Spike Jonzes’ Movie “Where the Wild Things Are”
Spike Jonze’s movie Where the Wild Things Are is an homage to Maurice Sendak’s famous picture book of the same name—the one that nearly every parent and most children have memorized, the one that begins “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.” Max, you’ll remember, is misbehaving when his mother sends him to his room. But the imaginative boy is unwilling to see that as a punishment and so, in his mind’s eye, he converts his room into a jungle and goes on a romp with the Wild Things. When Max tires of playing with these monsters, he returns home from his imaginary journey to find his supper waiting and “it was still hot.”
Jonze’s “take” on Sendak’s story has been eagerly awaited because the book is a beloved favorite and because Jonze is a hot young director in Hollywood (best known for his terrific movie “Being John Malkovich”). Now that the film has finally arrived, what is striking is Jonze’s abandonment of Sendak’s idea that Max’s adventure occurs entirely within the boy’s imagination. In the film, except for actors in giant monster suits, Jonze has the story unfold in a largely realistic environment—a landscape not so different from, say, that in “The Blue Lagoon.”
His big intention with this project, Jonze has said, was not to make a children’s film but “a film about childhood,” one that presents what it actually feels like to be a kid (in this case, a nine-year-old boy who lives with his divorced mother and older sister). What, then, does Jonze’s Max actually feel? At the heart of the film and throughout, what motivates Max (as well as the humans and monsters who surround him) can be described as “hurt feelings.” This movie is a bouillabaisse of misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, hitting, and injured recriminations.
Given Jonze’s genius and Sendak’s wholehearted endorsement of him, expectations for the movie have been high. Unfortunately, the film falls short because except for its bath of emotions and some dirt-clod wars, nothing much happens. Moreover, for those who remember the book, the hurt feelings of Jonze’s Max seem a kind of moody preciousness compared to the boldness that was striking in the original Max. Fortunately, the book will survive this cinematic misstep. Like Max’s supper, the audacity of Sendak’s original offering still awaits the curious reader—and it is still hot.
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For the kid who likes Where the Wild Things Are and wants more, there are two ways to go: backwards and forwards. Wild Things’ Max first appeared as Pierre in a story by that name in Sendak’s Nutshell Library and where we encounter a boy who throws a tantrum and is consumed by a lion; and when Max organizes fun for the monsters in Wild Things, we see a reprise of what Rosie does with the neighborhood kids in the earlier The Sign on Rosie’s Door. Besides backwards, eager readers can also travel forward. Wild Things, Sendak explains, is the first book in a trilogy and it was followed by In the Night Kitchen (which recounts the nocturnal creativity of Mickey) and Outside Over There (where Sendak’s Ida goes on a rescue mission).
Sendak is now 81 years old and has had a long career in both children’s books and theater. At this point, three generations of fans are honoring him. So, in addition to today’s youngsters, older readers who wish to revisit their enthusiasm might turn to a new book by Gregory Maguire (the author of Wicked) where the artist is celebrated: Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation. Some may also wish to take in an exhibit of Sendak’s work that is currently appearing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
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Along with Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers wrote the screenplay for the movie. Eggers also wrote the novelization. Unlike the much shorter and pictorial Where the Wild Things Are: The Movie Storybook (by Barb Bersche and Michelle Quint), Eggers’ novelization—simply called The Wild Things—is a 285-page work of fiction that generally follows the movie’s storyline but allows itself freedom to improvise here and there. The results are uneven and sometimes tedious. The book is published by McSweeney’s, Eggers’ publishing company, in both a conventional hardback form and in a zany fur-covered edition.
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Karen O and the Kids
The soundtrack for the movie is done by Karen O and the Kids (a number of indie-rock guest performers). No Sesame Street here, the songs are moody, quirky, and sweet offerings from a punk chanteuse able to vary her style from that of K.D. Lang’s “Chatelaine” to Toni Bail’s cheerleader favorite “Mickey.” The atmospheric song “Hideaway” is terrific. Available on CD and as an MP3 download.
Jerry Griswold is the Director of San Diego State University's National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His most recent book is Feeling Like a Kid.
Children's Books Into Films
Read the book, then see the film—to my way of thinking, that's the ideal sequence. Here are the four children's films that I believe will make a splash in 2009 and—for those who want to read the book first—information about the stories they are based on.