SPOILER ALERT: Does a Statute of Limitations Exist on Spoilers?

I got to thinking about spoilers the other day.You know, someone telling you what happens at the end of a movie or book you really want to read or watch, but you just haven’t gotten around to it yet.I got to thinking whether there is a limit to when a spoiler warning has to be attached to a post or a conversation?Is there an unwritten statute of limitations regarding how long is long enough before a movie or book becomes fair game for all conversation?Is there some unspecified amount of time where I won’t be considered a jerk for telling someone (even inadvertently) about the end of a story?

I wonder about this because there are some things which are pop culture icons that I feel that everyone should know about them already, whether or not they have actually been absorbed first hand.For example, King Kong dies in the original movie by being shot off the Empire State Building.When the Peter Jackson King Kong was released a few years ago, I walked into a friend’s apartment where he and a few other friends and their girlfriends were watching the newly released DVD. They were at the end of the film, and I wanted to get some lunch.I said something along the lines of “come on, let’s go.He falls down, goes boom, girl cries because the monkey’s dead.”Every eye in the room was on me, and I got promptly yelled at because they had no idea that Kong died at the end.I still hold that I was in the right because the original King Kong ended the same way, and that movie is 70 years old!If a movie has been around that long, and is a cultural icon like King Kong, I have no remorse for “ruining” the movie for someone because, by all rights, that ending has become more of a cliché than a revelation.Someone should have at least seen the iconic “giant ape on the Empire State Building” once or twice in an advertisement or a parody.

This happened to me again when The Lord of the Rings movies were first released; I was talking about Aragorn being crowned king and Frodo only succeeding because Gollum bit his finger off while we were in line for Return of the King.I had people getting mad at me for telling them how the movie ended. Again, I didn’t feel any remorse.The books were published over 50 years ago, and I read them when I was in fifth or sixth grade.The books have been around so long that anyone who wanted to could have had access to them.It’s not like they were a new property that had only been optioned for a film because of recently being a bestseller.I did not feel as though I was ruining the movie for anyone because the books had been so widely read and discussed for five decades that the information was abundant.The story itself had existed for half a century, even if this particular film had not.If the story itself was so important to the people seeing it rather than the spectacle of the medium, I say they should have read the books.

But what about newer works?Or what about less-known books and movies that someone might or might not have seen?Is there a time limit where I am not allowed to talk about what happens in the books because the movie has yet to be released?What about newly aired TV shows that have a plot twist at the end of the current season?When is it okay for me to talk about this stuff without worry that I am ruining someone’s good time?My girlfriend told me about the newest LOST finale being spoiled on CNN.com in the title two weeks after the episode aired.I don’t think two weeks is enough time, even in this age of DVR and BitTorrent, to justify callously throwing out the ending to a serial like LOST.Life happens, and even casual fans have things come up that prevent watching a show or reading a book.But there comes a point where if a person does not read the book, see the movie, or watch the show that their interest must not be powerful enough to impede those around them from talking about the spoilers.

There are series like Harry Potter where many people refuse to read the books because the movies are being released relatively concurrently.Do I feel bad about people who care about the movies and not read the books, if they hear me discussing the novel in line?No, I don’t. When the novel for the upcoming Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince was released, I did my best to avoid spoilers.I pretty much cut myself off from the internet and television until I could finish it.A friend accidentally loaded aYTMND.com page that yelled across my house “SNAPE SNAPE SNAPE SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE!SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE!”I was ready to kill him because not even a week had passed since the book had been released.

However, that was then, and this is now.Years have passed, and Harry Potter fans know what happens, so I don’t feel bad for writing that on this blog.The narrative itself has now existed and permeated the culture for so long that is has passed the point where it could (or should) be shocking as a reveal. I might end up discussing the death scene in line to the new movie this summer because enough years have passed since the novel’s release that the effects of a spoiler should, in my opinion, be negated.

If someone goes to see the movie on opening day and claims to be a “huge Harry Potter fan,” but has not read the novels, then that person is obviously not enough of a fan to read the original property, so why should I be careful four years down the road about what I say?It’s not like this is an all-new story.It’s not like Harry Potter (or Lord of the Rings or King Kong) is some fly-by-night, easily forgotten series like Twilight.These series have solidified their places as lasting pop-culture icons. My girlfriend made the point that I was in the wrong here because she had never read the LotR books on purpose because she did not like Tolkien’s writing style, and my discussion on how the story ended would have hindered her enjoyment of the movie as a stand-alone piece of art.What if someone just hates reading but loves Harry Potter?Are these people to be punished for their preference of medium in which they experience a narrative?

I think to a certain extent, yes.I know that makes me sound like a jerk, but I think like that solely because these particular examples are such certifiable icons.They have stood the test of time (well, maybe not Harry Potter, but it certainly has its own unique pedigree as a series), and they have become the basis for numerous knock-offs, parodies, and clichés.If a work has entered into the realm of the cultural subconscious, then there is no justifiable reason to get offended if someone references it.No one gets mad if I talk about Dorothy Gale melting the Wicked Witch of the West do they?Even though Wicked is one of the newest adaptations of the narrative and someone might not have read that book or seen the musical (but they want to!), the ending still plays out like Baum’s novel or Judy Garland’s film.And no one gets mad if I say that.Why, then, is it any different for other pop culture references?

There are obviously exceptions to this, and I know that I come across rather callous by writing this.I would never want to actually ruin a person’s good time, but I feel there is a limit to how long I have to be careful around other people when concerning books and movies that are certifiable pop culture phenomena.I think there is a different in me making a blog post telling someone how Terminator: Salvation ends while it is still in the theater and me writing a blog about Dumbledore’s death scene in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince while the film is still in theaters. Sure, there are people who might have not seen either of them and will have it spoiled, but the difference comes in that Terminator:Salvation is an entirely new narrative while Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince has already been put through the ringer and has become old-hat.The difference comes in that if someone honestly cared about Harry Potter’s story enough to get angry about it being spoiled, they would have already experienced the narrative in its original format.

My girlfriend brought up an interesting point regarding this when we were discussing it, saying that my theories almost don’t apply because the new film, no matter how old the original work is, should be considered a new work based on theories of adaptation, and who am I to tell anyone how they should enjoy something?I agree with her to a point.I gladly concede that I have no right in telling people how they should enjoy something like a new film; my qualm comes in with their limiting the narrative itself to the new film.Where is the line drawn from a storytelling perspective?When the narrative itself has become a part of popular culture, I don’t think the rules of adaptation apply, even if the film is stand-alone art.The person being angered at my “ruining” the movie for them by discussing the existing narrative has had ample time to absorb it if it is important for them to not know what happens.I respect someone for saying “I want to get the Harry Potter story through film alone.”Unfortunately, such a narrative has become such an iconic (and multimedia) phenomenon that it is ludicrous to think that is a feasible to limit it to one medium.I don’t want to purposefully ruin someone’s good time (I won’t be screaming “SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE, EVERYBODY!YOU HEAR THAT? SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE!” in July), but if their good time impedes my own by my girlfriend and I not being able to discuss books we love while waiting in line, I make no apologies for someone overhearing us talking about a book that was released four years ago.

So yes, I do think there is a time-limit on when “SPOILER ALERT” has to be put on posts or other writing and conversations have to be squelched for courtesy’s sake.I think there is a time period on how long someone can’t openly discuss the endings to movies or books.I just don’t know what it is—twomonths? Six? A year and seventeen days?I think it’s up to everyone to use our own judgment in regard to courtesy, but I also think that there comes a time when spoilers are no longer spoilers.Even if you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense by now, you likely know that Bruce Willis is dead from the beginning.If not, then guess what?You were likely never going to see the movie in the first place or you didn’t care enough about the story to watch it before now.I generally consider 6 months to a year to be my “careful” time when I talk about new things, asking if people have seen a movie or read a book before I start discussing it.After that, they’re likely not invested enough in it to get angry if I tell them what happens or discuss it around them.Also, if a book or movie has the staying power of Harry Potter has, I think 6 months to a year is more than enough time for people to ingest the newest installment. If a book or movie has been around (and maintained popularity) as long as Lord of the Rings or King Kong, then there is no reason for people to get angry at spoilers; such iconic works transcend boundaries placed on ordinary narratives.I think the statute of limitations on spoiler warnings wears off, at least, when you break the half-century mark.

What are your thoughts on this?Is there a time limit to spoilers, or should we all be considerate all the time in case we might ruin a movie or book for someone else?

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. HAHA, I can totally empathize. To be honest, I tend to herd my spoilers (particularly for TV shows) and unless someone asks, I won't tell them. I enjoy spoilers (I know), but I try not to ruin things for people. It is rather lame that King Kong is not universally recognized.

    Still, being a TV fan, spoilers are either loved or hated. I try my best not to piss anyone off, but sometimes it just can't be avoided.

  2. I don't really want to piss people off (and pretty much refuse to with newer works), but there is a time limit on when I have to be careful, I think, because there is a universality there, like you say.

    Part of that, I agree, comes from my liking spoilers for certain things, like classic novels that I might never read if I don't know the "hook". On others (LOST, for instance), I can't stand knowing anything about what is coming.

  3. I never really gave spoilers much thought. I usually exercise common sense and if something is "new" then I don't blab about it but if it's been around for a few weeks or months or years then I'll talk freely about it.

    I found your situations with King Kong and LotR interesting and kinda amusing 🙂 It's like telling someone the end of a Shakespeare play!

  4. I posted this in response to a friend on a forum I read when he said I was in the wrong for talking about this stuff in line and just assuming people know the end. I thought it was appropriate because of your mention of Shakespeare. 😉

    "More obscure books and movies, sure, lay off for common courtesy. I mean, if I see someone reading, I don't know, Jude the Obscure, I'm not going to tell them how it ends. But if I see someone reading a copy of Julius Caesar, it's safe to assume that it's not a spoiler to tell him Caesar dies. "Et tu, Brute" is too well-known already for that to be a spoiler."

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