Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New study on spoilers misses the point

AV Club recently posted a news article about a study on spoilers. The upshot of the results is that people do not really mind knowing details about a story before they experience it for themselves. Despite the whining and complaints made by dozens of internet message board members, it seems to make little difference when people know what they're in for.

Unfortunately, AVC's post didn't seem to understand that the study doesn't apply to the film industry very well. Why? Because the analysis was focused on giving advance knowledge to people reading books. I don't think that's really comparable to film spoilers at all.

Literature and film are totally different. Film is an audio-visual format that's usually requires 90-120 minutes of your time. Literature, however, is a visual-only format that needs much more time. Audio books are generally much longer than the time you'd need to read the original text.

An actual book, though, contains a lot more information than your standard film. And it has certain advantages - like an easier use of 1st/2nd/3rd person narration, and internal dialogue that's often awkward to convey in a movie. Comparing the two is like saying that 5-minute ride to a coffee shop is the same as driving from one coast to another. Or like comparing a 2-season tv show to a 3-film film franchise.

A novel is also capable of fleshing out characters in a more natural and in-depth way than a picture can. Since your brain isn't given the sights and sounds of everything that transpires in it, you are more engaged in making something "come to life" than you would be for something on-screen. I see a painting, and maybe my mind makes the image move, imagining the feel and sound of the subject. Film, however, does almost all the work for its audience (except taste and smell and touch).

I think the medium of film, and the whole process of going to see one, invalidates the study's conclusion on spoilers. When you decide to read a book, you're signing up for a process that can take whole days, even if you don't do anything else. Movies are not intended to take up that much time (save for Warhol's Empire, and some others).

Bluntly put, literature can have dozens of surprises for its readers. The major events in a novel can only occur over a dozen of the work's hundreds of pages. Your average film has 90-odd minutes to express its themes and thesis, make you care about the characters, and satisfy you with story, dialogue, cinematography, and audio-mixing. The effect of spoilers on one and the other is like saying that you'd find the same running speed in a squirrel as you would in a greyhound. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction, it's not the same ballpark, it's not even the same sport!

So many films I've enjoyed have a handful of neat twists in story-telling or plot, or great moments of characterization, humor, and visual trickery. I think that telling people about them ahead of time takes a lot away from the experience - it's why most of my reviews are fairly spoiler-free! There are so many movies that I liked better because of the little scenes and the surprises they contained - & I know that if I knew about them beforehand, I would probably have liked those pictures less.

Even a mediocre book, however, can be rich enough - in ideas, information, plot & emotional development - that specific spoilers won't derail the journey. Film is more limited in the time it has to satisfy all the requirements specific to that medium. I think it's safe to say that no film has the breathing room to do the sorts of things that you can do in a novel, just like no film has the breathing room to do what a tv show can do with its own premise.

It may be that spoilers don't matter much for most people, or even just the "modern movie-going public." I think that, in general, motion picture spoilers are far more destructive than spoilers for a book. There's less "road" to go down, so knowing what the ride is going to be like takes more out of the film experience than it does out of the literature experience.

Again, keeping it simple: if I told you what happens in Season 2 of "Mad Men," that might not ruin the pleasure of watching the series from the beginning. Even forgetting what you knew in advance, there would be many elements for you to enjoy in the 13 episodes of that series. Telling you significant developments in a 2-hour film, though? That would take away a greater proportion of the surprises that you'd be in for...

Then again, maybe this all comes down to my own aesthetics. I sure hope not...

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