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Last week, I wrote a review of Gone Girl, the movie adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s wildly popular book, and I caught myself tiptoeing around the story trying not to drop any spoilers. Now as I think back to it, that episode leads me to a minor revelation.

Why do I have to be so extra careful? The answer is obvious enough. If I just hint at what the major twist is, I’d be giving away the story, largely diminishing the viewer’s enjoyment, eliminating the element of surprise. In reply to some comments, I’d even suggested to people not to read the book first if they are going to see the movie.

Here’s the question I’ve been mulling over this past week, and I can’t help but be a bit amused. I don’t think I’ve ever written a post in this state of mind before. The word used by a commenter was ‘restraint’. I felt more like ‘silenced’.

Did I put a “Spoiler Alert” at the beginning of my review of say, Anna Karenina (2012)? Since its publication as a serial in the 1870’s, the trajectory of this extra-marital affair is well-known; critics are not muffled from discussing the tragic end of that gone girl. Revealing the storyline has not dampened people’s interest from reading the book or watching its movie adaptations, ten of them so far, as full features or TV series.

Or take The Great Gatsby, that fateful yellow car ride ultimately leads to the end of Gatsby. Ooops, there goes the spoiler. With this, have I killed the movie for would-be viewers? I don’t think so. Why? Simply because that green light blinking across the shore is so powerful a lure, driving a man to dream the impossible dream. And we want to see the elaborate efforts this enigmatic character exerts to strive for that unreachable goal.

Or, let’s say, 12 Years A Slave (2013) based on Solomon Northup’s memoir. Here, the title is the spoiler. The slave had to survive the twelve years in order to write his own memoir. But of course, we want to know how he survived, his resilience, and what he has to say about the slavery system, about human nature.

Or take a contemporary novel, Life of Pi (2012). After a shipwreck, a 16 year-old boy adrift on the Pacific Ocean for 227 days on a life raft is finally rescued and lives to tell his tale. Now that’s giving away the whole story. Does that spoil the fun of watching the movie? Not at all. Why? Because we see spectacular scenes of the boy pitted against nature, persevering over perils that could shatter or enhance his faith, dealing with personal loss, recapturing memories and reality … we are hooked because there are rich layers of meaning packed inside a simple storyline.

So, for stories that explore more than the plot can tell, even though we may know the ‘what’, we want to see the ‘how’. We want to get on the ride and enjoy the scenery, for there are interesting and intriguing sights along the way.

To spoil or not to spoil… depends if the book is just only about the plot, manipulating the twists and turns to shock and surprise, yes, a clever page turner, then a spoiler would definitely diminish the enjoyment, robbing the viewer of the element of surprise and entertainment.

But if the kind of reading or viewing offers a deeper exploration of characters and the human condition, or framing from a historical or social backdrop to confront issues, or depicting scenes of a shared humanity, or unpacking subtext and meaning… then, dropping a spoiler may not be so disastrous.

I know, there are exceptions and I’m not trying to generalize, but, could the acceptability of spoilers be the pointers to the difference between literature and pulp fiction?

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Related Movie Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Gone Girl (2014)

12 Years A Slave (2013)

Anna Karenina (2012)

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Life of Pi (2012)

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