“Where the Wild Things Are” Is All Grown Up

12 11 2009

images-2Like everyone else in the known universe,  I read as a child (or had read to me) “Where the Wild Things Are” – Maurice Sendak’s award-winning, critically-acclaimed, 10ish-sentence story about … uh … well … something. Like every other child in the known universe, I listened, looked at the illustrations (which are really cool for a young boy), and moved on without much fanfare. But it seemed like an ideal enough book to me. Pictures good. Story short. Monsters involved. Me Tarzan.

It was not until we purchased the book for our boys in advance of the movie release that I read it again. Only now being the mature, thinking adult that I am did I realize that the book – for its genre – carries an important message. It may be the first children’s book that dealt with the reality of childhood anger and the cathartic escape of fantasy that children use to cope.

For those of you who have come from an alien planet in the last few decades, the story of “Wild Things” is that of Max – a young boy kicking up quite a “rumpus” at home. When his wild play is stifled by his mother,  Max’s temper gets the best of him and he lashes out, resulting in him being sent to his bedroom without dinner. During his incarceration, his room turns into a forest and he travels off to a faraway land where (you guessed it) the “wild things” are. imagesIn Max’s fantasy, these fierce creatures become intimidated and enthralled by his ability to stare and not blink and they elect him king (no… no matter how you beg, I will not draw any correlation to our political process). He leads them in a wild rumpus and other “wild thing” activities, but soon realizes that he is lonely and decides he wants to return home where he is loved “most of all.” So, it is within this fantasy of where he is king and gets to act out however he wants that he finally realizes the greater need for connection to his family. His “escape” helps him – even as a child – gain perspective on his anger and his need for that kind of love.

So along comes the movie, and like everyone else in the known universe I wonder how you effectively turn 10 sentences into a full-length feature film. But … wow. Spike Jonze’s adaption of the story is an all grown-up powerful exposition of the original intent. It is informed by the current state of family decay, the plague of repressed rage, and the tendency to blame that is so prevalent in our society; but the movie is not controlled by these so much as these simply set the stage for a modern understanding of Sendak’s story. Still, the movie goes beyond the book in driving home the point that life doesn’t work out for any of us the way we envisioned it as a child, especially in regard to our families and the people closest to us. There are hurts, there are scars, there is real pain involved, and we (yes, adults, we too) are often ill-equipped in our understanding of how to handle it. We lose perspective in the moment, we lose control of ourselves, we lash out, we run away.

In the movie, the little society of wild things that Max finds becomes a microcosm of his life. One monster predominantly represents Max himself, and other creatures symbolize in part or whole other people and aspects of his struggle. Max, elected king, because of his special talent to tell fantastical tales of his adventures, assures the wild things that he can bring them happiness and “keep the sadness out” with his magical powers. They attempt to build an ideal world, a home for them that will keep out all unwanteds and help them live in happiness together. All these things and more that Max enacts as king gradually fall apart, and his lack of actual magical powers becomes exposed. He finds he cannot completely control and solve all the difficulties and hurts and hardships that life brings to throw down our utopian hope that we have as children (and – despite our jadedness – still cling to as adults). He gains perspective on his behavior and on his life here in this fantasy world as it is acted out in front of him. The movie brings us to one line in particular that he shares with “KW” – a wild thing symbolic of Max’s sister:

“It’s hard being a family.”images-1

That it is. Ultimately, however, it seems the point of the movie and the book is that the fight is worth it. We need it. Maybe kids understand that part of the story better than we do.

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