The Shakespeare Rule for Spoiler Alerts

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Don’t spoil the ending!

You think, “But the book is over a hundred years old. Everyone must know how it ends by now. Surely, I can talk about it before the new movie version comes out.”

NO! Don’t do it. You’re wrong.

Suppose a book or play has been made into a movie more than once. Suppose the original story was released decades or even centuries ago. At what point do “spoiler alerts” not apply? Does a “spoiler alert” renew itself every time a new cinematic portrayal of the work is released?

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I think the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Don’t spoil the ending, even on old works that “everyone” knows. Why? Because the explosive, exponential growth of reading and viewing material makes it impossible for people to have the same kind of cultural literacy that existed a few generations ago.

We’ve gone from three main television stations to hundreds. We’ve gone from best sellers reigning for months, to best sellers being on top of the book charts for a day or two. People will miss things, even great things because of the volume of material available. Also, given the fact that great literature doesn’t spoil like fruit and given the movie industry’s penchant for recycling stories, new generations can and will be introduced to old “classics” when a new movie version is released. To a new generation who weren’t alive when the book was written or when the play was first performed, that movie is new.

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Most of Shakepeare’s plays, Treasure Island, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Frankenstein, Murder on the Orient Express, and It, to name a few, have all been made into movies more than once. You may think, “How much are we really giving away if we discuss the endings?” If the work portrayed in the movie is a classic in its genre, like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and generations of writers have built off of her surprise ending, adapting it to their own works, can we really not discuss the novel’s ending because a new cinematic version is released?

No, we can’t, because each new generation needs a chance to be exposed to the material as if it had been newly released.

For example, recently I sat down at a family party to watch the latest movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, featuring Kenneth Branagh as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Having read the book years ago and having written a short story that borrowed from Christie’s famous ending, I was extremely aware of “who done it,” but was looking forward to seeing if the movie was well done.

Making conversation before the movie, I mentioned the earlier versions of the movie and received in return blank looks. I was surprised to find no one else was familiar with either the book or the previous movies. As I took my seat, I was asked not to spoil the ending. None of the others in the room knew how the story ended.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published by Agatha Christie in 1926, is frequently cited as having had a significant impact on the mystery genre because of its twist ending. With the spate of mystery novels featuring unreliable narrators right now, am I allowed to discuss how much those books owe to Christie’s Roger Ackroyd? Maybe in a book discussion after everyone reads whatever the book in question is. However, if someone made a new Roger Ackroyd movie for world-wide release tomorrow, a spoiler alert would renew suddenly.

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I have noticed that when a new version of Romeo and Juliet is released, it is openly discussed from start to finish without anyone worrying about “spoiling” the story for someone who hasn’t seen or read it. As far as I can tell, Shakespeare is the only exception to the “spoiler alert rule”.

Shakespeare’s works are so much a part of the public consciousness, that people know Romeo and Juliet both die even if they haven’t seen or read the play. So, how old and how well-known does a story have to be to reach this stage? If nearly one hundred years and hundreds of authors influenced, as in the case of Agatha Christie, isn’t sufficient, I’m not sure what is. A work may have to be at least as old and well known as Shakespeare’s plays before no spoiler alerts are required. We could call it the Shakespeare Rule for Spoiler Alerts.

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

17 thoughts on “The Shakespeare Rule for Spoiler Alerts

  1. I guess the best rule if thumb is don’t discuss any endings unless like you said all involved in the discussion know the ending. Usually, even qgen I am duscussing an episode of a show I hold back on telling the ending. Cher’ley

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  2. Excellent. You’re right–what used to be common knowledge (or what this English major thought was common knowledge) isn’t any more. At a Christmas party for my library volunteers, I read “The Gift of the Magi.” Just before all is revealed, a gasp went up around the room: most of the guests, women ten to thirty years older than I, had never read the story, one I’d known since seeing it done as an opera on television when I was a child.

    It’s hard, though, to realize that Roger Ackroyd is nearly a hundred years old. And that everyone hasn’t read “Murder on the Orient Express.” Concerning Shakespeare’s tragedies, I think there’s another rule that allows full disclosure: Everybody Dies.

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  3. I think your advice to not discuss the ending of something to someone who hasn’t read it is sound advice. A lot of novels, especially romance, follow a formula and you know what the outcome will be, but not how it’s achieved usually. But I like mysteries, and Nicholas Sparks stories because the outcome isn’t always what I envision. And if someone spoiled that for me, it wouldn’t have nearly the impact. And there are a lot of old classics which were not required at my school which many authors have read, and I appreciate when they let me discover the ending for myself.

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    1. Yes. The upside of it is that we have so much great material available to us. We may have been exposed to some of it, but a friend could recommend a book we’d never heard of that’s a classic in its genre.

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  4. Good advice and actually, the most polite thing you can do. Never give away the ending, why take away the surprise? Reactions are different for everyone and spoiler is just that – a spoiler. Wait till they finish, then discuss!

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  5. Good points you make. In doing a review, I make sure I never spoil a book or movie for someone reading my review. As an aside, in my younger days I’d return to my parents’ house from college and see a gothic novel on an end table in the living room (mom loved that genre). I had no intention of reading the entire book. Instead, I’d read the ending (lol).

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      1. Sorry about the delay. Feeling better now. My accommodations for the Book Fest had spotty to non-existent internet. My husband could get his phone to connect a couple times, but mine wouldn’t at all.

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  6. Not a fan of spoilers. I consider any movie, play or TV show that starts at the end to be spoiled from the beginning. Also I am not a big fan of remakes. If something has been done and done well leave it alone. Months back a remake of an old movie me and several of my friends loved was on TV, I took the time and watched it. They actually used the exact same script, with different actors. About half way through I began a search on line for the original on DVD.

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    1. Sometimes a second version is more true to the original work. I’ve seen movies that took a book’s title but then had little else from the book in it.

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