Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: A Review in Words

The story of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is relatively simple: A boy named Max acts out inappropriately and his mother punishes him. Confined to his room without supper, he imagines himself in (or magically transports himself to, depending on your personal preference) a mystical world where his favorite kind of behavior is celebrated and rewarded rather than frowned upon and punished. He has some fun, but eventually gets lonely, and returns to his home, where he finds comfort in his mother's tough (but fair) love.

Obviously 48 pages and ten sentences worth of material is not enough on which to base a full-length motion picture, so director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers filled in some of the cracks for their 2009 film of the same name. They give Max a backstory, flesh out the character of his mother, and develop a storyline to follow his time away from home. Additions to the original concept, to be sure, but also some pretty noticeable deviations.

Oh no! A movie that has significant differences from the book on which it was based!? Something is automatically amiss. Even if it's a children's book consisting of mostly pictures, at least the general feel and broad thematic elements of the original should survive the adaptation, right? In the rest of this post, I'll critique the changes made in the film version, for sure. But I'll also argue that some of those changes contributed to a meaningful and all-around positive and uplifting end result.

Max, in the book, is basically just a big bundle of emotions: he acts inappropriately, but we as readers don't really know why or even specifically what he does. For the film version, Jonze and Eggers expand on Max's character, ostensibly giving him some motivations for his actions. Here's what they came up with:

*He comes from a broken home
*He doesn't really have any friends to play with
*His older sister doesn't pay him enough attention or stand up for him when he needs her
*He's extremely creative, thoughtful, and oversensitive
*He has a mother who loves him, supports him, and nurtures him, but she's going through a lot of stress at work and has a great deal of anxiety regarding her post-divorce love life

Movie Max possesses a garden variety bundle of adolescent issues, with which he is not yet equipped to deal by himself (at least not in the reality of this waking world). Nothing too serious that will eventually send him to therapy. But just enough to explain his unacceptable behavior.

In the movie, Max's issues and anxieties come to a head while his mother's boyfriend visits for dinner. Max apparently does not appreciate the change that comes over his mother when she's "entertaining," and he shows his frustration by stepping on a few toes. He makes a scene, his mother chases him around the house, grabs him, and tries to forcibly carry him upstairs. Max resists, fights back, bites his mother on the shoulder, and storms out of the house.

Already we see two deviations from the original story. The first has to do with the character of the mother. In the book she was an absolute authority figure: she said Max was punished, and up to his room he went without his dinner or even a word of protest. In the movie, Max's mother tries to assert her authority, and fails. Max manages to escape her domain without a punishment; and without a punishment, can Max ever really learn his lesson?

This change directly affects the second deviation from the original story: how Max gets to where the Wild Things are. Some of the most striking imagery in the book occurs after Max is sent upstairs and a forest magically grows while our hero stands calmly and waits. Whatever journey Max takes originates from his room - from his familiar place, but also from his prison cell. Max's subconscious or imagination or what have you works up a personal way for him to deal with his feelings, and actually transforms his room into another place. In the movie, Max runs away from home in the midst of a temper tantrum (shades of escapism), wanders aimlessly through suburbia, and stumbles on a mystical, magical boat waiting to take him wherever he needs to go. The change does not, in the strict sense, come from him - rather, he has to make his way to an external point from which his journey originates.

Leaving aside for a moment the why and how, Max's voyage from real world to where the Wild Things are is as captivating as could be. Watching Max's little boat getting jostled by the waves and holding my breath with him as he sneaks into the Wild Things' camp, I wouldn't have changed a thing. And visually, the depiction of the Wild Things themselves strikes home with a force hitherto unheard of in the adaptation of two-dimensional still drawings to three-dimensional moving images. When we see, for example, the Simpsons drawn in 3-D, like in Treehouse of Horror VI, their eyes look bugged out, their figures extend in ways that make no sense, conceptually or anatomically. But the movement and the look and the feel of Jonze's/Henson's creatures leaves very little to be desired.

Now when Max meets the Wild Things for the first time in the book, they snarl ferociously at the newcomer, but then immediately cower when he shows no fear and stares into their yellow eyes without blinking once. It's a battle of guts, and Max is simply more wild than all the rest: he becomes their king by beating them in a staring contest, no questions asked, no promises made. Just pure badassery.

In the movie, everything moves into the intellectual realm. Max immediately enters into intelligent discourse with the creatures and wins them over by convincing them, through false anecdotes, that he is worthy to be their leader. He boasts about his past accomplishments, expounds on his supernatural abilities, and promises to make them happy. Max has to think quick or be eaten, and while he does a good job staying their advance, he ends up agreeing to a social contract mostly on their terms - one he's not totally sure he can live up to.

There's even a coronation, where Max receives his trademark crown and scepter from the charred remains of previous kings that apparently didn't fulfill the contract. So, what's this, now? Is the Wild Things' world cyclical, with king after king arriving, taking control, failing to deliver on his various promises, and then getting eaten? Apparently Max was not the first to be coerced into ruling over this decidedly unruly band of monsters. And maybe... he won't be the last!

The rest of Sendak's book consists mostly of pictures, so the rest of the movie's plot had to be invented by the filmmakers. Jonze and Eggers give each Wild Thing a name, a history, and a distinct set of character traits. We immediately see that they have lived together for a long time and know much about each other, but they still haven't learned to truly coexist beyond merely staying out of each others' ways as best as possible. They crave calm, caring, authoritative leadership (a king), but when presented with authority, they question it, rebel against it, and eventually consume it, throwing away the crown with the bones.

This is of course Max's relationship to authority as well - just substitute biting in for eating - his adolescent anger causes him to rebel and lash out in hopes of establishing his own independence. Max doesn't truly recognize the importance of the role his mother plays in his life until he has to play that role himself in the lives of the Wild Things, who are really nothing more (nothing less?) than manifestations of parts of his own psyche, however dysfunctional they may be. Through his relationships with his subjects/friends, he gains a new found appreciation for his mother, and returns home, content to eat his dinner across the table from her. I don't know if his dinner was still hot when he got back, but I'm sure they were able to reheat it on the stove or in the microwave.

Rating: 63 Congos