The above title is the punchline to a gag that you’re probably familiar with: it’s the response that one is supposed to give when someone says that they’re going to see a film like Titanic, say, or a movie about the life of Christ: the joke being that ‘everyone’ knows how those stories turn out.
A similar thing might be expected to accompany this month’s release of a new version of Murder On The Orient Express. It’s an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s most audacious murder mysteries, and I’m so mindful of any kind of spoilers that I’m genuinely wincing slightly at writing the phrase ‘most audacious murder mysteries’, because I honestly think that gives too much away about the ending.
There has been some muttering and moaning online about this new version of Murder On The Orient Express, largely centred around the fact that it exists at all. There have been a fair few versions already, all of them fun and fizzy, exactly the kind of fare that wouldn’t look too out of place on your TV schedule during the Christmas break. A lot of fans (church of Suchet, it seems) took particular umbrage at the fairly ridiculous moustache that Kenneth Brannagh sports as Poirot, but that only served to shine a light on the possibility that those fans haven’t actually read the original books (the moustache itself is reasonably accurate as according to the description by Christie).
Then again, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is my favourite version of Miss Marple. Yes, even above Saint Joan Hickson. Yeah, I’ve lost you now, haven’t I?
People, however, have been pleasingly coy about the ending – in other words, revealing who the murderer is. It would appear that Agatha Christie adaptations are the last place where one can expect to be left alone, spoiler-wise. This doesn’t happen elsewhere: plot twists are given away as soon as possible by various sites, sometimes with a huge SPOILER WARNING screaming from the top, but more often: not so much. But this is an odd imbalance: the main criticism (apart from the aforementioned moustache) of this new version of Murder On The Orient Express centres, after all, is the fact that ‘everybody’ already knows the ending.
I have, as you may have already guessed, little to zero tolerance for this argument. After all, it’s not like at the age of seven, you’re ushered into a room and told what the endings of lots of classic books and movies are. It doesn’t matter if a story is ten years old (or twenty, or thirty) – there will always be a new generation of kids – and grown-ups, for that matter – who have never even heard of the thing that ‘everybody’ else has heard of.
So I have an equally low tolerance of spoilers. There are some really weird defences of spoilers that I’ve never really been able to get my head round, although they’re largely to do with if a property has been around for long enough, then it’s fair game – if the movie, or Netflix series, has been out for a couple of years, then it’s your fault apparently for not having seen it already. Does that same logic apply, I wonder, for a film made in 1963 when you were lazy enough not to be born until 2009?
I was born in 1973, which means I’m the right age for TV to be filling its schedules with decades old filler on late night at the weekends. Just before the advent of video. BBC2 and Channel 4 were the best for this kind of thing, although ITV had a strand called Murder Mystery Suspense (not really exciting enough or even curated enough to really be called a ‘strand’, it was just a bit of cute marketing to fob viewers off with whatever substandard US TV movie they had cluttering up the place). If you were thirteen or fourteen (really the best age to be discovering movies that you’d never heard of before), then these late night schedules were a goldmine: it’s where I first saw the old Universal monster movies, and got totally bewildered by Walkabout (a movie possibly immeasurably improved by – as I did – coming to it five minutes after the start and knowing absolutely nothing whatsoever about it).
Murder Mystery Suspense didn’t really seem to have any consistency in the programming. It was an Audrey Hepburn / Sidney Sheldon TV movie one week, and something called SNOW BEAST! the next.
But with the late night Ch4 / BBC 2 schedules, you got something genuinely special. There was the Universal movies, sure, but there were also all the classic movies that had clearly been the major films of the last twenty years or so. And if you were 11 or 12, there was a fair chance that you’d never heard of them before. It’s very weird, in retrospect, discovering such screen icons as Gregory Peck and William Holden in the movies that they may well have regarded as their ‘well-no-one-else-will-hire-me-these-days-and-I-have-to-put-the-grandkids-through-college’ movies (That’s The Omen and Damien: Omen II respectively).
With those two Omen films, that’s the third oblique Audrey Hepburn reference in this blog entry. I’m not sure why.
I guess its the memory of those late night movies in 80s that contribute to my low tolerance of spoilers. Obviously we consume content in a different way now, but it doesn’t really matter if stories are binged on, or if we take our time on them: at some point, they will become ‘old’ stories – ‘everyone else’ will have watched (or read) them. There are few things as magical as coming to a story blind, of being taken surprise by a plot point or twist. I was at a late night screening on the opening weekend of From Dusk Til Dawn, and somehow I hadn’t discovered the plot reveal that occurs midway through that film (even though it was heavily implied on the poster). I still remember the visceral delight the audience had when the film turned on a dime and became something else.
One of my pet hates, for instance, is anytime the films Planet Of The Apes or Pyscho are re-released on DVD. Invariably, the artwork will depict those films most iconic moments. Which is understandable, if a little dumb: part of the reason those moments are so iconic to original audiences is because they’re so surprising, so shocking. Why would you want to steal that joy – to, indeed, spoil it – for anyone?
I’d argue that if possible, one should never discuss the plot of a film with someone who hasn’t yet, but wants to, see it. I read once in the Guardian an argument that claimed you couldn’t very well discuss the plot of a production of Othello without discussing the protagonists’ skin. To which I thought – well, why can’t you? For those that already know the story: why are you wasting your word count chatting about things they already know – get on with chatting about that particular production – and for those who don’t know the story: is Othello’s skin colour really the only thing you can think of to chat about?
But I’m serious: there’s no need to chat about the plot of a movie denouement with someone who hasn’t seen it yet. And yes, that includes Titanic. I’m willing to bet that there’s a reasonably intelligent eleven year old out there who has somehow never heard of Titanic – the ship or the film. After all, how many conversations have you had about Titanic in the last ten years? Stick that eleven year old in front of the TV without telling them the plot. For the first hour or so: a clunky, but glossy looking Kate and Leo romance drama that makes some sweeping points about class. So far, so 90s, and then BOOOMMMM it becomes something totally different.
I’d apply this test to films for which it seems self-evidently redundant. Take, for instance, Transformers. I know, the clue is in the title. But again: a kid – maybe eight years old. Knows nothing about the plot. Because it’s doing that odd mid-eighties Spielberg thing of holding back on the special effects for the first act (like everyone hasn’t already checked them out online), the opening half hour is just some shy kid trying to get with hot girl by buying a car. As far as your naïve eight year old, is basically a unfunny version of Herbie starring some girl that Dad is at pains to say isn’t really is type actually, and then the silly car TURNS INTO A MOTHERFUCKING ROBOT!!!!
Let’s face it, Transformers is quite some way from being a decent film. But if that’s the way you experienced if for the first time, it would blow your eight year old MIND. It would be for you, your Citizen Kane: the finest film ever made.
So, yes: I see no reason to ever give away the ends of movies. Not even for humorous purposes.