For a culture so obsessed with “enjoying the journey,” we sure do hate a ruined ending — isn’t that contradictory? A ruined ending — and the subsequent spoiler alerts that follow — belies our secret obsession with the destination: to enjoy the journey, we need to know how it ends. We don’t want to know how the story ends because we like to be kept in suspense to see if we’ll actually arrive at… well somewhere, we’ll know when we get there. And yet we tell one another endlessly that we must enjoy the journey. The truth is, there’s more than one way to ruin the ending of any story — indeed to ruin the ending of any life — and the easiest way is to ruin the vision for where you’d like to end up.
The ruined ending actually encourages us to enjoy the unknown journey all the more because we know where we’re headed. I think of all the flights and train rides that delighted me precisely because I knew where I was heading: anticipating the destination made me all the more aware of the details of the trip, of how we got there. The Medievalists understood this. Dante for them was great precisely because he riffed on Virgil’s endings in a new and bold way. Julius Caesar rewarded the Elizabethans precisely because they knew of the plot and assassination in advance. You can almost hear the echo of their whispering how Romeo and Juliet both die at the end and the follow-up questions from a theatre-departing mob who wondered what kind of world would lead to the death of two children in love? A world filled with Montagues and Capulets. If there was any sin to the narrative mind of the Medieval man, it was that one of his friends might spoil the beginning. The start of a story is the seed of the end and the slightest variations in what is sown prophecy that wild variety of crops that will later fill our narrative harvest house.
You see this at work in the “spoiler alert” memes for historical fictions. For Titanic, spoiler alert: the boat sinks. For Pearl Harbor, spoiler alert: the base is bombed. For Sully, spoiler alert: he lands the plane in the river. For The Passion of the Christ, spoiler alert: he dies and rises.
If the power in any historical drama is not what happens in the end but how and why and when and where and, especially, for whom it happened, then the power in any story at all could be the very same. In fact the worse crime would not be spoiling that the ship sinks in the end of Titanic but rather spoiling that the historical Titanic ever set sail at all. Why do I say that? Because that’s what happened during the rerelease of the film at the 100th anniversary of its sinking: tons of kids took to Twitter baffled that such a historical event ever occurred, which added historic insult to historic injury. The kids knew the boat sank in the movie. What they didn’t know was that a hundred years prior, 1,517 human souls really were lost to the sea. In refusing to spoil the ending, they spoilt the entire tale of 1,517 actual lives.
We must know the ending to know our place in the journey. [Read more…]