Posted by: Sarah | October 28, 2009

The Rumpus: Where the Wild Things Are

Like everyone else, my curiosity was peaked by all the controversy surrounding Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. How could anyone not be intrigued when both the New York Times and Newsweek decided a children’s book turned motion picture was worthy of their gold ink.

Sendak's Max illustration

Of course, I had to go see the movie ASAP. In general, I’m a sucker for movies adapted from books. Correction: Good movies adapted from good books. It’s a fact that far too many bad books become blockbuster hits. Yet even in those, it’s fascinating to watch a director interpret and change the original characters and plot to fit the visual medium and an audience demanding a laugh, cry or some catharsis in under two hours— with buttered popcorn in hand. It’s a different crowd from the standard book club or Caldecott committee. So I joined the throngs of moviegoers and snuggled into a seat beside my husband with an obligatory fizzy soda.

One hour and thirty-four minutes later, what did I think? It was wonderful! But not in the same way that you leave say, Gone With The Wind exclaiming, “It was wonderful!Where The Wild Things Are stuck deeper. (Not that Scarlett O’Hara didn’t forever brand herself on my subconscious—fiddle-dee-dee!) This was different. The movie was like that piece of apple skin that gets lodged just behind your incisor. That little bit you tongue around for hours, too lazy to get floss. So for hours after I left the theater, I analyzed it to my poor husband who after the first thirty minutes had the look of a man wanting to shoot himself. Bless his heart.

I’ll be honest: Growing up, Where The Wild Things Are wasn’t my favorite. In fact, I recall thinking that Max deserved a good spanking, and if he’d lived in my house, he’d have gotten one in a flash. No time to sail the seas or to have a wild rumpus. Max’s hiney would’ve been too sore. That’s what I remember as a kid. As an adult, I can appreciate the perceptiveness of Sendak’s tale: the connection to our inner brute, the choices we make, the consequences we face, the taming of the wild within.

In that respect, the movie made me revisit my own childhood memories of fear, anger and consequence as well as contemplate the role of these emotions in kids today. Newsweek did an excellent story discussing the film’s fear factor and Jonze’s goal to do a film “about childhood” rather than “for children.” I thought this a very intuitive distinction. I agree. Not all stories about children are for children.

The basic debate breakdown: Jonze produced a film not intended necessarily for children while the original work, Sendak’s book, was specifically for that demographic. Hmm… why again isn’t it for children? According to parenting discussion boards and reviewers across the country: because it’s too scary. Interesting.

Having read more blogs, comments and reviews than I care to admit, and, myself, waffling back and forth between opinions, I stopped to re-read the original picture book. Staring down at the final illustration of Max with his mother’s hot supper, I wondered if it comes down to a fundamental issue of parenting. Hear me out.

Little Red Riding HoodOne of my favorite stories growing up was Little Red Riding Hood. My aunt gave me the pop-up book when I was five, and I literally loved that thing to shreds. The basic story: little girl goes into the dark woods to her grandmother’s house, meets a wolf, gets eaten by it, and a hunter cuts her out. My version was not Disney sanctioned, but I loved it. My heart pitter-pattered when Little Red said, “My, what big teeth you have,” just before being gobbled whole.

Understand, I am not a lady who’s into fright. I’ve never been jazzed by scary tales. For goodness sake, I make my husband mute the TV when horror movie trailers are on! And I usually dress up as Dorothy, a bunny or a kitty on Halloween. (This year I’ll be the latter.) But fear is a human instinct, and children need to understand it so they can appropriately deal with it in adulthood. Now, I’m not saying to throw on The Exorcist for your child this weekend. No, no. I don’t condone over-exposure of children to anything negative. If anything, I lean to the side of shielding kids and allowing them to be as innocent as possible as long as possible. Innocent not ignorant. And the fact is, we live in a time of war and reality TV. Everyday children encounter fear and anger and dysfunction alongside love and joy and unity. So why not show them how to deal with their emotions through character examples?

I’m arguing that literature is one of the safest places for children and adults to see danger, feel it, know it for a time, understand the consequences and come away with a greater knowledge and, hopefully, an idea of how to better manage their feelings. This isn’t revolutionary stuff. The Brothers Grimm were using children’s stories far before Sendak came along.

My mother is an elementary school administrator in Northern Virginia who’s taught the primary grades for decades. I asked her how the book is used in her classrooms. Here’s what she had to say:

“We talk about thoughts. When they are out of control, they can be wild and wicked. Practicing inner control will help in outer control of our actions. We talk about the emotion of anger, which leads to the discussion of making good choices. We talk about how we have times when things make us angry and I have them make a list of those. Then we talk about how we can control our ‘wild’ angry characters within.”

Spot on. Newsweek argued that the psyches of developing children need, and to some degree want, to face their fears head-on with a caring adult ready to help them understand the full spectrum of the issues—the wild things of the world (fear, anger, hate, etc.). How else can they learn that these emotions are normal and not to be feared but controlled, just as Max controls his monsters.

My mom capped it off: “Lastly, we talk about how when he wakes from his dream, he’s in his mother’s care. And, oh, does she care for him!”

Isn’t that what all children ultimately yearn? When ‘waking’ from a dream world (be it a book, movie, nightmare or reality) to find caring parents awaiting.

I believe Spike Jonze interpreted Sendak’s book nicely. It’s a thinking film. Sheer entertainment was obviously not the fundamental goal. It’s about childhood and, yes, not for some children. Nothing wrong with that. It requires parents to do a little research on the film and their children, to know what kind of ticket they’re buying, and to be prepared for coming questions. Imagine that—a movie that sparks real parent-child discussions? I’d say Jonze deserves a pat on the back.

Google the book and you’ll find a hotbed of authors, reviewers, commentators, psychologist, parents, etc. debating and discussing. Here’s the link for the Newsweek article:

Yours truly, Sarah

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

P.S. I saw the trailer for The Fantastic Mr. Fox and I cannot wait! I mean, who can resist George Clooney–even if it is just his voiceover. Oh, and it’s a brilliant book, too. Pretend I said that first. 😉


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