The James Clayton Column: Great Expectations, geek guilt and cultural anxiety

Feature James Clayton 23 Nov 2012 - 06:58

The release of Great Expectations leaves James reflecting whether or not it's important to read the book before watching the film...

I have great expectations for Great Expectations, and expect it will be a great success as it rolls out on cinema screens. This prediction is based entirely on the fact that I’ve seen the trailer and it looked like the kind of lavish film that draws masses of spectators to the multiplex.

People love beautifully-photographed period melodramas with starry casts. They also love Dickens adaptations. I think my great expectations are well-founded, and even if the film isn’t actually ‘great’ and gets slated by critics (perish the thought), it’ll no doubt clean up at the box office having pulled in its target audience and a crowd of English Literature students.

Otherwise, I have no expectations, because I’ve never read the original novel. All I know of the story is that there are characters named Pip and Miss Havisham, that there’s some overwrought romantic turbulence and that it’s got something to do with a “handsome fortune” (the latter two things I got from the film trailer). If I end up seeing the movie, I’m going to be completely surprised when one of the main characters reveals that they’re a werewolf.

Will I actually watch Great Expectations and get the shock of unanticipated lycanthropes and subplots involving time-travelling androids going undercover as Victorian nursemaids in order to annihilate the great-great-grandfather of the Antichrist? Probably not, and I’m more likely to pass on Mike Newell’s new film because I haven’t read the book. This ‘not read the novel’ situation is causing me problems and bringing several slightly perturbing issues to the surface.

The scenario is this: I haven’t read Great Expectations and have avoided any film or TV adaptations, because I worry that they will taint (or even ruin) a reading experience I intend to have one day. This fear is probably partly based on the old urban legend that the book is always better than the film. (The literary snob element in this theory probably makes it an ‘urbane legend’.)

I’d like to read Great Expectations but have steered clear because there are libraries and bookstores full of other fictions demanding my attention. When it comes to picking a fresh book, I’m more likely to gravitate towards graphic novels or shorter stories, usually hanging around sci-fi or horror which are my favourite genres. A really long Victorian bildungsroman is harder to commit to and most times will be beaten off by weird tales of dystopian future societies or dread entities summoned up by arcane underground cults.

It’s a shame that Charles Dickens never wrote on such topics. Still, what he did write was very good and I’ve gotten great pleasure out of it. I had high times with Hard Times and would like to go on more imaginary adventures through 19th century Britain with Boz but, alas, his books are lengthy and I find it difficult to devote myself to his epic doorstoppers. I see a paperback copy of Bleak House bigger than my head and think, “sorry Charlie, but I won’t be starting that thing right now.”

The imminent arrival of the new film adaptation acted as a prompt to finally dive into Great Expectations, but the novel got shot down in an ‘upcoming movie Mexican stand-off’ by Cloud Atlas (Life Of Pi was the other losing participant). The Gods of the Movieverse then mocked my efforts to educate myself and keep up by moving the release date of the Wachowskis’ epoch-spanning work back into 2013. No matter, though, because now I’m no longer ignorant of an immense literary work and am even more amped up to see how David Mitchell’s book has been adapted as a blockbuster.

I expect that Cloud Atlas will be a richer personal cinematic experience because I know the source material, much like John Carter was because I was familiar with Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Princess Of Mars. Earlier this year I swotted up on the original Shakespeare play before watching Ralph Fiennes’ modernised take on Coriolanus and probably appreciated the movie even more as a result.

On the other hand, I’ve recently enjoyed films like The Hunger Games and Anna Karenina, but perhaps haven’t been as essentially immersed in them as I would’ve been if I’d read the original book. The things that impressed me most about those features were cinematic aspects like production design, costume and cinematography. I didn’t care about or connect as much to the characters and narrative whereas it’s more likely to be the other way around for fans of the source works.

Does it really matter? On reflection, I reckon it doesn’t. There are actually some benefits to entering a lit-flick ignorant of the original novel. With Anna Karenina, for instance, I was open-minded and approached it as an admirable experimental stylish exercise rather than as something to judge and compare to Tolstoy’s text. I had no expectations, assumptions or particular attitudes to bring to the party - just liberated blissful ignorance.

Really, there’s no ‘correct way’ with film and literature - there are potentially downsides and upsides whether you read the book first or watch the film first but ultimately it matters little. Stepping back to objectively look at my reaction to the arrival of Great Expectations, Cloud Atlas and other literary adaptations I’ve had a mini-epiphany and am coming to terms with a lot of issues relating to the way I and I’m pretty sure other people consume culture.

I detect a palpable degree of tension, especially in what you might term ‘geek culture’ as people attempt to prop up their credentials, prove their sophistication and knowledge lest they be exposed as a ‘poseur’ or ‘fraud’. (I’m a self-proclaimed horror fan who’s never seen Cannibal Holocaust or Hellraiser. Just take away my badge and drop me in the Dumpster of Shame.)

The truth is though that no one really cares. If they do, they’re probably insecure in their own skin and have issues with their own identity and self-image. No one minds that I’ve not read a single word of Stephen King but rate The Shining, Carrie, Christine and The Shawshank Redemption as classic movies. I’m not bothered if you pass up on trawling through Cloud Atlas before checking it out at the cinema and I’m not going to look down on you if you are a complete novice when it comes to particular ‘definitive’ books, films or other cultural works. Snobbery, judgementalism and self-important smugness ruin the ride for everyone.

To further exorcise the tensions rippling through literature and film, I’d like to return to the aforementioned irrational fears that great novels end up as atrocious movies. Once again exploring my own concerns, I realise that the hesitancy I brought to adaptations of my favourite books - Moby Dick, Slaughterhouse-Five, Watchmen - was unfounded and that the movies were solid, decent enough flicks that didn’t murder something I loved.

The same is true for films that have taken a beloved text and radically altered it beyond recognition, like Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) and various interpretations of I Am Legend and Dracula. A certain amount of detachment and depressurisation - accepting film and book as individual entities on their own terms - is essential here if you’re to actually truly engage with and potentially enjoy whatever you’re facing.

If you - like me - find any of these issues jarring you as you romp through the realms of pop culture, remember: nothing really matters. It’s all about being in the moment with whatever media text is moving through your senses at the present time. Free your mind and let go of pre-configured assumptions, attitudes and anxieties - relinquish those great expectations and you’ll instead realise great experiences.

(I hope your sacred cow survives the surprise werewolf attack.)

James Clayton has no great expectations, no handsome fortune and no idea what happens with Miss Havisham, Pip or the lycanthrope who’s inexplicably turned up in 19th century London to harass Charles Dickens’s time-travelling android. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ last column here.

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Excellent column! I particularly have a long history of disliking Great Expectations adaptations, precisely because a lot of them do this in order to make the book more palatable to wider audiences, especially with the ending (I won't spoil it, don't worry! It's the best ending Dickens ever wrote). Most films seem to want to make it into a 'classic' Victorian romance, but that's only a small aspect of the book and actually one of the least interesting parts. David Lean's adaptation is one of the best, right until the ending in which he completely changes it. Having seen the trailers, I'm worried that Mike Newell has gone down a similar route and am therefore cautious about going to see it.

My advice would be don't go to the cinima in a group if you're the only one who's read the book. You find yourself having to explain bloody everything, at least with my friends. And I don't just mean little niggles, I mean psycological profiles of every single character.

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