Why the Wild Things Are

"In a word, the great difference between Sendak's book and Jonze's film is that the book is about anger, while the film is as much about sadness. Here is a film broken-hearted over the messiness of the world. It is sad, and beautiful, and true." - Steven D. Greydanus

When legendary author Maurice Sendak was told of concerns that the film based on his beloved Where the Wild Things Are was too mature for young audiences, his reply was remarkably direct (if a trifle impolitic). "I would tell them to go to hell," he said. "That's a question I will not tolerate." Pressed further, Sendak dismissed the notion of inappropriateness altogether. "I saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child's eyes," he reminded his interviewer. "So what? I managed to survive."

The vehemence of Sendak's response should come as no surprise. The author has railed long and loudly against the Disneyfication of young American imaginations, and the many battles he waged against the suggestion that Where the Wild Things Are (and his subsequent work, In the Night Kitchen) were but thinly-veiled attempts to "demythify" the innocence of childhood have undoubtedly left him a bit sore on the subject.

Moreover, the book is easily defended against such claims. Its imagery—harshly criticized when the book was first released—is more fantastical than frightening. And while some of the issues raised are undeniably complex, they simmer well under the surface of most youthful consciousnesses. In fact, Where the Wild Things Are is far more likely to trouble adults than children, and one suspects that much of the initial resistance to Sendak's work is tied to that very fact.

But is that same defense applicable to the film? Or do the radical differences in mediums bring validity to the parental concerns that Sendak's original manages to avoid?

The book itself, first published in 1963, is a marvel of concision and visual storytelling. In thirty-seven captivating pages (bolstered by a mere ten sentences of dialogue), the reader is introduced to Max, an exuberant young boy whose propensity for mischief has landed him in bed without supper. Magically ignoring the restricting walls of his room, Max travels to an imaginary island populated by a herd of large, angry "things"—outlandishly shaggy, inimitable monsters who are greatly impressed by Max's own wildness, embrace him as one of their own, and gleefully name him King of all Wild Things. After a series of rambunctious melees—"Let the wild rumpus start!" Max proclaims with his first royal command—the newly-crowned king bids his subjects farewell and returns home, somewhat chastened by his experience of authority. Upon arriving safely within the walls of his bedroom once again, he is pleasantly surprised to discover that his soup has been set aside for him, "and it was still hot."

The material that flows from Sendak's wondrous pen is much too short for a feature film. As a result, the film's director (Spike Jonze) and his co-writer (best-selling author Dave Eggers) were faced with the unenviable task of crafting a larger, more complex edifice to fit around Sendak's original work—one that hits many of the same plot points, but goes far beyond them. Now, rather than simply experiencing (and subduing) the Wild Things, Max comes to understand why they are wild. Instead of spending his time on the island "rumpussing" it up with his nameless subjects, the young boy struggles to find an explanation for the sadness that permeates so many of their waking moments. (In one of the film's most poignant scenes, a confused Max asks for guidance in confronting the most difficult task he has ever set himself. "How do I make everyone Okay?" he beseeches his listeners, deeply moved by the suffering of his new-found friends.)

Predictably, Max's attachment to his companions (anonymous no longer) makes it impossible for him to simply "sail away into the sunset" as he does in the original. Instead, he must find a solution to the problems of his Wild Things—a solution hinted at in the final words of Sendak's own book, and one which leaves the film's audiences gratified, yet more than a bit wistful.

The first and most obvious question for parents to consider when comparing the appropriateness of Sendak's picture book with the cinematic vision of Jonze and Eggers is the creatures themselves. They're huge. They're wildly unpredictable, emotionally impetuous, and almost hopelessly immature. True, these things may all hold true of Sendak's original creations, but the living, moving, breathing representations of his images—lovingly and carefully crafted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop—could be a bit overwhelming for young audience members. Still, the Wild Things are more endearing than threatening, and the additional screen time awarded to them as a result of the film's length proves more than sufficient in eliminating the trepidation that arises from their first appearance on screen.

Yet this additional material is a double-edged sword; while eliminating many of the concerns regarding the Wild Things themselves, it also provides the film's worried critics with their greatest ammunition. For in addition to creating (potentially problematic, complex) motivations and back-stories for the herd of Wild Things, Jonze and Eggers make a carefully thought-out yet dramatic change—one that may fit snuggly into their extension of Sendak's original vision, but one which so radically alters the parameters of their project that the question of whether the resulting story is appropriate for young audience comes once again into play: they tell us why Max is angry.

In Sendak's original work, the reason for Max's anger is attributed largely to the natural rambunctiousness of youth and to an unfortunate tendency toward lippiness on the youngster's part. In the film, however, causes for his anger abound: his absent father (either by death or divorce), his sister's studied indifference (and the casual dismissiveness of her friends), his mother's newly-acquired boyfriend and the embarrassment-fueled punishment she visits upon his misbehavior—all paint a far darker picture of Max's past than Sendak's vibrant illustrations and minimalistic prose could ever have done.

This troubling context is made even more explicit by the film's clear suggestion that the various Wild Things personify Max's own conflicting emotions. Carol, the first and dearest of the creatures, is eerily similar to his young king; when he lashes out in anger, he uses the very expressions employed by Max during his explosive confrontations with his mother and sister. Alexander, a faun-like Thing who barely appears in Sendak's original work, is a loner and an outcast who laments the lack of interest and affection shown by his peers. At heart, each of the Things is a damaged, distilled Max—a fact which graces his efforts to "make everyone Okay" with a new and deeper meaning, and renders his eventual solution even more bittersweet.

At its heart, Sendak's story is an occasionally unsettling examination of something many of us have experienced (but few of us care to remember): the anger and frustration that can so often accompany childhood. Yet his work does not give the reasons behind Max's anger, only the consequences, and the result is a story that can be appreciated by audiences of any age.

The film, by delving into the story behind Max's behavior and those of his huge, furry friends, eliminates much of the mischievous charm of its source material; the childlike exuberance which permeates the picture book is largely absent in Jonze's work because the audience knows too much about Max and his Things. Where the Wild Things Are is inappropriate for children because it's sad, not because it's scary—sad about things and emotions which they cannot possibly begin to understand.

Yet despite its challenging subject matter, the film offers an important reminder to those willing to embrace its darker moments. Max's hot-headed departure and his chastened return remind us that anger does not exist in a vacuum; that "mischief of one kind or another" is often the manifestation of some deeper sadness; and that our ability to help Max and others like him will depend on our willingness to understand the emotions and motivations behind their actions. Yelling "You're out of control!" in response to bad behavior will rarely prove fruitful; understanding why they have lost control almost certainly will.

Despite Sendak's fervent protestations to the contrary, the film is not for young audiences. It is, however, "for the children." And for that, those of us tasked with guarding the health, happiness, and even the anger of our little ones can be grateful.

Attribution(s): All posters, publicity images, and stills are the property of Warner Brothers and other respective production studios and distributors.