Spike Jonzes’ Movie “Where the Wild Things Are”
By Jerry Griswold
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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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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Karen O and the Kids
About the Author
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
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