Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

I wonder if Maurice Sendak knew when he wrote Where the Wild Things Are that it would have the lasting impact of a true classic. I wonder if he recognized the brevity of his writing (just 338 words) could stir profound emotion in both the reader and listener. First published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are won Sendak the Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious award given annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. The story follows Max, sent to his room without dinner for acting up and acting out, and the frustration and isolation of his tantrum. What sounds so simple is in fact complex; rage, fantasy and escape have the tendency to run wild.

To build a 110 minute film on the fragile foundation of 338 words is the challenge met by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers. What is the core of the story? Pure emotion. The glum reality is that becoming an adult is learning to control, or perhaps contrive all the excitement, anger, delerium and exhaustion of the human experience into something palatable and placid--to be civilized, I suppose.

Children's stories have long been a source for moviemakers. Sadly, so many of those original stories have been twisted and tweaked to the point of being unrecognizable. If you read the original books which the movies are based upon, you'd find Dorothy's slippers were made of diamonds, the flying monkeys were good guys, the Little Mermaid drowns, Mary Poppins is dour and mean and Pinnochio kills the cricket. Maybe changing those stories was done with good intention; to soften the moral tone and allow for a happy ending. Jonze and Eggers realized the vast fanship of Where the Wild Things Are and remained painstakingly true to the book.

Any reader of the book will recognize all the Wild Things/monsters in the film. The world they inhabit is spare and dreamlike; the desert is a short walk from the sea, and the forest is simultaneously barren and also in bloom. Similarly, Max and the Wild Things can love intensely yet feel overwhelming jealousy and anger; this captures so directly the erratic experience of childhood. As Max leaves the island of the Wild Things to return to his own home, Carol, the usually-vocal Wild Thing (voiced by James Gandolfini) is distraught; as he watches Max float away in his little boat, he is tearful, unable to talk, unable to even wave. To write and film such tender helplessness with depth and sincerity is a triumph. We have all experienced those moments of longing and regret and wordlessness, regardless whether we were children or fully grown. We recognize the frailty of human emotion, even when conveyed by a furry, horned monster.

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