Last week, I read through Franz Kafka’s classic story, The Metamorphosis for the first time. I feel a little weird for having waited so long, but there it is: twenty-seven years old, and I’ve finally experienced one of the touchstones of literature.
Though I should point out that this isn’t the first time I’ve attempted to read Kafka’s master work. Somewhere about a year ago I saw a book of his stories for sale in a thrift store, and I thought to myself, “I have heard of this Kafka fellow, and upon reviewing my mental table of value judgments it would appear that I would rather have this book of his stories than the dollar in my wallet.” Thusly does the engine of our economy run.
When I got the book home I tried to read it. Only there was a problem. See, I had heard of The Metamorphosis. Likely you be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t. It’s the story about a guy who wakes up one morning turned into a cockroach. (And don’t give me that B.S. about how the proper translation is “vermin” because what Kafka describes is clearly a cockroach, mkay?) Which, and maybe this is just me, I always kind of assumed was horror. I mean, really, how do you write a story about a guy turning into a cockroach and not have it be horror?
Except when I went to read it that first time, it fell pretty flat as a horror story. All things considered our newly-insectified protagonist takes the whole thing pretty well. He doesn’t look down on his tiny legs and segmented body and scream out in primal terror at what he has become. Instead, he worries that he’s going to be late for work, because his cockroach arms aren’t well-suited to working the doorknob in his room. And at this point I’m thinking, “Come on, dude. There’s dedication to your job, and then there’s ‘Please forgive my lateness sir I appear to have turned into a giant cockroach.'”
And the story that follows? It’s all very literal. Kafka doesn’t dwell directly on the horror of being turned into a cockroach, but he goes to great lengths to examine the consequences of such a transformation. The fact that Gregor can no longer communicate with his family, his changing habits, his growing isolation from the world he loved.
And it really works. So why didn’t I get into it the first time? Because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had this image in my head of some Stephen King flavoured foray into insectile horror and what I got was completely different. What I expected the story to be managed to get in the way of the wonder of the truth.
Which is why I’ve decided to stop using Rotten Tomatoes.
Um…okay, bit of a jump there, but stay with me. For a long time when I was considering watching a movie, I would go to Rotten Tomatoes and check out the movies “Tomatometer” score. And if the score was high enough —generally I’d look for something over seventy percent— then I’d consider watching the movie. Otherwise it was obviously not worth my time.
Now a long time back I wrote a bit about how reviews were a kind of virus that infected our minds with someone else’s opinion. But the power of one review is different: because if you disagree with one guy, so what? Your opinion against his opinion. But if there are lots of people sharing their opinion, it becomes easier and easier to assume that the majority opinion must be more fundamentally correct. You begin to believe that there are Good Movies and Bad Movies.
But the truth is there are really only Movies You Liked and Movies You Didn’t Like.
And for my part, I know that my opinion doesn’t always line up with the consensus. Right now, one of my favourite movies ever, Revolver, has a Tomatometer rating of sixteen percent. In contrast, I watched The Bourne Ultimatum the other night, a movie with a rating of ninety-four percent, and when it was over I was left with a distinct feeling of meh. And the worst part about that last one? I had watched it once before and remembered not particularly caring for it. But I looked at its approval rating and thought, “Well it couldn’t have been all that bad.”
And here’s what this has to do with Kafka. For one reason or another I had formed an opinion of his work before I ever experienced it. I knew what I was expecting going in, and when I didn’t get it, my response wasn’t to push on thinking, “Well this is interesting, my preconceptions were wrong,” but rather to turn away from it entirely for a time.
And with Rotten Tomatoes it’s possible to form an opinion of something based on nothing more than how close a number is to one hundred. I’m not here to bash Rotten Tomatoes or the people who choose to use it. It is a useful tool, I’d say. But I had come to the point where I was looking down on people who said they liked movies that I had never seen because of those movies’ low scores on the Tomatometer. It was getting out of hand.
I know we can’t ever eliminate preconceptions from our lives entirely, and I’m not sure that we should. But I am sure that I can figure out whether or not I like a movie, a book, whatever, on my own. I shouldn’t need to check my opinions against the consensus.
Will I still listen to other people’s opinions and recommendations? Sure. But in the end I want to be able to make up my own mind. I want to free myself from the idea than an opinion can be right or wrong.
Is it possible that because of this self-imposed restriction I’ll end up watching more movies that really aren’t for me? Yes. But I’ll also have the chance to watch and enjoy things I might otherwise have passed over in disdain.
And that, I believe, is worth the risk.