Where the wild things are too gloomy

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Sometimes a book has a life of its own reaching far beyond the author’s intentions. That is what happened to the 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

I’ve been thinking about Where the Wild Things Are since viewing the Spike Jonze film adaptation, which opened in mid-October. I love the book, but am uncertain about Jonze’s take on the author’s work.

In contrast, Sendak is happy with Jonze’s interpretation, which he sees as “life enhancing,” according to an Associated Press article by Jack Coyle.

Coyle quotes the 81-year-old author as saying that the popularity of  his book, which won a Caldecott medal, overshadowed “much of what he’s done since.” Over time, this upset Sendak to the point where he thought of the book as “an enemy.” He is, however, writing again partly due to his good feelings about the   movie.

A dark interpretation
Although many critics are finding lots to love about the movie from the viewpoint of childhood revisited, too often they are also noting that it isn’t really a movie for young children.

This is due to the fact that it is too sad, scary, and overlong for children age 8 and under, who have traditionally been the main market for the book. However, I suppose it is possible that Wild Things is going the way of Halloween and becoming the property of adults instead of children.

It is hard to say whether Sendak originally intended his book to be interpreted as darkly as Jonze sees it in his movie. Perhaps Sendak would have liked to take the wildness of the central character and his land of monsters further than he did.

But that would have been difficult in 1963. Even though Wild Things is now a classroom standard, as Coyle indicates in his article, “many libraries refused to stock the book” after its publication.

Not for Pollyannas
It probably would have been helpful to me if books like Wild Things had been available when I was young. I did not have a Pollyanna childhood. Sometimes I imagined that the neighbors could see our house shaking from all the shouting going on inside.

I would have loved the central character, Max,  running rampant in his wolf costume. He is so wonderfully naughty, outspoken, and—ultimately—angry as he stomps around the house making “mischief of one kind and another.” So his mother sends him to bed without supper.

Inside his bedroom, Max’s imagination runs wild, creating a forest, an ocean journey, and a land inhabited by huge monsters.

This is where Jonze’s wonderfully creative expansion of the story steers dangerously off course. Instead of reassuring young viewers by letting them think that Max may be just dreaming in his bedroom, Jonze has him actually run away from home.

Earlier this month, Newsweek published a long, insightful interview with Sendak and Tom Eggars who wrote the screenplay for Wild Things. In it, Sendak revealed that the switch from  bedroom revery to running away was the only change that troubled him. Eventually, though, he decided that Jonze’s choice was “valid.”

A movie for kids?
While Jonze gives emotional depth to Sendak’s book, he also treads hazardously far from his PG audience. In the movie, Max runs away after screaming at his stressed-out single mother and biting her. He runs through what appear to be the neighborhood woods and toward a lake where a boat awaits his grand journey.

For young readers or children listening to a read-aloud of Wild Things, the magical link to the bedroom probably makes Max’s adventure less fearful.

There is a fabulous, but not-too-scary dreamlike tone to so much of Sendak’s writing and illustrations, especially Wild Things and In the Night Kitchen.

Night Kitchen is particularly nightmarish in that the dreamer finds himself in a bizarre kitchen where three wacky bakers think he is milk and add him to their bread batter. It is thought provoking to ponder what Jonze would do with the equally brief and even more bizarre text of this tale.

Sendak seems to think Hollywood children’s movies are “prissy” and reportedly told Coyle he’d never be caught “at a kiddie movie.” This, of course, is a heavy-handed estimate of Hollywood which has produced such gems as The Princess Bride, Ever After, and numerous films that both children and adults love based on Roald Dahl’s darkly humorous books, including The Witches.

Throwing out the holy text
As Ann Hornaday wrote in her Washington Post review of Wild Things, Jonze has “thrown away Where the Wild Things Are as a holy text, using it more as a psychological template for a different kind of story about a child grappling with rage and abandonment and his own fearsome power.”

Introspective adults may enjoy the musings and rantings of the beasts in Max’s imaginary world and may even be able to use it to foster meaningful conversations with young children. But will the 8 and under crowd enjoy it or will they prefer a wild reading rumpus of the original story?

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