Why is it that spoilers seem to make so many people lose the plot?

Opinion: If Dr Johnson could get by without issuing spoiler warnings surely the rest of us can

There aren't many news stories these days that don't somehow involve Jennifer Lawrence. Just look at her fighting bush fires in southern California and sharing pillions with François Hollande. Neither of those things actually happened. But the staggeringly ubiquitous young star has, while enduring red-carpet duties before the Screen Actors Guild awards, pointed up contemporary society's irritating obsession with the "spoiler".

Here's what happened. A journalist delighted Ms Lawrence by introducing her to Damien Lewis, star of shark-jumping espionage drama Homeland, and then quickly soured the mood by mentioning a significant incident from the third series.

The hitherto impeccably behaved Lawro – who had only watched season one and two – threw hands in the air and made as if she’d just been told a much-loved pet faced imminent blindness. “I can’t even . . . It’s like past mad,” she gabbled. “It’s this weird other emotion . . . I feel like my heart just fell out.” (There was a bit of conscious hyperbole going on here, but not much.)

As recently as five years ago, the average Joe would struggle to find a word for somebody who irresponsibly revealed significant plot details of a film, book or television show.


Then something odd happened. Virtually overnight, all those who “spoil” were dispatched to the same circle of hell that houses people who slap children in supermarkets or leave dogs in cars on hot days. Simultaneously, the definition of how much plot description is permissible in reviews was redrawn to include virtually everything that happens after the credits have rolled.

Comments sections beneath film reviews now swell with outrage at the writer's gall in summarising even the tiniest plot point. There is a cadre of correspondent who can't understand why formal reviews do not contain a glaring "SPOILER ALERT" before the description of any event at all. It has, for the easily outraged, become a sort of dull game. Each tagged spoiler counts as a point against the establishment "critics" paid to write "reviews" (such folk love the withering use of inverted commas).

Pertinent observations
Philip French, recently retired as film critic for the Observer, had been writing unmolested for nearly 50 years before the spoiler police burst into his bunker. It did get to him in the end.

Less than a year before leaving his post, the great man wrote: "Some people believe that references to the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in a review of Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers or the revelation by a movie critic that HM Stanley met David Livingstone in the film that bears their names constitute unforgivable 'spoilers'."

What the heck is going on?

Obviously, the current paranoia does emerge from an ancient – and entirely understandable – desire to enjoy a story as the writer meant it to be told. All novels and films are, in some sense, mystery tales. The film most frequently named best of all time, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, begins by setting a puzzle that will not be solved until the last frame: why does Charles Foster Kane breathe the word "Rosebud" before he dies? The film easily stands up to repeated viewing. But, if you can, you will appreciate, on first encounter, watching the closing surprise from a place of ignorance.

Too much information
The new spoiler fascism is, however, of an entirely different order. Certain websites have taken to running two reviews of major blockbusters: one in the traditional, sane style; another entirely "spoiler free". You are allowed to note that Batman is in that Batman film. That's about it.

Now, the spoiler poison – what a horrible word “spoiler” is by the way – starts to creep towards respectable, hitherto- resistant places.

Sight and Sound, the highbrow organ of the British Film Institute has, in its print edition, taken to issuing alerts above reviews that give too much away. How long can the New York Review of Books hold out?

Here's the part where we blame the internet. The rise in spoiler paranoia corresponds precisely with the arrival of social media as a force. Heaven help the Sherlock fan or Breaking Bad enthusiast who, having recorded his or her favourite show, settles down for five minutes on Twitter. Short-form communications, zooming at the reader with unanticipated content, can easily blurt out information of which the recipient would rather remain ignorant.

In such circumstances it is reasonable to deface the message with capital letters and an ugly, recently coined s-word. But there is – or should be – no need for those reviewing films, books, operas or video games to change the practices of a millennium. If Dr Johnson could get by without issuing "spoiler warnings" then the rest of us can surely manage the same.

After all, should we relent, it would deprive the S-Police of all that delicious point-scoring. Nobody wants that.