Of Carrie, and Harry, and spoiler alerts
The subject is spoilers -- those references in reviews of movies, books and plays that might give away key plot points. Given the topic, it's worth noting that the reader's question -- which includes the plot point in question -- follows below, after the "continue reading" line.
Entertainment editor Betsy Sharkey edited the June 11 Hollywood Brief column that, in looking at the unexpected success of "Sex and the City," included a reference that gave away a scene in the movie.
Reader Carol Simoes of Redondo Beach hadn't yet seen the film before she read the column. Part of her note said, "Why do Times writers assume that everybody who's interested has already seen a movie, when it's been out for only a few weeks?"
The response from Sharkey: "The film had been out for more than a week (i.e., two full movie-going weekends). At that point we are not going to hold back from making the points we need to make in writing about a movie, TV show, etc. In the Internet age it is not reasonable to expect people writing about entertainment content to protect readers forever."
(Spoiler alert: Reader's full note below includes the plot point in question.)
Wrote reader Simoes: "I was enjoying Rachel Abramowitz's article about the success of 'chick flicks' recently, until I got to the spoiler about 'Sex and the City.'" At this point, Simoes cited the line from the story: "In other words, they served up a 42-year-old woman getting jilted at the altar by her boyfriend ... "
Concluded Simoes, "At least some of the writers put in 'spoiler alerts,' so readers can skip their article. But in Abramowitz's article, there was no alert, and the spoiler was entirely unnecessary to her story. Please tell her 'Thanks a lot!' for me for ruining the surprise."
To the idea of adding a few words of warning for those who might not want to read further because they haven't yet seen the movie, said Sharkey, "Two weeks into the run of a film, I'm just not sure it makes sense -- where do we draw the line -- three weeks out? When it goes into DVD release?"
Calendar Editor Richard Nordwind concurs with Sharkey: "I also think it makes it impossible to write commentary or criticism of something, whether it’s a movie, book, TV show, etc. in a reasonable time frame without discussing key elements of the plot. We make sure we don’t do that in reviews, but in follow-up pieces you have to discuss the content or it's meaningless."
The concern is a recurring one, and other examples of scene-stealing reviews raise different points.
Coverage of the Tonys last summer brought an objection at the time from Shelly Riney of Sherman Oaks, who thought that the Times report on the winners revealed two major plot points in "Spring Awakening": "Most of us have not yet been to N.Y. to see all the new shows! The broadcast got by just fine with out talking about suicide and botched abortions –- you should have done the same."
Reporter Mike Boehm explained in a note in response: "'Spring Awakening' is not a cliffhanger or a suspense piece. I don't think that knowing some of the plot elements will spoil the experience (I'm speaking as one who has heard only the CD). Clearly, the show's producers don't think that knowing these plot points in advance will spoil anything, because they are both detailed in the CD booklet, and the suicide is mentioned in the story outline on the show's official website. We didn't give away any secrets. And unlike the website and CD booklet, we at least didn't say which characters are involved."
And, he added, "I'd rather be blamed by you for giving away a bit of the plot than be blamed by parents who would want pertinent and specific information to help them decide whether the show might be suitable for their teenaged and pre-teen children."
Riney wrote back once more: "If this is about alerting parents about events in this show, you could advise parents directly that they may take issue with certain plot points, and to look further into it on the website before deciding to take their children. Perhaps you could consider some way in the future to balance the desires of adults who don’t want the plot disclosed prior to seeing a show, and the people who may need some protection for themselves or their children. You are the writer, so I’m sure you could figure out an artful way to say it. If not, how about 'spoiler alert'?”
Possibly the publication that brought the most reader dismay was The Times' coverage last year of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the final installment of the hugely popular series. The July 18, 2007 story was about a huge spoiler -- photos published online days before the book's official release, of digital photographs of pages from the novel.
To the chagrin of many readers (and some on staff as well), The Times published an image of the final page of the book. Reader Louis Mac Anany of Glendora sent an e-mail: "I was appalled that accompanying [the story] was a photograph of what looks like the last two pages of the novel. Ironically, it most egregiously illustrated the spoiler mentality written about in the accompanying article. Your newspaper should be ashamed of itself! Surely your editors could have at least blurred the words to avoid spoiling the suspense of the novel. It's almost impossible to glance at the picture without realizing its contents and thus spoil the book." (As deputy director of photography Steve Stroud told readers at the time, "We ran the photo from the website to illustrate how the pirated information appeared on one of the several websites that had posted some or all of the pages from the book in addition to summations of the story line. We were careful in avoiding pages that would give away critical portions of the plot.")
A quick review of the articles in The Times' database from the last several months shows mostly facetious uses of the phrase "spoiler alert," such as this from a series of interviews with various writers; or this from the main review of "Sex and the City" on May 30. What should be good news to readers is that more often the word "spoiler" seems to come up in Times articles as an assurance that plots points aren't being given away, such in Greg Braxton's June 2 column about seeing "Sex and the City" with a group of women, when he wrote "no spoilers here."
Nordwind summarizes, "The term 'spoiler alert' can certainly avoid problems and we use it when appropriate. But it often doesn't fit the flow or tone of a story to simply inject that in -- as with, say, the discussion about 'Spring Awakening' –- it would be like putting a cartoon in the middle of an editorial; it just doesn’t work."
Above: The photo of the page from the final Harry Potter book that ran in the L.A. Times in July 2007. It was taken from a ZendURL page, which also posted photos of chapter titles and a list of alleged spoilers. Photo by www.zendurl.com