Franz Kafka vs. The Tomatometer

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.

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6 responses to “Franz Kafka vs. The Tomatometer

  1. I must be the last person to not have heard of the book, but shall happily add it to my kobo now I have. Not that I am some literary fool, Dickens, Proust and Steinbeck- especially Steinbeck are amongst my favourite authors. No idea how your book missed my radar really. As for reviews, I formed the opinion that others reviews On movies and games and books pretty much suck. Any movie that is so hyped will fall into my “watch 5 years later, when nobody remembers it they love or hate it” list. Great post

    • It is really great. And there’s a little twist at the end which makes Kafka a strong contender for the title of “O. Henry’s really REALLY evil twin.”
      Also…Steinbeck eh? I’ve come to most of the “classics” relatively recently. We weren’t forced to read much of this stuff in my high school. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but I’m enjoying reading and forming my own opinion of the highly revered works of literature as an adult. One thing I will say: Moby Dick? Not. For. Me. I’ve tried to get into that book numerous times and for the life of me I don’t see what all the fuss is about. But again, opinion is subjective and often subject to change. Tune in five years from now, and maybe I’ll be singing a different song.

  2. I had the same tomato-meter revelation just this weekend. I usually check the ratings, because heaven forbid I “waste” my limited amount of time on something that turns out to be a pile of crap. The indie horror film Yellowbrickroad had a lousy 44% fresh and 29% like rating which usually means I’ll delete if from the DVR without sampling, but the premise was interesting, so I watched in anyway. And you know what, it was kind of awesome. In fact is was so awesome that I watched it again. And I’ve put in my son’s queue so that he can watch it and I can have somebody to pick it apart with. (It was that kind of movie.) And I realized that for all my fancy talk about being a non-conformist, I was basing my choices on the opinions of a bunch of people I know nothing about. So, yeah, maybe I’ll end up wasting some time, but the little gems (both cinematic and literary) that are waiting to be found are worth it. And there’s something extremely satisfying about finding something special that everyone else is overlooking.

    • Yellowbrickroad eh? Available on Netflix eh? I’ll definitely check that one out.
      And don’t beat yourself up too bad about the non-conformist thing. There’s a built in need for some kind of acceptance in all of us, no matter how hard we try to deny it. And I’m not of the opinion that it’s a bad thing. Enjoying sharing a love for something with others is not the same as selling out.

  3. When I read Metamorphosis in high school, it didn’t strike me as a horror novel either. Except for the description of the apple rotting the carapace. That was disturbing.

    Popular movies? I’m about to blaspheme here. Sorry.

    I think Citizen Kane is an overblown, ponderous, rotten tomato. I sat through 5 hours (kept nodding off, had to wake up and rewind several times) to find out “Rosebud” is a friggin’ sled?! Blargh!

    And 2001: A Space Odyssey? OK, there’s ONE great scene, (“Open the pod bad door, Hal,” of course.) but the rest of the movie is snooze city! And now I must go find a trashcan lid to shield myself from all the rotten tomatoes hurtling my way.

    • I also was less than impressed by Citizen Kane and 2001, though to be fair I saw them when I was around 12. Back then I was pretty ADD, so there might be subtler merits to the movies that I might pick up on were I to watch them today.

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