This is the copy of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are I've had since I was 4 years old. It has gone all over the world with me, a fact that Max would surely love. Like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, Where The Wild Things Are is one of the fundamental tenets of my imagination and remains one of my most treasured of childhood stories. Pure magic.
Last week I finally saw the new film version of Where The Wild Things Are on DVD; sadly it never came to the cinemas in Prague. The moment it started I knew I would love it, but it wasn't an easy film to watch. What kept running through my mind was a line from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when Clementine says, "I think grown forget how lonely it is for kids." I kept thinking about how scary it can be for children, coupled with the sense of separation from those who are older.
I don't have children so it may be contentious to say this, but I feel that once you have kids you start to forget how to relate with them. Life becomes about more practical matters, food, shelter, education, saving for their future, a job on top of all those parental responsibilities, add into the mix the worry for your child's safety. All these things can be a barrier to actually relating with and understanding the reality of your child's experience. I see this all the time at the international school where I work. I remember it from my childhood. I'm sure this is "normal", but it is also very difficult.
I never lived anywhere where I could run away from home like Max did. No nearby family, no real friends nearby, nowhere to go. So I escaped into stories and movies. I found refuge in my journals.
As I watched Where The Wild Things Are, all of those feelings from my childhood came rushing back. The terror, the magic, the unlikely friendships, the fun, the freedom, the rules, the worries, the watching, the judging of the grown-ups around me. I never had any say in any of the places to which we moved when I was a child. How many times I'd had to say goodbye to people I loved by the time I was Max's age was too many. Like Max, I never lacked for anything, yet I always felt estranged. I always helped take care of my sisters, I was the responsible and dutiful daughter, my main acting out as an adolescent was buzzing off all my hair before I graduated and wearing black for months. My parents were much stricter with me than my sisters, I think because they needed my help and didn't think they needed my permission to expect things from me.
Though my Third Culture Kid childhood of travel on the surface seems very glamourous, my experience of it was the total opposite.
Watching Where The Wild Things Are reminded me of my only Max moment, a time we were in Australia visiting my uncle, I must have been about 5 years old. It was Christmas, my mum took me to a shopping centre. The centre had these amazing window displays, totally mobile, full of dioramas, stories coming to life. Pure magic. I wanted to spend more time looking at them, but my mom had to do shopping so I couldn't. When her back was turned I just went. I remember standing in front of those displays, entranced, wanting to live inside those worlds, easily one of my best memories from my childhood. My mom, of course, was hysterical inside looking for me, and when a security guard found me outside, in a rapture, she was happy to see me for about two seconds, then the yelling (and probably spanking) started. A short-lived perfect moment. Then again, aren't all perfect moments short-lived? At the end of Where The Wild Things Are's credits I smiled when I saw they actually filmed the movie in Australia.
If you've forgotten about your childhood, for whatever reason, Where The Wild Things Are can remind you. It's painful and beautiful and harrowing and hateful and magical, but worth it. I can't say if this is a movie for children or not. I saw equally scary films as a child, like Return To Oz, The Last Unicorn, The Witches, etc., and I coped just fine. But Where The Wild Things Are is indeed stressful since it is such a departure from the book, though a magnificent one. There were many moments where I was uncomfortably frightened for Max, wondering if everything would work out okay.
The world can be a very lonely and scary place, for everyone, and this book and film remind me of how children look at the world. Their fearlessness in the face of terror and loneliness. Their ability to adapt, survive, come out ever stronger.
If you loved this book as a child seeing the Wild Things come to life is magnificently touching. Hearing them speak, seeing their personalities awaken, their beautiful faces laughing and frowning. That alone makes this film worthwhile. The cast is perfect, each and every one. I still have my Wild Thing stuffed animal and loved seeing him with the voice of Lauren Ambrose, one of my favorite actresses since her work in Six Feet Under. The soundtrack featuring Karen O's whippoorwill voice brings to mind Eddie Vedder's visceral Into The Wild score, but with more whimsy and terror thrown in. The screenplay by Spike Jonze and David Eggers is masterfully crafted, touching, and real. Spike Jonze as director is brilliant, capturing all of these complex elements and weaving them into a perfect balance.
Where The Wild Things Are, like the book, is a masterpiece. Unlike the book, it evokes not just the playful side of childhood, but also explores the darker and more painful side with an honest eye for detail and beauty. Since seeing it I somehow feel more me, more connected with my childhood self than I've felt in years, with all the joy and sadness that entails. Where The Wild Things Are is the true embodiment of art: it makes me feel whole.