Over the past few weeks I’ve seen people on my Twitter feed and on movie message boards get up in arms (no pun intended) about people ‘spoiling’ the end of 127 Hours. ‘Not everyone knows the story,’ was the general mantra, which I saw repeated dozens of times.
Actually, considering that Aron Ralston’s story ran on a highly rated, repeated episode of Dateline NBC and that his book, Between A Rock And A Hard Place, sold a number of copies, I’d argue that more people know what happened to Ralston than will ever see the film in theaters. But to me that’s neither here nor there. And even less important is the fact that Ralston, now sporting a device at the end of his arm, has been doing press on behalf of the film, which sort of gives away the ending as well. What’s important to me is to realize that spoilers are not important.
A decade ago, when the whole movie website thing was in its infancy, spoilers were the currency. You went to sites to get spoiled on the new Star Wars or whatever was hot that week, and that was a big part of what set movie sites apart from traditional, promotional-oriented media. That’s changed in the last few years, and spoilers are now dirty things. We all sit on them. And the definition of spoiler seems to have grown - I have been yelled at for ‘spoiling’ things that felt incredibly inconsequential to me (ie, the person who had seen the movie already). Now we live amidst serious spoilerphobia, where the worst faux pas one can commit on the internet is to reveal any aspect of a TV show or movie before someone else has seen it. And the shelf life of a spoiler is long - you can ‘spoil’ a TV episode even weeks or months after it aired.
All of this, of course, is bullshit. Somehow everybody has become over sensitive to spoilers, and everybody seems to have distended the definition of spoiler beyond any real meaning. Worst of all, this means to me that people have completely lost sight of what storytelling is about in the first place. Here’s the great truth:
Storytelling isn’t about surprise.
That’s important because all that spoilers ruin is the element of surprise in a narrative. Surprise - a well timed reveal or a shocking, unforeseen turn of events - can be nice additions to a good narrative, but they are simply not the most important part of a story. But somehow we’ve come to a place where being surprised has taken precedence over all other things in storytelling.
If surprise was that important an element of storytelling it would be impossible to enjoy classic novels or films. Everybody knows that Ahab goes down with the whale, but Moby Dick is still a good read. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that Charlton Heston was on Earth the whole time in Planet of the Apes? The film still works, even when you have that piece of information. I’ve recently been watching the BBC I, Claudius again and that’s a series whose twists and turns and murders and coups are known to anyone with a passing familiarity with Roman history, but the beauty of the series is in the way the history is related, as well as the fantastic performances by some of the best British actors of the time.
In a film like 127 Hours the ‘spoiler’ is part of the tension. Director Danny Boyle knows that you know what will happen to Ralston at the end, and he plays a lot of shots off of his hands early on, and later in the film makes you think that Ralston is about to chop off his arm. There’s a scene very early where Ralston is trying to chip away at the boulder pinning his hand to the wall of a crevice; the way it’s shot makes you think Ralston is hacking at his own hand, and the entire audience I saw it with jumped. Knowing what Ralston is going to do in order to escape doesn’t ruin the film, and that’s partially because 127 Hours is so well told.
Remember back to when you were a child, or think of any children you know today - there’s nothing a kid likes better than to watch the same movies again and again and again. I don’t think it’s because kids are particularly dumb but rather it’s because they’re able to lose themselves in the storytelling. I’ve seen kids get surprised at moments in a movie they’ve seen twenty times. That’s not to say that we should strive to experience movies like children - they’re notoriously lax on quality control - but maybe to say that they understand storytelling in a way that our modern culture has forgotten. Well-worn tales were once passed around campfires, and nobody cared how worn they were as long as they were well-told. Now we can see movies that are told masterfully and then complain that a pivotal scene was ruined in a trailer.
In fact I’d argue that a well-told story can make you forget you’ve been spoiled. Being pulled into a story so completely that you’re just in that moment - again, at points of 127 Hours I was no longer thinking about what was to come but just being in the moment of the movie - is a sign of good filmmaking and great storytelling. It’s why movies can be rewatched; whether or not I know Roger’s fate in Dawn of the Dead I always feel that tension as he’s climbing around in the cab of the truck. I’ve seen Dawn a hundred times, but the movie is good enough that I get caught up in that moment.
None of this means that people should be wantonly spoiling films for others; there remains a purity to experiencing a narrative for the first time. But it does mean that maybe we shouldn’t be getting so worked up about spoilers. If the enjoyment of a movie can be ruined with a sentence, it probably wasn’t a particularly good movie anyway. You can know that Rosebud was a sled and still enjoy Citizen Kane, and you can know that Vader is Luke’s father and still experience The Empire Strikes Back on a visceral, exciting level. These stories are told well, with skill, and so they hold up not just on repeat viewings but on spoiled first viewings.
So yeah, Aron Ralston cuts his own arm off and survives in 127 Hours. If you haven’t seen the film you haven’t been spoiled, because the movie is really about the way Boyle tells it and the way that James Franco acts it. And that’s what all great cinematic art is about - the telling and the tellers. Anybody can suddenly reveal the whole cast was dead all along; it takes an artist to make that reveal resonate again and again and again.