There was an interesting article about Spike Jonze and the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are in this week’s New York Times Magazine. I’d seen a trailer for the film the week before while catching the latest Harry Potter movie, and wondered “What the ???” If any book seemed unsuited for film treatment, it’s that one, as cinematic as it is. For one thing, the book succeeds so perfectly as a picture book, using 10 perfect sentences and 18 mind-blowing illustrations to create an entire world that expanding it into a film seems like the very definition of gilding the lily. For another, WTWTA is essentially a psychological drama about a child’s anger, rebellion, and self-mastery. The conflict is entirely internal, making it an unlikely candidate for a children’s film. Shrek, yes. Night at the Museum, OK. But Where the Wild Things Are?
As I sat in the theater, watching the trailer unfold, I could not have been less receptive to the idea of this movie being made. Where The Wild Things Are is one of the very first books I remember loving, and it is so much a part of my internal landscape that the sight of the cross-hatched palm fronds on the endpapers is enough to provoke a visceral sense of longing and excitement. Reading a book is a private experience, a conversation between book and reader. My conversation with WTWTA has been going on for more than 40 years and I felt irritated that some noisy Hollywood movie had the temerity to horn in on it.
Yet the images I saw in the trailer seemed to have been lifted from some missing pages of the book. And, as if to quiet objections from purists like me, there was the notoriously curmudgeonly Maurice Sendak himself talking about how he loves the film. The Times article explains that it was Sendak who wanted a movie made of the book in the first place, and that he was the one who approached Jonze.
Jonze, it seems, gets that the book is about emotion, not plot, and that the wild things are internal not external. As journalist Saki Knafo observes in the Times profile,
“In Hollywood, successful children’s movies operate on rules straight from the Joseph Campbell playbook. Heroes take journeys, they go on quests, they get lost and try to find their way home. Their motivations are precisely stated, their obstacles clearly identified. In “Shrek,” an ogre sets off on a quest to save a swamp and a princess; in “Spy Kids,” a brother and sister set off on a quest to save their parents. In “Where the Wild Things Are,” Max leaves home as well, but not on a quest. He sees his mother kiss a man who is not his father, and in the next scene, he’s standing atop a kitchen table, arms folded across his chest, shouting, “Woman, feed me!” The outburst escalates into a screaming match, Max bursts into tears and then he’s running — running nowhere in particular, just running, face flushed, tears streaking his cheeks. There are no princesses awaiting him, no swamps in need of rescue, only his frustrated, mixed-up emotions driving him onward.”
The trailer was part of a trifecta of children’s book adaptation previews that also included ones for The Lightning Thief and A Christmas Carol (OK, maybe this last isn’t technically a children’s book, but it is certainly the Dickens novel that is most frequently shared with children.) Coupled with the upcoming release of the movie version of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, along with recent adaptations of Coraline and Inkspell, the trailers gave me the distinct impression that Hollywood, having run out of old sit-coms to remake, has decided to turn all of children’s literature into a movie.
Overall that’s probably good for children’s literature – authors and publishers need all the help we can get these days and if movies bring us readers and sales, that’s all for the good. Still, as an old-fashioned and rather cranky bibliophile, I tend to feel annoyed at the presumption that a book ever needs to be anything but a book. The trailer for A Christmas Carol, for example, was one of the most nauseating things I’ve ever seen in a movie theater, which is saying a lot. It intercut images of popping, zooming, thudding, whirling special effects with ponderous interviews with director Robert Zemeckis and actor Jim Carey proclaiming their gratitude at being able to finally, with the aid of performance capture technology, show viewers what Charles Dickens would have shown them, if he’d only had a huge production budget and a lot of computers instead of boring old pen and paper.
Comparing the two movies will be interesting, not just because they are different approaches to film-making, but because they embody different ideas about what children want and need. in when WTWTA first came out, it was considered too scary and strange for children, and there are many young children (my own included) who still find it too intense. Yet compared to the noise and explosions of a 3-D Disney movie, it’s pretty tame stuff. Have children changed all that much in 46 years? Or have we, in our expectations of what they should like, forgotten how much drama can be found in a simple two-page spread of Max and four monsters having a wild rumpus?
"When I was a kid, the teacher of 1st grade read the book to all the class. Since then, it was a direct influence on the amount of imagination I have now that im around 20 something."
That's all anyone who makes anything could ever hope to hear.