Tuesday 10 June 2014

"Spoilers, Sweetie!" (Part 2 of 3)

Do spoilers spoil or do teasers tantalise?

Our spoiler-filled discussion between Generation Star Wars' John Hood and Taking The Short View's Andrew Lewin continues...

In the first part of our discussion posted last week, we started looking into the phenomena of the spoiler and asked whether it was all bad or whether there could be an upside to it? We continue our ruminations further this week, and wonder whether falling foul of spoilers actually stops us from watching programmes; which current shows are the most spoilered; whether a whodunit is automatically ruined by knowing the guilty party; and the question of whether novels are turning into spoilers for the TV and film adaptations made from them?

John: Have spoilers stopped you watching a movie or beloved series? The controversial conclusion to Lost spread across the social media space like wildfire. I never felt compelled to watch the final season! Incidentally, I originally joined Twitter solely to discuss Lost with fellow fans.

Andrew: For me the equivalent would be The X-Files on a CompuServe forum which was one of the reasons I got online in the first place.. You never forget your first shared Internet fan obsession!

John: Halcyon memories.

Andrew: And like you, I never did get to see the end of Lost either - Sky fell out with Virgin Media and pulled their channels from the cable platform mid-season so that was it for me. But in any case, I was never as into it as many people and actually found it more irritating than intriguing to be honest. I've never felt inclined to go back and finish it off. I've heard the gist of the way it finished if not the details, but it doesn't make much difference to me.

The only scenario I can think of where a spoiler might stop me from watching something would be if the entire thing hung on a single reveal - whodunits being the most obvious example. Would I still want to see Se7en even knowing who John Doe and his last victim are? Or see all of Twin Peaks if I knew from the start who killed Laura Palmer? Or sit through 23 episodes of Murder One if I already knew who killed Jessica Costello? Or 20 episodes of Forbrydelsen (the original Danish version of The Killing) if the identity of Nanna Birk Larsen's killer was known at the outset? Or even eight episodes of Broadchurch if I knew for certain who the killer of Danny Latimer was from the first scene?

Actually ... I probably would. After all, I'll happily rewatch various adaptations of Agatha Christie stories such as Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile despite knowing every last intricacy of the plots. Even with whodunits - the good ones, anyway - it's never just the end result or the final reveal that makes or breaks the show but rather the richness of the journey in getting to that point. All of the above examples bear repeated viewings even if you know the outcome.

John: The journey is often more interesting than the destination. Alas, George Lucas struggled with the Star Wars prequels until the last moments of Revenge of the Sith.

Andrew: Yeah, there's a reason why fans have watched the original trilogy dozens of time apiece, but it's hard to find anyone doing the same for the prequels. The films are just too thin, and as a whole rely on a specific plot point (about Anakin) that can't be considered a spoiler exactly, but which might as well be in that it makes the path of the three films depressingly obvious from the get-go.

The aforementioned Oblivion is another example: it relies so much on one central twist - and works its way too slowly to this revelation. On first unspoiled viewing it's quite suspenseful, but if you know where it's going then the film is just dull. Lots of pretty production design, FX and Icelandic locations to admire, but not enough substance to the story. It seems to me to be a film that has very little rematch value once you know that key plot point, whereas by contrast Duncan Jones' Moon also relies on a big twist but the story it tells around that is rewarding enough that I can watch it again and again regardless.

John: Oblivion evoked the stark conceptual look and feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey and an Apple Store, which is OK in my Bauhaus-admiring book. Moon is a love letter to fans of 1970s sci-fi and I'll never tire of it.

You may recall I started watching Twin Peaks, again. Soon stopped in favour of The Good Wife and a self-curated Star Trek: The Next Generation 'best of' season on Netflix.

Andrew: I have to confess that I'd missed the fact you had been getting back into Twin Peaks! That show is from the pre-Internet days of course - that would have been a Twitter storm if it had come along today! Did you stop watching because it didn't live up to your memories? Or because you knew the whodunnit?

John: Twin Peaks was the subject of exhaustive academic analysis in college. Fatigue quickly set in despite the allure of teen crushes M├Ądchen Amick and Sherilyn Fenn.

Andrew: Granted it dipped after the reveal of who killed Laura Palmer (something forced on the show by the networks as I recall) but it had just got on the road back with the secret of the Black Lodge when it was sadly cancelled.

John: Perhaps Twin Peaks is ripe for a reboot? At this juncture I urge readers to see Remakes and reboots: is Hollywood in decline?

Andrew: Don't even tempt fate by mentioning a Twin Peaks reboot - that would be sacrilege without David Lynch. And anyway, the studios and networks are too busy looking into a whole new cinematic reboot for Battlestar Galactica and even talking about reviving Lost as a TV series, simply on the grounds that some fans are still miffed by the way both series ended.

John: Isn't Bryan Singer directing a big screen Battlestar Galactica reboot? Guess he's too busy back at the helm of the X-Men franchise.

Andrew: I guess this is getting beyond the question of spoilers: we're now straying into talking about "is this a film/show that bears repeated viewings?" If it does then no spoiler is going to ruin it; if it doesn't then we're just dealing with a not terribly good film/show in the first case and hardly worth worrying about spoilers.

So which are the current shows that you've found to be the most spoiler-tastic?

John: Looks like social media is awash with Game of Thrones spoilers and heated arguments therein. Mondays may witness a self-imposed social media blackout until after the broadcast of new episodes on Sky Atlantic.

Andrew: It took me about five minutes after "The Lion and the Rose" aired in the UK before I accidentally fell over a spoiler on Twitter. Ahh well, it was always going to happen so I'm trying not to worry about it too much. Whereas the show that I really would hate to find out too much about is True Detective, another series that my cable provider doesn't carry and which I therefore had to keep myself in the dark about it as much as possible until the DVD/Blu-ray was released.

John: True Detective boasts some of the most memorable dialogue it's been my pleasure to hear. Ever.

Andrew: I am so looking forward to seeing (and hearing!) that.

Doctor Who is always ripe for spoilers too, especially last year for the 50th anniversary shows, but not so much as of time or writing while it's off-air - although purists will hate the location filming photos that inevitably leak out. Recently there was one of Peter Capaldi and Da Vinci's Demons Tom Riley and it seemed very clear from the costume what role the latter is to play, which is actually a rather sizeable spoiler.

Other than those, have you noticed any other shows where you're constantly in danger of spoilers rearing up on you unexpectedly on social media?

John: The Good Wife and Mad Men! I'm binge-viewing both in the hopes of catching up before new series start in earnest. Rendered moot if friends are zealously tweeting prior to international broadcast.

Perhaps Sky's simulcast strategy is the way forward with Game of Thrones and 24: Live Another Day? Of course Netflix got there first with House of Cards on a much grander scale.

Movie soundtracks are replete with spoilers too. "Ben Kenobi's Death" and "Qui-Gon's Noble End" from the Star Wars saga are unambiguous. Just imagine "Han Solo's Last Stand" on the track listing for Episode VII...

Andrew: Yes, I remember that Phantom Menace faux pas: revealing a key plot twist via the album soundtrack listing which was out some time before the film itself was in cinemas. What an amazing goof by the companies involved.

The simulcast approach is certainly one way of preventing transatlantic spoilers (although I think that the real driver in this case was cutting down on torrent piracy by people impatient to see the latest episodes!) Unfortunately only works if you have access to the TV channel in question and sadly in the case of Game of Thrones and Mad Men being on Sky Atlantic, that's not the case for me; and I certainly wouldn't expect people who've seen the latest shows that way to not talk about it for months just so that I can catch up, so some spoilerage is inevitable. Even so, I was shocked to see a Radio Times 'today's highlights' piece for the week after Game of Thrones' Purple Wedding reveal that episode's shock ending in its very first line without any warning. People really are getting very slack about this sort of thing I can't help but think.

What with different countries airing episodes on different schedules, and now people binge-viewing box sets to their own schedules rather than the networks, it's becoming harder than ever to avoid key spoilers. Especially with on-demand streaming services now doing original programming with shows such as House of Cards on Netflix. Did you manage to avoid all the annoying advance tidbits with that one?

John: Yes, I managed to avoid serious spoilers in House of Cards S2 and the shock ending in Game of Thrones "The Lion and the Rose", which was miraculous. Talking torrents. Game of Thrones is by far and away the most pirated series in history.

Andrew: And yet the season 3 box set had also just become the UK's biggest-selling DVD/Blu-ray release in the last decade so far, showing that pirating doesn't seem to do all that much harm at the end of the day - at least in this case. All the more remarkable given the decline in sales of physical media in recent times.

John: There's still some life left in those silver platters despite Sony citing a flagging interest in the format.

The Sunday Times Culture review section has been known to include major plot spoilers. Entertainment Weekly is much more proficient in issuing reasonable warnings. Kudos to the editorial department.

Andrew: That's interesting - I wonder if there's a difference between the US and UK approach to spoilers? Are US publications inclined to be more circumspect about such things then? Is mainstream media in the UK just more casual or careless about letting key bits of information slip out, I wonder? Of course, specialist publications really need to be careful where they step: a magazine that divulges a spoiler to an avid fan audience without due warning is likely to pay very heavily in terms of the sort of backlash that only the most obsessive fanatics are capable of!

John: Not cool!

Andrew: I'm wondering whether that's anything to do with the historic difference in how things used to be broadcast: whether the UK publications and indeed audiences have simply grown used to details from US TV having largely leaked out by the time they air here? That might be changing with the increased use of simulcast, though. Thinking back, I'm pretty sure the first example of a show being near-simulcast that I can recall would be the Dallas episode that revealed who shot JR. The TV cameras were at Heathrow to film the arrival of the courier bringing the cans of film through customs, such was the frenzy to know!

John: Discussed Dallas over the Easter weekend when the subject of spoilers was raised by a cousin. They were intrigued by a pre-social media era. A world sans spoilers is an alien concept, broadly speaking. I'd argue a less fun one at that.

Andrew: Was it all that different? I remember everyone talking for months about the "Who Shot JR?" cliffhanger and speculating who it was, scouring the newspapers for any leaks. A different type of 'social' perhaps but not really all that far removed. We just have better tools to do it now!

Of course these days, Game of Thrones' 2am simulcast on Sky Atlantic will doubtless be achieved by the episode being transmitted digitally via satellite - takes some of the romance out of hauling film canisters through the airport arrivals lounge! But at least it keeps the secret intact ... although of course in the case of the Purple Wedding, the spoiler was already right there all along in George RR Martin's third book A Storm of Swords, so presumably a lot of people knew it was coming anyway. Does the book count as a spoiler in this case? It was published back in 2000 so it's hardly 'breaking news' in any objective sense. It would have been different if this had been a point on which the books and TV series diverged (which has since happened, but had previously been the case only in minor details.)

John: An interesting point. I've kept clear of source material when enthralled by a film or TV adaptation. For example The Hunger Games.

Andrew: I read The Hunger Games after picking up on the buzz for it as an e-book, not realising that it was about to become a film - the novel is very good, incidentally. And I also made a point of reading each instalment of The Lord of the Rings just before the Peter Jackson film of each part was released. It never occurred to me at the time that this was effectively exposing myself to "spoilers"; I just knew if I didn't read the books before seeing the film, I never would afterwards so it was a "now or never" moment.

John: Read portions of The Lord of the Rings in childhood, but am more familiar with Brian Sibley's wonderful adaptation for BBC Radio Four. An audio drama touchstone and inspired me to work as a foley artist at Radio Four; where I worked with Sir Christopher Lee (Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings).

Andrew: Oooh, that's a very cool tidbit!

I guess I always had the feeling that the LOTR films were first and foremost for people who already knew their Tolkien and that one's appreciation of the movies rested largely on familiarity with the source material in the first place. Moving on to another hugely successful 21st century franchise, I certainly feel that people are better off if they've read JK Rowling's books before seeing the Harry Potter films simply because of all the extra background details that can't be properly conveyed on film. As my recent marathon watch of all eight Potter films revealed, there are some sizeable plot holes in the movies that result from the screenplays abbreviating or skipping over crucial story points from the books.

And of course, mentioning Potter recalls one of the more amusing "spoiler" stories: Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo doing their utmost to not divulge the ending of The Half Blood Prince and going so far as to dub it "the unfortunate event" so as not to spoil it for people heading off to the cinema. I still chuckle when I hear the phrase. And were there really that many people seeing the film who wouldn't have known the shock development in advance?

John: For one reason or another I never got around to reading the books. Incidentally, Harry Potter prequel The Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is set to become a big screen trilogy at Warners Bros.

Andrew: Trilogy? Pah! Don't let Peter Jackson know or he'll be able to spin the book out into a seven-movie franchise without breaking a sweat...

John: Am I sensing consumer resistance?

Andrew: More like Hobbit fatigue.

John: LOL

Andrew: I read the first four Potter books before seeing the respective movies, but then stopped. Which I think was probably a mistake, because my recent Potter-thon made me realise just how unclear or how much stuff the movies had been forced to leave out, and how that affected the understanding of the plot. I had to go back and re-watch one of the films (the first half of The Deathly Hallows) because without the book, it didn't actually make a lot of sense. In the end I started reading the novels I hadn't got around to before, and realised just how much more there was to them than had been transferred to the movies, and how much that additional knowledge added to the enjoyment of watching the films. So are the novels spoilers in this case ... or prerequisite knowledge?

I have a similar sense when it comes to Game of Thrones because the world of Westeros that George RR Martin creates in the books is so rich, deep and detailed that no TV show can possibly hope to incorporate it all into a fast-moving visual medium. I think the producers and writers do a phenomenal job with it, mind, but it still leaves me wondering: would it be better to read the books in advance of the series, or better not to? The novels would spoil the shock twists coming up in future, but would the episodes as a whole be more enjoyable for it?

And that leads to a different question: what should the makers of new films and shows do if they are adapting stories from other sources? Should they play on that expectation that a sizeable audience will know the story and adjust it so as to create something that isn't 'pre-spoiled' by anyone's possible knowledge of the source? I'm reminded of the US version of The Killing which changed the ending because they didn't want anyone going online and finding out who the killer was in the Danish version. And I believe the US version of Broadchurch (Gracepoint) is also going to have a different resolution, which astounds me because the outcome of that is no 'plug-in and play' separate component but is absolutely woven into the very nature of the entire series. But the net result is that I now want to watch Gracepoint to see what they do with it and how well it works, whereas I would probably have been indifferent to a straightforward remake.

John: The US version of The Killing has garnered its own cult following, and Netflix has bankrolled a final 6 episodes to wrap things up after the series was cancelled, twice.

Andrew: I'm glad it found its audience, I thought the US version was a better show than it was given credit for at the time. Not sure the change in ending made a huge difference and in fact the more it strayed away from the Danish original, the more trouble it seemed to get itself into and the less satisfying it felt. Sometimes change for its own sake isn't a great strategy.

So do new adaptations have a duty to stay faithful to the source's main plot points? Or does the need for the new version to avoid 'spoilers' take precedence?

John: Game of Thrones isn't averse to diverging from the source material, which is laudable. This was evidenced in the final minutes of "Oathkeeper", surprising everyone. I squealed with delight.

Andrew: Yes, that does seem to be the first big departure from the books for the TV show; although that said, George RR Martin and the show's producers seem to be working together so closely it's hard to believe this isn't entirely consistent with Martin's vision for the as-yet-unwritten entries in the canon. I guess it could muddy the waters somewhat - do the books still count as spoilers to the TV show, or is the TV show now becoming a spoiler for the to-be-published novels?!

I also understand that the "whodunit" left hanging after the Purple Wedding is going a slightly different way in the series to the story in the books, from what I've read so far. I confess that after learning that twist, I actually went and looked up two things from the books (about who would be next to inherit the throne; and who did the deed) so this was rather a case of deliberately going out and spoiling myself on these points - not something I often do, but curiosity got the better of me this time.

What about you, any instances where you've just had to know something and gone out and tracked down a spoiler regardless?

John: The Matrix: Revolutions! I had no appetite for the finale of The Matrix trilogy, but wanted to know the conclusion without wading through the film.

Andrew: Heh! While I agree that the Matrix sequels weren't a patch on the originals, I still saw them through to the bitter end and thought they had enough merit to keep watching. Give them another go when you have time - with firmly lowered expectations!

John: If I revisit The Matrix trilogy, I'll let you know.

Andrew: Clearly I'll know it's happening when hell starts to show signs of frost!

But does it even count as a 'spoiler' if you have no intention of seeing the work in question, I wonder? I don't watch any soaps at all any more, but every now and then a storyline will pop up and be all over the tabloids and social media to the point where it will pique my interest sufficiently to go and read up on what everyone's talking about. But I don't see that as spoilers at all, since I have no involvement in the show and no intention of watching it.

Well that's my excuse, anyway - and I'm sticking to it!

Still with us? Then come back for more in seven days time when we wrap up our discussion about spoilers. The third and final part continues to look at cliffhangers, the danger of over-analysing shows and the question of just how long a 'spoiler' remains in effect for. With examples from the likes of The Great Gatsby and Titanic along the way, we finally arrive at some conclusions - so we very much hope that you will join us for that!

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