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