Bright Lights Film Journal

Wild Love: Spike Jonze Meets Maurice Sendak in Where the Wild Things Are

“I’ll eat you up. I love you so.”

In October of last year, I grew horns and fangs. I was sitting in the back of my parents’ SUV on the way home from the small, defunct steel town outside of Pittsburgh where my grandparents live. On the drive in, my dad had snapped at my mom about punctuality — his go-to topic when other things are eating him — and now he snapped at me about something else. As it turned out, some things were eating me too. But instead of snapping, I roared. I rolled my terrible eyes and gnashed my terrible teeth, yelling and cursing until I was hoarse, and after a few brutal minutes I had said all I wanted to say and felt, well, terrible.

After we got home, I heard my mom in the next room arguing with my dad about my argument with him, and I fled the house. I walked the neighborhood, glancing into lit windows, dead leaves crunching under my feet. It’s hard being a family.

Later that week, my sister dug out my old copy of Where The Wild Things Are from my closet for a teaching assignment. Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of the book, coincidentally, was opening too, and she suggested we see it together. Sharing a big, bottomless popcorn, our sneakers pressed to the vinyl seatbacks like we were eight and six again, we grinned and chomped our way into the primal otherworld of Max’s imagination, and back. Once or twice we laughed out loud, causing small mussed heads to swivel. We were feeling happy, I think, not only because one of our favorite memories as young readers was alive on the screen forty-six years after the book’s first publication in 1963; we also sensed it was being done justice.

But what did that even mean? What does a feature-length, live-action movie owe to a thirty-page illustrated book for kids, no matter how beloved? Before going to the theater I read through Wild Things, skimming Maurice Sendak’s words and staring into the shadowy crosshatch of his artwork. What I felt immediately was atmosphere — so thick and deep, and so familiar, that I was suddenly in my room in the mid-eighties, sprawled on the carpet surrounded by stuffed apes and dinosaurs, vines creeping up the walls. I wondered again at the story’s taffy-like stretching of time, with Max sailing “in and out of weeks and almost over a year” to reach his destination. And I smiled at the last-page revelation that even after those extensive travels, over land and sea, the soup his mother leaves on his night table is “still hot.” Yes, Jonze would have to speak for all of this.

And more than that, too. Movies are long, and the story would need fleshing out. Max’s journey is heavy on rich aesthetics and thematic undercurrents, but it’s short and neat in the way picture books are supposed to be, without the narrative fodder of more prosey works for children that also involve dual worlds, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or the Harry Potter series. Wild Things had to grow into a drama — with twists and subplots and characters that talked (a lot) and quarreled with each other (preferably a lot). Howling at the moon was necessary, but not sufficient. Which is why Jonze enlisted novelist-cum-screenwriter Dave Eggers (What Is the What, Away We Go) to help expand Sendak’s tidy arc and fill in the gaps.

The result is a movie different from the book, more strange and digressive and emotionally severe, but still true to it. Jonze was approached by Sendak with the project, not the other way around, and the two compared notes through much of the film’s development. So with the creator’s blessing, Jonze and Eggers push the story into territory that is fresh, raw, weirdly funny, and in many ways indebted to other auteurs of recent decades — think Jim Henson meets Charlie Kaufman, with a dash of Tim Burton — but they never lose their lock on Sendak’s vision. And to the pair’s credit, it was only after watching the film that I began to see, I think, what the book is really getting at.

Maybe my grown-up tantrum was still on my mind — I know it was — but after leaving the theater I realized what I was moved by as a kid and could only fully grasp as an adult: Sendak’s story is not about Max’s mischief-making or punishment, or even about his imagination, though it obviously depends on all these things. It’s about love. Not Disney love, simple and comely and pure, the breaker of spells and slayer of dragons, the engine of parental self-sacrifice. But rather, a love that in its intensity and confusion can bend the spectrum of emotion back on itself, so that need touches fear, and passion edges into violence. Love that gives rise to the very dragons it’s pitted against. In short, real love. The kind most of us feel and know.

In one of the film’s early scenes, Max (Max Records) bites his mother (Katherine Keener). Granted, he’s had a rough week. One of his teenage sister’s friends crushes his snowdrift igloo after he incites a snowball fight, prompting a teary invasion of her room, where he smashes a Valentine he made and drenches the carpet with slush. His science teacher has just explained that the sun is going to die. And his mom — an exhausted single parent, with no dad in sight — now has a man (Mark Rufolo) over for dinner. In response to all this, Max dons his wolf suit and acts out. When his mom tries to restrain him and he bites her, the look on his face is a wrenching mess of emotion: shock, guilt, shame, fear. Everything we feel when we lash out unexpectedly at those closest to us.

Like any cornered wild thing might, Max takes off. We see him sprint through dark suburban streets and into the woods, where a small boat awaits. (Though it sets up a last-scene reunion with his mom, this is a departure from the book, which has Max embark on an ocean that rolls conveniently through his bedroom). From there it’s a matter of cinematic seconds — or weeks or months — before he’s wading out of the nighttime surf, stealing into the forest and stumbling into the company of several shaggy, fire-lit figures.

As lively and emotive as Sendak’s pen-and-ink wild things are on the page, Jonze’s screen creatures are more than that: they’re alive. A blend of voice performance, seamless CGI and the work of real actors in animatronic costumes (courtesy of the late Henson’s Creature Shop), they have distinct personalities, odd quirks and flaws, eye goo, twigs stuck in their fur. And perhaps not surprisingly, they’re at their most fearsome — and most fearful — when they’re acting the most like human beings.

Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini, has the bulk and volcanic temper of a woolly Tony Soprano (at one point he tears the arm off another wild thing, literally, and sand spills from the wound), but he can be friendly too, and unlike that Italian American monster from Newark he would like nothing more than to relinquish his role as head of the family. Carol doesn’t want power. He wants protection. When Max is questioned early on by the suspicious group and likened to a snack, he rattles off a list of made-up abilities (along with that wonderfully high-flown command, “Be still!”) to awe the wild things and prove his fitness to rule. Carol and the others are duly impressed, but it’s telling that his promise of “a sadness shield” is what really seems to clinch the deal.

These postmillennial wild things, we find out, don’t need a king so much as a psychiatrist. They’re neurotic and jealous and constantly at odds with each other. But we also get the sense that all they really want is to stop being that way, to learn how to hold onto the good they feel and keep out the bad. “I’m just eliminating the crazy,” Carol explains as he rams headfirst into one wicker structure after another, demolishing the huts where he and his friends live. The others look on, baffled and hurt. Getting rid of the “crazy” becomes Max’s chief responsibility, but it’s a tall order only made taller by the close-knit, hypersensitive nature of the wild things’ society.

Jonze’s film — and the book, in a less obvious way — present a moral that is common but not often expressed in stories meant for children: almost as much as the absence of love can cause us to morph into wild beasts, so can the presence of it. As Judith (Catherine O’Hara), the token downer among the wild things, puts it, “Happiness is not always the best way to be happy.” What sounds at first like cynicism for its own sake turns out to be pretty convincing. In a later scene, just after Carol pegs them as being “in love,” Max watches Judith sock her boyfriend, Ira (Forest Whitaker), across the face with a log. They both seem to be enjoying it, but still. Once Max is crowned king, it’s not any meanness or abuse of power on his part that leads to conflict, but his desire to please and placate and include. After work begins on a giant, globe-shaped superfort of Max’s design, with an upbeat montage showing scenes of him playing foreman to the others, he and Carol take a moment to get sentimental, nuzzling and howling together in a display of feral friendship. The backlash is swift and fierce. Judith pipes up again, accusing Max of favoritism. “It’s our job to be upset,” she snarls. Love, platonic or romantic, often creates as many problems as it solves.

This is brooding stuff, and it’s no wonder such themes don’t usually make it into kid-centric literature and media. Some of Henson’s moodier collaborations, like Labyrinth (1986) and The Dark Crystal (1982), seem to skirt the abyss, though it’s been argued that those movies aren’t really for children anyway. Jonze’s Wild Things has some of the fatalistic gravity of Wolfgang Peterson’s adaptation of The Neverending Story (1985), where a dark force called “The Nothing” consumes large swaths of an imaginary land, Fantasia, which is visited — and perhaps envisioned — by the boy-hero, Bastion. While Bastion is able to rewrite the ending of his story, though, and save the doomed characters he meets, Max seems destined from the start to let down those who have put their faith in him. He’s a failure as a king, and that’s part of the point.

“How can I make everyone O.K.?” he asks in a pivotal scene, but he never gets anything close to an answer. Instead, Max’s good intentions are consistently ruined by the impossible expectations placed on him by himself and others. His idea to diffuse tensions among the group by staging a dirt clod battle and “clobber[ing] each other” for fun only ends with stepped-on heads and more wounded feelings. Sometime later, Max returns to a secret cavern where Carol has constructed a miniature Wild Thing Island out of mud and sticks — a charming scale-model of utopia — only to discover it’s been smashed to pieces at the hands of its disillusioned creator. When Max finally sets sail for home, the big-eyed grief of the wild things is touching, but the scene is also sad because we know he’s leaving them more or less as he found them, emotionally unsettled and adrift.

Like Bastion’s Fantasia or Alice’s Wonderland, the kingdom of the wild things is more than just setting. It’s Max’s head turned inside out, a jungly projection of what he thinks and dreams and feels. And accordingly, the creatures he meets there are as much imaginary friends as they are manifestations of a troubled young boy’s demons. Jonze and Eggers clearly understand this and make use of it, but they also go deeper and darker than Sendak does, past the moonlit rumpus of the imagination and into the Darwinian wilds of the psyche.

Onscreen, this “inner” wilderness is the gnarled forests, craggy beaches and giant dunes of Melbourne, Australia, where the film was shot. It’s all starkly beautiful, though at times Max and his monsters seem stranded on the set of a Samuel Beckett play, or at the very least in a passage from Robinson Crusoe or Lord of the Flies. Aside from a mammoth dog seen in passing and two unintelligible owls, they appear to be completely alone in the landscape, adding to the impression that their biggest threat is not anything outside of their small clan, but the clan itself.

Their world is at once a paradise of freedom (every kid’s dream) and an intolerable limbo (every adult’s nightmare), with the wild things waiting hungrily for an order and peace that will never come, because in their world, like ours, such things aren’t entirely possible. They want deliverance from change, from too much love and not enough of it, from dying suns and blueprints drawn in the sand, from the loneliness of selfhood, from their own wildness. They want to be a family without the pain of being a family. They want to be safe. And as their leader, poor Max has about as much chance of satisfying these desires — which, on some level, are his own — as the handful of previous kings, whose clean-picked bones he finds in a heap just after he arrives. Wild things are known to swallow their disappointments, it’s true, but only in the literal sense.

And Max is eaten, eventually. It’s KW (Lauren Ambrose) who does it, but when she lowers him into her womblike stomach it’s an act of protection and love, not appetite. Carol has figured out that Max is a fraud — “just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king” — and that his magical powers are make-believe, and now he’s coming for him. KW, the most calm and nurturing of the wild things, asks Max for a leap of trust. She eats him to save him from being eaten. “I wish you guys had a mom,” he says after Carol storms off and she pulls him out, his wolf suit soggy with digestive slime that might remind us a little of afterbirth. It’s not long after (or maybe during) this moment that Max decides to go home.

Not often does a movie based on a book, Caldecott winner or otherwise, manage to register that book’s thematic pulse rather than distort or obscure it. Jonze achieves this with Wild Things, I think, giving us a film that is a responsible homage to Sendak’s classic but also an idiosyncratic product of the Jonze style, something very much its own animal. He echoes the sentiments of generations of young readers who no doubt saw (and will continue to see) themselves in Max, and he adds stirring reverberations of his own, so that while we can’t help but feel at home in his movie, we can’t avoid being surprised by it. Sendak was impressed after viewing the final cut: “[Jonze is] not afraid of himself. He’s a real artist that lets it come through in the work . . . . He’s touched me very much.” As for Jonz, he has described his movie as being “about childhood,” which of course it is, but that seems like a thin assessment for someone so smart. Where the Wild Things Are is also a film about the joys, demands and dissatisfactions of life at any age. And about the bonds within families — the toll taken by those crucial and frustrating roles that, maybe, we never quite grow out of.

“I’ll eat you up. I love you so.” What I must have sensed while reading Sendak’s book as a kid — and understand more deeply now — is that these two sentences are as much polar opposites as they are expressions of the same imperfect, violently beautiful feeling. It’s a feeling that prompts slobbery kisses and bear hugs even as it threatens to tear down the houses and igloos and forest huts it helps to create, in the fragile, ever-changing worlds of men and monsters alike.

Sources

Lee, Chris. “When Spike met Maurice: Bringing ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ to the Screen.The Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2009.

Thomson, Bob. “Not a ‘Children’s’ Movie.” The Star Phoenix, October 17, 2009.

Wikipedia. “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.