My kids hate spoilers more than anything, and it's all my fault. A few days ago, I heard my son talking with his friend, when out of nowhere, he exploded, "WHAT?! I can't believe you just did that!!". Naturally, I rushed over to check for blood or bruises, only to find out that this friend had spoiled the ending of 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' by implying that Smaug was not killed at the end. "But you've already read the book...you already know how it ends!" I said. Owen replied, "I know, but still. I wanted to see it for myself."
I knew exactly what he meant, and I couldn't help but feel responsible. I grew up with filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott...artists who knew how to keep a secret and surprise an audience on a massive scale. Some of my greatest film experiences would have been ruined by a spoiled ending or plot twist, and I have grown to cherish the truly great surprises in film.
In 1975, Steven Spielberg released 'Jaws' to an unsuspecting public, and the film became one of the most successful of all time. The secret to it's success, however, was not the shark we saw on screen, but the one we didn't see. Spielberg, unknowingly, created both the "summer blockbuster" and, unfortunately, the spoiler at the same time.
The early 1970's production was so ambitious that it was constantly plagued by budget and production issues, most notably a faulty shark prop. No one had filmed under the ocean like this before, and certainly not with an animatronic shark. Spielberg, sensing the pressure to produce a hit, made a decision that changed the film (and his career) forever: lose the shark.
>“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’ ... It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.” -Steven Spielberg [^1]
He focused on the characters, their fear and terror, leaving the shark to lurk in the background, growing more powerful in our imagination. The invisible menace became Hitchcock's "bomb under the table [^2]"; we know it's there the whole time. It hooks us into the story, agitates and delights us, forces us to participate. What began as a straight monster flick, ultimately became the embodiment of the fears of an entire generation, just by taking out the monster.
In 'Orthodoxy' G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame." What we don't know is infinitely more vital to our experience than what we do. Even my kids know the power of great surprises, and have learned to protect them at all costs. Spoilers pop the bubble of our imagination, and drain some of the power out of an artists work.
I can't help but wonder...why do I love great surprises in art, but abhor them in real life? I found so much delight in the revelation of Darth Vader's true identity (no spoilers), but if that happened to me, personally, I would be in therapy for years. The real human experience is full of lurking monsters; real pain, conflict and sadness usually bring anxiety and dread, not the beautiful tension of a well made film.
I guess, in the theater, we implicitly know "It's just a movie... it all works out in the end." Even if it doesn't, we know in a couple hours we can just get up and walk out of the theater. The abstraction of the experience frees us from our real, personal fears.
But isn't there some sense in which this is also true (really true) for the Christian? Do we believe that we will someday walk out of this dark theater into the sunlight of a greater reality? Can this certainty about our ultimate ending allow us to delight in the suspense of the unknown, instead of dreading it?
[^2]: [Alfred Hitchcock on Cinematic Tension](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPFsuc_M_3E)