When a big movie release is approaching, devoted fans will go out of their way to avoid spoilers. But do spoilers really harm your enjoyment of a story?

Psychological Science magazine describes a study investigating this question:

Christenfeld and Leavitt ran three experiments with a total of 12 short stories. Each story was presented as-is (without a spoiler), with a prefatory spoiler paragraph or with that same paragraph incorporated into the story as though it were a part of it. Each version of each story was read by at least 30 subjects.

Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions.

The article’s press release* makes some suggestions as to why the subjects preferred the “spoiled” stories:

One possibility is perhaps the simplest one: that plot is overrated.

“Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology.

And so we come to The Hobbit.

The Hobbit was published in 1937 and has sold somewhere between 35-100 million copies worldwide (reliable figures are hard to obtain). It has been recommended for expanding literacy skills in 11-14 year olds and as a precursor to Shakespeare and Dickens. In short, the story is very well-known, and there are few people who have not heard of it.

So surely, if the story is that popular and that well-known, it’s impossible to spoil – or rather, it is already comprehensively spoiled?

The reason we will all be going to see the film of The Hobbit is not for the story or the plot.

In fact the plot of the Hobbit is pretty economical. The overarching mission, which takes a company of aloof heroes to meet their fate at a distant mountain, is a simple linear plot consisting mainly of a series of episodic encounters with various larger-than-life characters and races. (Tolkien was not shy of recycling such a plot; The Lord of The Rings was published 12 years later.)

No, the reason we will all be watching The Hobbit is not the story, but the storytelling.

Throughout his career, Peter Jackson has demonstrated a seldom-bettered ability to weave the lives of small people (literally and figuratively) into the epic machinations of dangerous worlds. In his Tolkien adaptations, the race of Hobbits live in a bubble of bucolic peace while the rest of Middle Earth is riven by inter-species rivalries and war. It is the way Jackson and his collaborators have transformed the text into a believable (and also fully 3D and flicker-free ) world which is so compelling.

It is also the fidelity and “humanity” of the characters’ portrayal by a diverse cast, who are buoyed by the practical effects and visual effects catered by Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, that help to fully realise this world. The conceptual imagination and detail on every inch of screen space will draw you in further. There is no way this can be described, it must be seen and experienced.

This also contributes to a film’s re-watchability. The richness and vibrancy of The Lords of the Rings trilogy immediately established it in the hearts and minds of its fans, creating a loyalty rivaling anything in cinema history. The Extended Editions have outsold all other re-releases on DVD and BluRay. Evidently even people who have seen the films many times and can recall from memory every aspect of the plot, characters and visuals – even their enjoyment is not spoiled by that familiarity. In fact, it appears to have reinforced it.

Increasingly movies are “spoiled” by their trailers. The tendency for recent trailers to show snippets of action from well into the third act of a film has caused consternation among fans. Many fans now avoid watching trailers, TV spots, or behind-the-scenes sneak peeks in an effort to maintain their purity.

But the studios want you to see these things because they are a form of controlled spoil. This tightly-managed release of micro-spoilers entices you in and builds your anticipation, leaving only more questions in your mind. The studios know implicitly that spoiling is good.

So when is a spoiler not a spoiler? Well, perhaps there is no such thing… What a twist!


* The full report is only available behind a pay wall at Psychological Science online: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/9/1152.full.pdf+html