Guest Contributor Taylor D.
There are times when, if you flicker your attention in its direction, your body will respond. You have to keep your mind OFF your nausea in order not to vomit. You must not allow yourself to recognize that your teeth could chatter or they WILL.
The other night, I went to see The Hunger Games. It was a long, wet end-of-March walk to the theater, and since the movie was at 6:30, I was planning on eating dinner afterwards. Throughout the film, I was aware of that strange bodily phenomenon. At any point during those two-plus hours, my teeth were clenched on the edge of chattering. Why this physical response? Here are some options:
1. I was cold.
2. I was hungry.
3. I was incredibly amped about seeing the performances.
4. I have no imagination and can only respond when movies show me how.
All of these are a little bit true. I was cold and hungry, and I was very excited to see Jennifer Lawrence’s newest star turn. And although I DO have imagination, and books move me all the time – I’ll quote Nabokov on this in a minute – movies use music to ratchet up the emotional response, and this added value cannot be overstated. But I want to try to put some words inside those question marks. I think the question is this: WHY AM I TENSE WHEN I KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN? That’s where the chattering really lives, and it has to do with the consumption of stories.
Lots of movies are meant to provoke physical responses, possibly all of them. Linda Williams has named horror, melodrama, and pornography as the “body genres,” the forms of story most designed to get viewers’ bodies to respond, largely by featuring bodily excesses – terror, grief, orgasm – themselves. But laughter is a physical response too, so we should add comedy to the list; and tension, so we should add suspense, action, and thrillers; and gasps of wonder, so we should add epics and good animation; and so on. (Williams notes that “melodrama” is actually a broad category, one we could possibly expand to include some of these other genres, but her analysis focuses on tears rather than on tension, and I want to talk about tension.) The only movies that aren’t in some way bodily are the ones that are totally boring and do nothing to you (except maybe make you yawn – and yawning too is a physical response).
Vladimir Nabokov once suggested (about reading Bleak House, if you can believe it) that we should “relax and let our spines take over” when we approach literature. The “tingle” that great art can evoke in the spine leads him to compare readers to candles (though I prefer the image of matchsticks). Nabokov suggests that our heady intellectual pleasures are only the culmination of bodily responses. “The brain only continues the spine,” he writes; “the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle.”
Nabokov effuses about art doing this to us, about the geniuses who are able to set both spine and brain to tingling. He doesn’t dwell on the deliberate choices that lead to this effect. In film, these physical responses are the result of months of collaborative crafting. Of course, you are always being manipulated when you watch a movie – “jerked,”
as Williams puts it, towards tears or fears or whatever physical/emotional response. Usually, the only time you notice it is when it’s being done badly: when the music swells a little too obviously as a child cries; when the killer’s return makes you laugh instead of shriek; or when a joke doesn’t make you laugh at all. This brings me to the idea of spoilers. You DEFINITELY notice your own manipulation when you’ve been told what to expect, but this can have its advantages.
First of all, let me make my position clear: I think the current cultural deference to the “spoiler” is pretty damn silly. For one thing, it’s fairly new in the history of narrative (no one wondered how The Iliad was going to end); for another, it overlooks the way that most children relate to stories, preferring the familiar to the new, a preference that logically most adults must once have shared; finally, it seems to suggest that only an innocent consumption can be an enjoyable or effective one. And clearly that’s not true. We wouldn’t still be reading and performing and seeing Shakespeare’s plays if that were true. Or, better example, we wouldn’t be facing the second release of James Cameron’s Titanic. Unless you have never heard the word “Titanic” before, there is no spoiling that movie for you. That beautiful boat, and most of the beautiful people on it, is a-goin’ down. BUT KNOWING DOESN’T MEAN YOU WON’T CRY.
I’m willing to give some spoilage leeway in book-to-film adaptations, since people might genuinely have meant to read it for themselves but been delayed or prevented. Then again, once a story has existed in the world for more than a year it seems naïve to think your innocence or ignorance of its events deserves to be protected. Maybe it is different for me to know what’s going to happen to Rue in The Hunger Games (oh yeah, spoiler alert: something happens to Rue in The Hunger Games) than it would be for someone who hadn’t read the book. But I doubt it.
Sidebar specifically about The Hunger Games: There should only be one element of that story that could potentially be “spoiled,” because there is only one thing that someone with an average viewing history and average-level listening skills could be confused about, and that is whether or not Peeta will live. Your listening skills should tell you to expect the death of every other character in that arena. That is, I don’t know, just THE PREMISE OF THE MOVIE. And a viewing history of more than twenty movies would tell you that Katniss, our heroine, is not going to conk out on us, at least not if we know that this is the first of a trilogy. My friend Chelsea and I were talking about this in terms of reading the book, where Katniss’s narrative invulnerability is even more obvious because she’s a First-Person Narrator. “What are you worried about?” Chelsea asked rhetorically. “You can see there are more pages. Clearly she continues to tell the story.” Especially in a young-adult novel, FPNs usually don’t die. This is why I say that Peeta is the one who merits tension. There should be no surprise to Rue’s death – though that doesn’t mean it’s not emotionally affective – nor to Katniss’s triumph. Peeta is the secret protagonist of the first book and first movie, if we posit that the most important thing about stories is what we can’t predict, what could be “spoiled.”
But even granting a smidge of leeway for people who wanted to read the book but somehow (lazily?) haven’t done it yet, misses the point. I don’t think spoilers really spoil. Or if they do, they only spoil the first level of story, and even then, only for some kinds of stories. “Knowing the ending” of, say, Friday the 13th changes the viewing experience less than knowing the ending of Murder on the Orient Express. Knowing that (spoiler) Jason’s mother “dunnit” doesn’t defuse the shocks or the horrific gore of that movie. And certainly no one cares about the ending of porn. “Is this the one where the pizza delivery guy turns out to be insatiably horny? Well, forget it, then.”
Here’s what I think: The more bodily the genre, the less its spoilable events matter to your response. As I said, all movies, in their attempts to engage and manipulate viewers, engage the body. But I can acknowledge a hierarchy, one based on the importance of surprise. MAYBE a comedy is ruined by knowing the jokes (though I can revisit my favorite comedies many times and still laugh), and MAYBE a mystery is ruined by knowing the killer (though I enjoy rereading Agatha Christie books). Laughter and puzzle-solving seem more connected to surprise than, um, a dude’s boner. Little surprise necessary there. But the stories that are crafted to elicit your tears or your tension (or your boner, as the case may be) do not require your innocence. They don’t surrender much when they lose the element of surprise. They don’t rely on the first narrative level for all, most, or even much of their power. And we must know this, or we would never revisit any stories. We would never see an adaptation of a book we’ve read (and best-seller lists matched with movie grosses show that this is clearly not the case); and we would never see a film a second time.
But this doesn’t answer my initial question: why? Why can adaptations or repeat viewings move us even in a fallen, spoiler-rich state? Why were my teeth so close to chattering throughout The Hunger Games? The answer has to do with the levels of story that live under the realm of “what happens.” A simplistic binary would sever content from form and call those the two levels, but I think there are more. Maybe it would help to compare The Hunger Games to a few other films that I have recently revisited, each of which have had as profound a bodily effect on me the second/third/nineteenth time as they did the first. Beneath the surface of plot, there are three levels that contribute to physical response, the levels we cannot be inoculated against:
1. BEAUTY: The things you didn’t or couldn’t notice the first time, or the things that won’t dim with noticing. For book adaptations, this includes performances and the entire visual world. This is what people mean when they talk about a book “coming to life.” My personal example would be the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility. Not only does Marianne stop being a whiny baby when Kate Winslet plays her (or at least, her whining is more interesting), but my goodness, Regency England was lovely (for rich people). Another example would be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy reading an intricate world description, for heaven’s sake, wait for the movie which will just SHOW it to you. It can also show you things that the book didn’t cover. One of my favorite images in The Hunger Games was the end of the opening ceremony, where the tributes are being addressed by President Snow and cheered by seemingly hundreds of thousands of people. My imagination is good, but as a primate, I simply can’t capture hundreds of thousands in my mind’s eye. The impact of seeing that scene was completely different – much more chilling – than the impact of reading about a parade. For second viewings, the unnoticed or undimmable things are formal elements like music, technical achievement, or compositional beauty. Hitchcock films would fit this bill for me: the first time I saw Vertigo, I was dissatisfied with it as a story; the second time, I saw it as a gorgeous, well-planned movie starring Bernard Herrman. (Also, Jurassic Park, a film that remains thrilling and satisfying and surprisingly good-looking. Why isn’t THAT being re-released, instead of Titanic? Perhaps because Stephen Spielberg has had more than two ideas in his career? But I bitchily digress.)
2. DEPTH AND ALTERNATIVES: The things that you choose (or are newly able) to see differently than the first time, resulting in a “deeper” knowledge of the movie. Staying with Vertigo for a minute, my recent re-viewing slanted me away from the “main” character’s experience and had me wondering how the characters played by Kim Novak or Barbara Bel Geddes might tell this story. For all its vaunted “psychological” emphasis, Vertigo focuses largely on one person’s perspective of events. (If it didn’t, the first half wouldn’t work to set up the second half.) But the women give really interesting performances, almost too interesting for the limited roles the plot puts them in. Choosing to hypothesize about this film from their perspectives, I got more out of it than the first time. More than this, though, knowing the full story allows you to empathize differently with characters than you can when you witness their journey for the first time. You can see where the screenwriters have been clever, and where the performers have excelled.
The Hunger Games opened up this way for me with Rue. Though Rue was a sympathetic character in the novel, she seemed much more interesting when actually embodied by Amandla Stenberg. Her version of the Games became a more interesting possibility when I revisited the story this way, which also means that her death felt like more of a loss. A second viewing is a more open universe. If, on the one hand, not-knowing “what will happen” invests you in the surprising forward motion of the plot, KNOWING allows you to step off that speeding bus and enjoy the other details provided. I would nominate The Royal Tenenbaums as an example of this. The first time I saw it, I was worried about the failing father, the suicidal son, and the darkly vacant Gwyneth Paltrow. The second time, I could take pleasure in all details of language and performance that I couldn’t see when I was focused on the first level of story. (As a younger viewer, the same thing happened when I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas: the first time, all I felt was concern, but every time after, I became more entranced by the richly detailed, beautiful, emotional world.)
3. ANTICIPATION: The things you get to expect, an expectation that contributes to their emotional impact. When you know what’s coming, you get to look forward to (or dread) its arrival. This can happen on the level of language (“Frankly, my dear,” or “Go ahead…” or “I am your father!” or “I volunteer as tribute!”) or on the level of event. Anticipation is the opposite of ignorance, and so, probably, the most important of these three levels for answering my initial question. Beauty and depth can absolutely make you tingle, but I don’t think they make you chatter. That takes the sublime terror of fate, of what MUST BE. Anticipation adds meaning. Even when you KNOW that Ray Milland is going to find that key in Dial M for Murder, it is still pleasurable – and, for me, still tense – to wait for that moment. “Come on, come on…” your mind and body say in unison. (This reminds me of a story William Goldman tells about the film Misery. He knew it would be a success when Stephen King himself – for whom no spoiling possible – was overheard muttering at a screening: “Look out… look out… she’s got a gun in her ayyyy-pron!” This proves, conclusively I think, that innocence is not the only route to a physically effective story.) Knowing that Andy DuFresne is going to escape doesn’t make the last ten minutes of The Shawshank Redemption any less heart-swelling. Maybe it even makes it more so. With your wick-brain already afire, your spine can crackle and smoke all the more. Knowing that Katniss is going to send down those tracker jackers makes me all the more anxious for her to FINISH SAWING THROUGH THAT BRANCH ALREADY! In any case, your body responds to the story whether or not your brain is familiar with it. We consume stories not because of an unending appetite for plot, but for satisfaction. We are hungry for resonance, and, as children know, surprises can derail that search for meaning.
Your spine doesn’t care about spoilers. Your spine cares about how it feels to be in a story. If the story is worthwhile, you can be in it dozens of times and still feel it. You can still be moved (excited, devastated, vindicated, adrenaline-ated) by the things you knew were coming. The hardest part is trying to use your brain to explain why that is. I’m not sure I’ve captured it here. Maybe I should go revisit some more movies and see what happens.
Taylor D. is almost a doctor of English, and usually studies madness in twentieth-century literature, drama, and film. She appreciates Oxford commas, narrative theory, feminist rants, and sometimes, forgetting all her education and whole-heartedly enjoying an awesome book while eating Cheez-Its, like she did when she was twelve.