect, which if he likes not, he may travel on to the next.
But perhaps the rise of spoiler culture says less about the ways in which media consumption is changing than it does about the ways in which we, as a society, are engaging with popular culture – on an ever more simplistic level. Aren’t we all taking this just a bit too seriously?