Great Expectations for Movies

A couple of years ago, I read Great Expectations, a book for which I had high hopes for given that Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors. The book was less than stellar. While I liked the prose, the story and characters didn’t grip me the way they had in books like Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol.  But what has this to do with movies? I was reminded of this when I read a post over at Anomalous Material about films and expectations.

It was not what I expected.

As someone who has been vehemently outspoken about expectations as negative influences on movie going experiences, I couldn’t help but disagree with Nick Prigge’s article. However, I think Nick’s sentiment does bear some thought. I’ve certainly ended up loving films I anticipated. I read and reread The Fellowship of the Ring many a time before the theatrical release, waited in anticipation for the first publicly shown footage, recorded it on VHS and watched it about twenty times before the various trailers were released. When the film came out, I was completely taken with Middle Earth once again, this time in motion.

However, by the time The Two Towers rolled around, my expectations left me in a ruinous state of hatred after Peter Jackson’s adaptation bastardize one of my favorite characters, changed the ending and inserted a shield surfing scene that still to this day makes me cringe whenever I watch it. While I still think it’s the weak point of the trilogy, in retrospect, I was far too harsh on the film because of my expectations.

I found myself with the same bitter feeling I had with The Two Towers after first seeing The Dark Knight. In that case, I feel I was too easy on the film, but I too felt bitter disappointment after seeing that film. The film simply hadn’t lived up to my anticipations and after wresting with the incident for a while, and examining my history of film, I came to the conclusion that anticipation and expectation was too fickle and dangerous a beast for me to live with if I wanted to be serious about this movie criticism business.

To bring this back around to this opening, just the other day I watched David Lean’s version of Great Expectations. Since I didn’t love the book, I still have issues with some of the content, but the film did give me more of an appreciation for what Dickens’ story was going for…until the end. Here, Lean completely diverges from what I thought was a beautiful and understated ending for a more rousing and happy conclusion. I hated it.

The next day, I thought that if I saw the film without the expectation of it being faithful to Dickens’ original story, I might have enjoyed the ending as a more expressive and hopeful conclusion to Dickens more ambiguous ending. I might have seen it as a wonderful sort of human optimism, a final chance for something beautiful amidst a rather bleak condition. But I had been at the mercy of my expectations.

My boyish enthusiasm has long left me. Breathless anticipation has been replaced with mild curiosity. And, honestly I prefer it. My optimism is not in the assurance that a certain thing will be good before I see it, but that the potential for a good film could come from any film. My expectations going into a film is to expect nothing, or rather to expect the possibility of anything. This, to me, has become my greatest cinematic liberation.

This is not to still say that I’m completely without preconceptions. I certainly expected a certain kind of film going into The Tree of Life, but I no longer expect and anticipate greatness as a given. To the surprise of some, I did not find The Tree of Life infallible. And, to me, this makes watching films exciting because I go into a film like Sleepaway Camp with the same potential for surprise and enjoyment as I did with The Tree of Life. If there’s one thing I’ve learned at the movies, it’s to expect the unexpected.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • Your quest to approach movies like a contented robot is slowly slowly coming to fruition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having high or low expectations and letting them affect your enjoyment of a film. Over time the effect subside so why shield yourself with those emotions to begin with?

    To me it sounds like your problem is that you have a tendency to focus undue attention on the parts rather than the whole. So not only will a film not quite meet your expectations, but it will do something, like changing a character or including some shield surfing. That shield surfing lasts about 5 seconds. It’s stupid, but who cares? Maybe it’s emblematic of the problems with the entire film, but then broaden your scope to look at the whole film rather than the tiny parts that make it up.

    My problems with The Tree of Life can be expressed by pointing out specific moments or scenes I did not like, but any time I focus on those niggling problems I naturally get myself worked up about them and end up feeling way more negative on the film as a whole than I would otherwise.

    It’s best to keep in mind the film as a whole, not just the 2 minute Randy Newman songs that annoy us all. Go in looking to enjoy a film as a whole rather than concerning yourself with the moment by moment issues and I think you’ll be able to be surprised and let down by a film like any normal person, but without getting hung up on that fact alone.

    • Well first, It’s pretty important if I want to actually write professionally about films at some point that my early impression doesn’t later just subside because of expectations. I wouldn’t hold much credibility if I was that subject to whim.

      As for your other issues, that doesn’t really have to do with the piece at all. I only brought up the surfing scene to show that, in some regards, I still have issues with the film. The issues I have with those moments are indeed endemic of larger problems and not just me nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking

      • My only response is that if you want to write professionally I want to read about the whims. I want to hear about the rush of surprise and the crush of disappointment. That’s what makes writing personal rather than boring and academic.

  • Speaking of expectations, I clicked through thinking you were going to write about the upcoming version of Great Expectations starring Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes. HA!

    I envy your ability to stick to mild curiosity, as you call it. But I know that even when I try, I read enough blogs that I seldom go into a movie with zero expectations anymore. I try to balance this by not reading full reviews of new releases that I’m about to see, but for older films that have been labeled classics, I’m definitely guilty.

    • I’ll admit it’s pretty hard. The fact I almost never watch trailers does help. I still haven’t seen the Ghost Protocol trailer and I don’t intend to. And I’ll likely see the film the first week it’s out.

      I don’t necessarily have a problem with people looking forward to watching a movie, it’s just that level of expectation that so many build up make me wonder how much of a viewing experience is either a self-fulfilling prophecy or a setup for inevitable disappointment.

  • I was thinking about this subject of expectations recently, too, thinking about my love for the book Jane Eyre and my lackluster reception of the recent movie – and also thinking about Tasha Robinson and A.O. Scott’s recent argument/discussion about how much expectations should/shouldn’t play into our movie experience on the Reasonable Discussions podcast. In more reference, particularly, to book/movie expectations: just recently, I re-watched the film Never Let Me Go and wondered why critics did not embrace the movie more; in looking over the negative reviews of the film, it seems many critics dislike the film because they cannot get over how much it differs from the book, feeling the film pales in comparison. I have not read the book, and I’m rather glad. I simply could not enjoy the film Jane Eyre very much because I love the book so much and so much of the specific things I love about the book were just not in the film; I try – I really do – to set aside a book when I walk into a film version, but I’ve come to believe truly setting aside expectations is impossible. As your last paragraph indicates, we simply cannot rid ourselves of all of our preconceptions; our minds and emotions are too complicated for that.

    I don’t want to stop reading books simply because I’m afraid reading will ruin my experience of a film – though, again, I’m glad for seeing some films without any other source material in mind. And I know that I can read a book first and still love the film, too – a film might even be much more interesting and well-crafted in its particular form, as is the case with Children of Men. I suppose I need to just acknowledge the presence of whatever expectations I have – and do my best to enjoy whatever art I’m partaking of at the moment. I’d like, I think, to think of the book and the film as two things in conversation with each other, so to speak. If I cannot forget about the book, I’d like to embrace my knowledge of it, openly acknowledge the differences between book and film, and then see if the film brings some new perspective to the table. The film may be telling a slightly different story – and I’m ok with that. In the same way that two different directors can make two very different productions of the same play, I’d like to be able to think of the film as a sort of production, just one interpretation, of the book. (I suppose I am still rather protective of a great book though – what I most dislike is the assumption that a film = the book, the assumption that the viewer has consumed the book if the film has been consumed. The film may be an interesting or provocative interpretation, but it is not the book!)

    I’m going in circles a bit in my thinking here – but thanks for your write-up. Great stuff to think about.

    • The adaptation film so such an interesting place. I often have a hard time getting past my love of a book when I see the movie form so often times I tend to avoid writing about them. I watched a version of The Lord of the Flies a while back and it didn’t live up to the book for me at all and I didn’t bother writing about it. Yes, it’s near impossible in that case to divorce oneself, but, like you said, I often find the adaptions I enjoy the most are the ones that take the spirit of a book and tell their own story. Blade Runner is much different than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But I find I like both versions a lot even though they deal with the same idea in different ways.

      And certain movies, mainly Order of the Phoenix, benefit so much from not being tied down to their source material, but given some liberal space to grow and evolve into a movie instead of simply a literary adaptation.

      Right now, I’ve not spent too much leisure time reading, I do so much for school it’s a bit daunting, so, for me, unless I’ve already read the book, I almost always just waiting for the movie.

  • rtm

    Nice post. Yeah, there’s no telling how you’d feel about any given film even if you had expect it one way or another. For me, it’s when I had no expectation whatsoever is when I’m often pleasantly surprised. I think with book adaptation, I feel like I’m bound to enjoy the film less if I love the book. Hmmm, maybe I should put down the Hunger Games book now that I think about it 🙂

    • I like going in with neutrality if possible. It tends to be when I get the biggest and best surprises.

      As for the Hunger Games, I went back and forth on reading it, but at this point I’m going to wait for the movies.

  • Steve Kimes

    This is why I try to know as little as possible about a film before I see it. I don’t read whole reviews of a film until after I’ve seen it, and if I see a trailer I loved, it means I probably won’t see the film. Why ruin a perfectly good trailer?

    The two movies that stand out to me as being completely ruined because of my love of the books are Lynch’s Dune and the recent Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe. I cannot appreciate these films for what they are.

    • I’d have to rewatch Lynch’s Dune, but at the time I admired some aspects of it. The TV series was better at getting in more of the details that make the book so rich. And don’t get me started on the Narnia films. They only get worse.

  • Thoughtful, well reasoned article.

    The Dark Knight is an interesting example because I think the majority of people went into that film with high expectations. I certainly did and I thought it was a good but definitely not great film, and I truly believe to this day my expectations have nothing to do with that sentiment. I walked out of the theater thinking Ledger gave a very fine performance in a role that was underwritten and it didn’t really go anywhere and I still hold that opinion.

    But I don’t know. The more distance I get from my own article the more I wonder if I wrote it just because I WANT to believe expectations hold no bearing on enjoying a film and I’m just trying to trick myself. It’s all so agonizing.

    • As I wrote out in this piece, in my personal experience, that hasn’t been the case. Expectations have affected my enjoyment of a film. While maybe that’s not always a negative, for me, it often has been.

  • Great article. I’ve always felt that expectations (conscious or unconscious) played a significant part in the viewing experience — sometimes it’s as subtle as “I know what that actor is capable of, so there’s now way he’s playing just a regular ol’ deli clerk.” Without getting spoilery, one of the more enjoyable movie experiences I’ve ever had was watching “Primal Fear” BEFORE Edward Norton was a recognizable actor.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on the other side of the coin: When you walk into a movie expecting it to be a steaming pile of crap and then enjoy it… or simply DON’T hate it. What about those films that benefit from low expectations?

    • You certainly get those pleasant surprises every now and again from a film you don’t think will amount to much, but I don’t think I end up looking more favorably on those films because I had low expectations, but more because they ended up being good. This might be more because I’m not much of one to oversell a film to begin with. Perhaps for more enthusiastic writers it could be a major factor as well.