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The ethics of spoilers
chap
nmg

While we were putting up the new shed a couple of weeks ago, elseware and I had a debate about the ethics of film/play/book spoilers, and what one should take to be common cultural knowledge. We didn't come to any sort of agreement, so I've decided that the best option is to Ask LJ with a poll. The poll below is under a cut because it contains spoilers for the following films, plays and books:

  • Hamlet
  • Citizen Kane
  • Casablanca
  • The Third Man
  • Psycho
  • Waiting for Godot
  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • The Wasp Factory
  • The Crying Game
  • The Usual Suspects
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

If you haven't seen/read any of these, and don't want me to give away the ending, do not look behind the lj cut. You have been warned!

Poll #853047 Spoilers ahoy!

Hamlet: Everyone dies in the end.

Doesn't everyone know this?
18(37.5%)
I knew this before I saw the play.
6(12.5%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the play.
8(16.7%)
I didn't know this before I saw the play.
13(27.1%)
You swine! I haven't seen the play, and I didn't know this!
2(4.2%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by the Prince of Denmark!
1(2.1%)

Rosebud is the name of his sledge.

Doesn't everyone know this?
11(23.4%)
I knew this before I saw the film.
2(4.3%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the film.
14(29.8%)
I didn't know this before I saw the film.
13(27.7%)
You swine! I haven't seen the film, and I didn't know this!
5(10.6%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by a newspaper magnate!
2(4.3%)

Ilse Lund doesn't leave her husband.

Doesn't everyone know this?
11(24.4%)
I knew this before I saw the film.
6(13.3%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the film.
4(8.9%)
I didn't know this before I saw the film.
10(22.2%)
You swine! I haven't seen the film, and I didn't know this!
12(26.7%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by an expatriate American casino owner!
2(4.4%)

Harry Lime isn't really dead.

Doesn't everyone know this?
5(10.9%)
I knew this before I saw the film.
0(0.0%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the film.
3(6.5%)
I didn't know this before I saw the film.
15(32.6%)
You swine! I haven't seen the film, and I didn't know this!
20(43.5%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by Viennese black marketeers!
3(6.5%)

Mrs Bates is Norman in a wig.

Doesn't everyone know this?
12(24.5%)
I knew this before I saw the film.
5(10.2%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the film.
13(26.5%)
I didn't know this before I saw the film.
12(24.5%)
You swine! I haven't seen the film, and I didn't know this!
7(14.3%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by a motel owner!
0(0.0%)

Godot never turns up.

Doesn't everyone know this?
23(47.9%)
I knew this before I saw the play.
5(10.4%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the play.
7(14.6%)
I didn't know this before I saw the play.
6(12.5%)
You swine! I haven't seen the play, and I didn't know this!
7(14.6%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by a pair of tramps!
0(0.0%)

Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.

Doesn't everyone know this?
21(43.8%)
I knew this before I saw the film.
10(20.8%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the film.
2(4.2%)
I didn't know this before I saw the film.
13(27.1%)
You swine! I haven't seen the film, and I didn't know this!
1(2.1%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by a dark lord of the Sith!
1(2.1%)

Frank isn't really a boy.

Doesn't everyone know this?
5(10.9%)
I knew this before I read the book.
0(0.0%)
I knew this, and I haven't even read the book.
0(0.0%)
I didn't know this before I read the book.
22(47.8%)
You swine! I haven't read the book, and I didn't know this!
17(37.0%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by a psychotic Scottish teenager!
2(4.3%)

Dil isn't really a girl.

Doesn't everyone know this?
5(10.9%)
I knew this before I saw the film.
6(13.0%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the film.
7(15.2%)
I didn't know this before I saw the film.
12(26.1%)
You swine! I haven't seen the film, and I didn't know this!
13(28.3%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by a transvestite hairdresser!
3(6.5%)

Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze.

Doesn't everyone know this?
2(4.4%)
I knew this before I saw the film.
1(2.2%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the film.
3(6.7%)
I didn't know this before I saw the film.
28(62.2%)
You swine! I haven't seen the film, and I didn't know this!
8(17.8%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by a mysterious criminal mastermind!
3(6.7%)

Bruce Willis is dead.

Doesn't everyone know this?
4(8.5%)
I knew this before I saw the film.
5(10.6%)
I knew this, and I haven't even seen the film.
4(8.5%)
I didn't know this before I saw the film.
32(68.1%)
You swine! I haven't seen the film, and I didn't know this!
1(2.1%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by an undead child psychologist!
1(2.1%)

Dumbledore dies.

Doesn't everyone know this?
12(25.5%)
I knew this before I read the book.
7(14.9%)
I knew this, and I haven't even read the book.
6(12.8%)
I didn't know this before I read the book.
18(38.3%)
You swine! I haven't read the book, and I didn't know this!
4(8.5%)
You insensitive clod! My entire family was killed by a child wizard!
0(0.0%)

How long should one wait before assuming that a spoiler is common knowledge?

1 year
13(27.7%)
2 years
7(14.9%)
5 years
5(10.6%)
10 years
6(12.8%)
20 years
2(4.3%)
50 years
0(0.0%)
100 years
0(0.0%)
200 years
0(0.0%)
500 years
0(0.0%)
1000 years
1(2.1%)
You swine! I didn't know that Jesus got resurrected!
13(27.7%)

I looked at this poll even though I hadn't seen/read all of the plays/films/books, and now I feel disgruntled at having been spoiled

Yes
4(8.7%)
No
42(91.3%)
Tags:

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I heard the ubiquitous Soylent Green spoiler many, many times before I even knew Soylent Green was a film...

But soylent green *isn't* people - it's soya and lentils!

IMO:
For classics of the relevant genre, I'll assume everyone knows the twists, plot & characters - so talking about Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet or Macbeth in detail would be less likely to contain "spoilers" than talking about the sonnets, Troilus & Cressilda, etc.

For new releases that have Large Marketing Campaigns (Harry Potter, Episodes 1-3 etc) I'll assume people who'd be bothered about spoilers will have seen / read it within 3 months. I'd ease off (but not completely stop lj-cutting, or the equivalent) for up to 6 months if the twist is really significant. Smaller releases, I'll probably cut my initial thoughts but won't be particularly bothered if other people don't.

The only time I've been actively disappointed at being spoiled was when I worked out the twist in The Sixth Sense by the way everyone was telling me I'd never guess it. I felt let down by how obvious it had become; I'd prefer to know what's coming and stop spending time & energy trying to outwit the writers.

I worked out the twist in The Sixth Sense by the way everyone was telling me I'd never guess it

Non-spoiler spoilers are a pain, certainly.

I try and be careful about this sort of thing these days - ever since I happened to make some offhand reference to the ending of The Maltese Falcon to someone who didn't know what happens. I'd have thought that fifty years was long enough, but apparently not always.

That was what inspired this; elseware and I were discussing Shakespeare plays, and he mentioned that he hadn't seen Hamlet, to which I said that it was worth seeing, even if everyone dies in the end.

Your last questions doesn't work: I didn't know some of those things before I did the poll, but I am in no way disgruntled by it.

I would have preferred not to have known that Dumbledore died, but even reading ont he publication day it was impossible to avoid, if only based on very convincing speculation.

The only one of them that I would really consider to be a /spoiler/ spoiler would be the Usual Suspects one. I would have been pissed off if someone walked in and rold me that half way through the film (but then, I'm not very good at figuring out things like that).

Oh, except for the Mousetrap, obviously. You aren't allowed to spoil that, or so I hear.

Good poll :)

You should try talking to Mike Abbott about this some time (be prepared with ear deadeners in advance..)

I see lots of trouble ahead for those watching Torchwood on Wed on terrestrial..

Ps the only one of these where I got spoiled and really cared was from the Independent review of The Sixth Sense - but I was bloody LIVID about that one because it barely makes it worth seeing the film then!!

ias and I have just been talking about this. Many years ago, I saw Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, and was very impressed with both of them. Some years later, after I'd started going out with Is, I enthused about the films in what I now recognise to be excessive detail. Is wasn't overly impressed when, having finally sat her down in front of the films, I dared to ask her whether she was surprised by the denouement (I'd forgotten how much I'd told her about the films).

The problem was that I'd forgotten how exquisite the revelation was. I'd seen the films perhaps three or four times before I told Is about them, and each time found them enjoyable, in part because I knew how they were going to end; there's something satisfying about seeing the inexorable fashion in which the blocks fall into place.

So, there's the pleasure of revelation, and then in some cases there's also the pleasure of seeing how the revelation was foreshadowed, and how inevitable it was. To my mind, a good film/play/book has both (I frequently reread or rewatch things).

I'm much better about spoilers these days...

with at least one person, i can't discuss anything beyond half of children of dune because he hasn't yet read it+doesn't want to be spoiled..

so maybe you should never assume.

It's not just the length of time since publication, but also how widely a work was published. Casablanca is a veteran of "top ten best films ever" lists, so I'd expect most people to be aware of the denouement (even if only by the line "You know, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship."). In contrast, Children of Dune is pretty obscure; it's a sequel to a book in what is basically a minority genre. There's a reasonable chance that a given SF fan will have read it, but it's by no means a certainty. The chances of a non-fan having read it are pretty minimal.

We went to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the Movie with someone who didn't know Hamlet at all, and had no idea there was another story going on in the gaps. Which was a very strange experience.

I didn't know the Harry Lime, Casablanca and Citizen Kane twists before I saw the movies, but I was probably under 5 when I saw them for the first time, so those were things I've "always known".

Sheffield SF Group is quite loud and vocal about being a spoiler-free zone, since years ago when one of us had cable and all the rest were terrestrial. It's getting more and more difficult though.

Part of the reason for this poll was that there's clearly a broad variation in the length of time for which people think that one should be careful of spoilers. Is it reasonable to expect that a broad outline of the plot of a 400 year old play (and stalwart of UK school english syllabuses) is common knowledge?

I still think that was pretty reasonable! Anyway no one watches Shakespeare for the plot!

A newspaper article spoiled The Sixth Sense for me, but it was about a year and a half after the film had been released. I was irritated, but I was irritated more at myself than at the author of the article.

I'm far too familiar with the irritation of having failed to see a film while it was on release, alas.

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I don't agree with a 6 month grace period. 10 years is probably more like it...

I managed to both avoid The Sixth Sense release and all spoilers for a couple of years. I also managed to avoid the big meta-spoiler that most people throw in - "Oooh, you'll like this movie, it's got a twist in the plot!". That annoys me, because I now know there's a twist and will look for it, and start making assumptions about it before watching it. I'd rather be completely spoiler free, thanks very much!.

I nearly spoiled The Usual Suspects for a friend recently by suggesting "Kaiser Sose was played by..." before being stopped urgently by someone else :) They would probably have guessed it afterwards by looking at the cast, though. Perhaps I shouldn't even say that, they may read this part.... Hmmm, doesn't lj-cut work in replies?!

I now know that I know more than half a dozen people who haven't yet seen any Star Wars movie, and more importantly, don't yet know who Darth Vader is, let alone that he is Luke's father. I also know at least 3 people who are outraged at said people for not having watched Star Wars, but that's another story!


I didn't know Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze and I have seen the film.

Crap, I got spoiled on the Wasp Factory, which I was planning to read.

Well, my fault for not reading the preamble.

Ack. Sorry about that - there was a preamble for just that reason!

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