A Real Island
Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze, 2009
By Dave Eggers
Americans have a great tradition of incorrigible boys. From Huck Finn to Home Alone, the story of young, reckless boys who can rein in neither their actions nor their hearts of gold is one we’ve told ourselves over and over again. There’s something about their unabashed candor that makes us wistful and giddy at the same time. Perhaps the only other characters who burst with such unfiltered spirit are creatures – animals, aliens, talking furniture. If it’s not human, it can say anything it wants. Take, for example, every Disney movie ever made.
So when you put an incorrigible boy in the company of seven creatures, with no adults in sight, there are virtually no limits to what can happen There are no social norms or bedtimes they will observe. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s iconic picture book, is a celebration of this abandon. Max is a young boy who gets sent to his room without dinner. From his room he sails to an island where he meets the Wild Things and they make him their king. His first order as king, one of the most famous lines in children’s literature, is, “Let the wild rumpus start!” After a few pages of rumpus, Max sails back to his bedroom, where his dinner is waiting for him.
Director Spike Jonze and author/editor Dave Eggers have recently adapted the children’s book into a film, and Eggers has also published a novel, The Wild Things, based on the screenplay. This project got a lot of people excited. Jonze and Eggers are both extremely popular artists, banner-carriers for the unconventional-reimagining crowd. They seem to be two incorrigible boys themselves. The prospect of them expounding on wildness was tantalizing.
The original book is such a blank slate, after all. The text totals less than 300 words, and almost all of those go to describing Max’s antics before he leaves home, his trip to the island, and his decision to go back home. In between are a series of wordless pages filled with Sendak’s illustrations of the wild rumpus. This is what made the book so innovative when it was first published, and so memorable to generations of children. The essential wildness, the heart of the adventure, is left unwritten.
The Wild Things from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are
So when Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers set to making a full-length film out of the book, they had a lot of decisions to make. As Eggers describes the process in the Acknowledgments of The Wild Things,
Spike laid out the basics of what he had in mind – that Max was the son of divorced and somewhat distracted parents, that he had a sister, and that when he sails to the island, the journey, and the island, and all those he meets there, are very real. Spike and I tried to flesh out the story from there, starting with the question of not where but who the Wild Things are, and what they want from life and from Max.
This brainstorming apparently produced loads more material than they included in the film, and Sendak then encouraged Eggers to write a novel using all the ideas they had accumulated, and in that way the book, The Wild Things, is a derivative of the film, which is a derivative of the original book.
Having read the Acknowledgments first, this question – Who the Wild Things are – propelled my reading of the novel. Some of it was the same literary curiosity than anybody would have watching the film or reading the book, which are both roughly 9,000 parts interpretation to 1 part source material. And some of it was the fact that, the more I tried to understand how Jonze and Eggers had developed the The Wild Things, the more elusive and frustrating it became. Every time I concocted a theory of the Wild Things’ essential identity, they would change before my very eyes.
The roughest explanation I came up with is that the Wild Things are beasts who think like children. They have the free, uninhibited actions and urges of beasts (and children, for that matter) coupled with the elementary logic and reasoning of kids. This is exemplified immediately after Max’s arrival on the island, when he happens upon them destroying their own houses. He gladly joins in – what boy doesn’t love knocking stuff down – and then is taken aback when they get mad at him for ruining their homes. They decide to eat him as punishment. He disagrees. When they ask him why they shouldn’t eat him, he tells them he is a king, and they are immediately apologetic and give him a crown. It reminded me of a morning a few weeks ago when I made the grievous error of holding a doughnut and walking past a group of kids I was working with. Their eyes all bugged out and they asked if they too would be receiving doughnuts. “You don’t want one of these,” I said, “they’re full of vegetables.” They all relented and went back to their drawing.
The Wild Things are stubborn and malleable at the same time. They are basically kids, but they have the traits and habits of animals (fur, sleeping outside), and the problems of adults. This is what really threw me. They have adult problems. Two of the Wild Things are a couple. Another two, who might have been a couple, or a quasi-couple, have just had a falling out. There is actually a love triangle playing out while Max is on the island. They’re obviously a community that has been together for a long time, and there’s a lot of emotional baggage lying around. Factions, grudges, disappointments. The Wild Things are complicated.
But individually they are very simple. One is shy, one pessimistic, one smart, one needy, one silent, one mysterious. They emerge as a varied, lovable ensemble that Max is immediately drawn to and then at a loss within. This turns out to be a strength for the film, and a weakness for the book. There are seven Wild Things all told, and getting to know them all within a 2-hour film is made easy by the fact that they are so broadly drawn. They have the lively, well-traveled banter of a family, making fun of each other’s quirks and accommodating them at the same time. It helps a lot that they’re cute.
Max and the Wild Things from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are
But they crowd the story in Eggers’ novel. Their family bickering, which is quick and witty in the film, makes for pages of dialogue in the novel, during which I frequently lost track and who was who. Max’s personal journey starts out as a basic hero’s quest from home to unknown, at which point it breaks down into seven different quests as Max works out his personal issues with each of the Wild Things. If this sounds like pop-psych jargon, it’s because that’s what the weakest parts of the novel remind you of. The adorable grumpiness of one of the two female Wild Things, Judith, is comic gold in the film, and in the novel it’s a personality clash that keeps Max up at night worrying. He’s a leader trying to juggle the individual needs of each of his underlings. It doesn’t ring true that Max and the Wild Things are beset by such petty quibbles. It stops feeling like an adventure. The wild rumpus loses a lot of steam.
In his new book Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon has an essay entitled “The Wilderness of Childhood.” In it, he reminisces about the time he spent as a kid roaming his neighborhood on his bike, or playing in the woods behind his house, completely unsupervised. That’s not to say unsupervised as in neglected or unsafe, just undirected. That wilderness that children can create around themselves wherever they go, he argues, is being taken away from them:
The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations – Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults.
Children are escorted from Fun A to Fun B, he says, and aren’t given the chance to cultivate the fun that bubbles up within themselves, which is the cornerstone of all children’s adventure:
A striking feature of literature for children is the number of stories, many of them classics to the genre, that feature the adventures of a child, more often a group of children, acting in a world where adults, particularly parents, are completely or effectively out of the picture.
The Wild Things starts out as a prime example of what Chabon is talking about. Max is a wild kid. He is largely ignored by his older sister and mom, both of whom he adores. He runs around his house wrestling with the dog, builds snow forts complete with snowball arsenals, and puts on a wolf suit to get attention. But he feels constantly neglected and misunderstood. His sister fails to see the engineering genius of his fort, and his mom wants him to calm down so she can work. His boyishness is a nuisance, so he runs out of the house and gets in the boat that takes him to the island.
There, away from his family, with creatures as dedicated to abandon as he is, he should find Chabon’s ideal wilderness. He is an explorer, striking out on his own rather than following someone else’s rules. He is the king of the Wild Things – the epitome of an incorrigible boy’s fantasy.
The closest the film and novel come to realizing this fantasy is in the friendship between Max and Carol (who, rather paradoxically, is the alpha male of the Wild Things). Carol is the only Wild Thing that can’t be boiled down to a singular characteristic. He is the projection of Max’s purest boyishness, and is quite arguably more the center of the story than Max. In sussing out the Wild Things, Jonze and Eggers clearly wanted Carol to be their masterpiece. He is physically the largest of the main Wild Things, perhaps because he’d been stuffed with ethos to the point of bursting.
In one particularly touching scene in The Wild Things, Carol takes Max to see a model city he has built:
Carol looked over the city, seeing it through Max’s eyes. ‘I love making buildings. This is the first one I ever made. I try to make buildings that feel good to be in. Like this. C’mere.’
Max took a step toward him. Carol suddenly enveloped Max in a bear hug.
‘What’s that feel like?’ Carol asked.
‘Ummm, hairy? Warm. Good.’
‘Yeah, I want to build a whole world like that. Have you ever been in a place that should feel good, but it feels out of control, like you’re really small? Like where all the people are made out of wind, like you don’t know what they’re going to do next?’
“I want to make a place where only the things you want to happen happen,” he explains. Carol is pure feeling and instinct. When he gets in a fight with one of the other Wild Things, he destroys their houses, as if they can all start over again. Later, when he gets in a fight with Max, he does the same thing. Carol is as let down with his world as Max was at home.
It becomes slightly disappointing that Max has journeyed away from his own mess just to walk into someone else’s. When Jonze and Eggers were deciding who the Wild Things are, seemingly they decided that they weren’t very happy. “Are you going to make this a better place?” one of the Wild Things asks Max when he arrives. Max thinks he will. If he can exercise the kind of control over the Wild Things that he doesn’t have at home, maybe he’ll be happier with them. But unlike Narnia, Neverland, or Wonderland, the parentless utopias Chabon cites as the hosts of so many great adventures, Max doesn’t find himself mystically up to the task of fixing everything. Even in the original book, of course, Max eventually wants to go home. He doesn’t leave because he’s too old or Aslan kicks him out, he leaves because he doesn’t belong. Eggers sows the seeds of this quite early. “I wish you guys had a mom,” Max says as the fantasy begins to break down.
He’s let all of them down. He’s let down Carol most of all, who thought that Max would finally build a world that he didn’t have to destroy once it failed him. At this point in the film, Max goes home. Just as in the original book, the story in the film stays simple to the point of feeling like a parable. Max explores, Max has fun, Max goes home. The novel gets bogged down by all the explaining it has to do. Max is on the island longer in the novel, and starts to suffer from Little Prince syndrome, in which he cycles through a number of brief encounters with metaphor-laden dialogue that only serve to further complicate his relationships with the Wild Things. Knowing that the book was written after the screenplay, it starts to feel like you’re watching the deleted scenes, and it’s a relief when he finally says goodbye. The parting scene in the movie is bittersweet. In the novel it feels like a long overdue break-up. Max doesn’t belong with them, families only belong to each other.
As to who the Wild Things are, I’m not sure I figured it out. They are in some ways an extension of Max. In other ways they’re what he needs to leave behind. They desperately want a leader, but they’re incapable of following one. They’re stuck in the wilderness, and for better or worse no one is ever going to call them home to dinner. Fighting, complaining, and destroying seem to be the only things they’re good at. “It’s hard being a family,” one of them says, but they’re reliably sweet to each other. What’s clear is that they want their world to be an honest, perfect, understandable place. It’s no wonder that, 46 years after Sendak’s book was published, we keep trying to go there.
Janet Potter has worked in bookstores in Boston, Dublin, Greece, and Chicago. If you ever meet her, she will try to make you read Cloud Atlas.