TITLE: Where the Wild Things Are
AUTHOR + ILLUSTRATOR: Maurice Sendak
PUBLISHED BY: HarperCollins
What is there to say about Where the Wild Things Are? One of the most loved picture books of out time, it has shaped the imaginations and inspired the hearts of three generations of children. An instant classic, first published in 1963, it was (is) loved by children and adults alike.
All the same, it has never been one of my favorite Sendak books, for the simple reason that it was my brother's favorite. He "owned" it, then, and I didn't want to interfere. (I'd rather read A Hole Is To Dig anyway.)
Reading Where the Wild Things Are as an adult, it is not the illustrations (evocative, enticing, and strange though they are) but the language that stands out to me. The book contains a mere ten sentences; they are simple, without a word wasted. And yet the story (as we all recall it and as we read it) is full, vibrant, engaging, and real.
It is this simplicity of language that allows Spike Jonze and co. to create a full length film. The bare (but not empty) text allows him create a narrative, with reasons for Max's mischief and loneliness. So too the story takes on a character of its own in our own minds--hence the rich variations on the theme by many celebrated artists and illustrators.
None of these adaptions or enhancements are false, because the narrative allows for growth. There are no particulars in the text (the monsters are not even described), and there are very few particulars in the illustrations. (We never see Mother, for example. Is she playful? Is she tired?) Every reader adds his own voice and perspective.
Many describe the books as an allegory for the freeing power of the imagination--but this is an easy out, and an almost meaningless phrase. The "lesson" (for lack of a better word) of the narrative is that Wild Things need to rest, and little boys need to be (and ARE!) loved.
In the meantime, because of the simple narrative structure, we really do enter into Max's world, and take the "freeing journey of the imagination." Or, just as Max's "wall became the world all around," this book becomes our world for as long as we care to play and live in it.
I would point out (I think it was you, Anna who told me) that time does actually pass on Max's trip. The moon is a quarter full when he leaves, but it is full when he returns and finds his dinner on the table. And it was still hot.
Here are some reviews of the film--mixed to say the least. Some really really love it, others think it's dull:
+ "Alternately perfect and imperfect if always beautiful adaptation" says Manohla Dargis of the New York Times. "With “Where the Wild Things Are” he has made a work of art that stands up to its source and, in some instances, surpasses it."
+ A very different take from the Chronicle's Mick LaSalle: "We watch [Max] at a remove, not engaging with his pain, not rejoicing in his resourcefulness and not particularly worried about whether he'll get eaten. He's just a generic, borderline obnoxious human boy, surrounded by gigantic, big-headed creatures."
+ The New Yorker's David Denby says: "The best scenes are peerless in their creative freedom and warmth." But... "“Wild Things” runs into trouble. Sendak’s book was created for young children. The text is all of three hundred and thirty-eight words long; some of the drawn pages are rhapsodically wordless. But the movie has been designed for older children and adults."
+ While Peter Traver's gives it his highest rating, saying: "For all the money spent, the film's success is best measured by its simplicity and the purity of its innovation. Jonze has filmed a fantasy as if it were absolutely real, allowing us to see the world as Max sees it, full of beauty and terror."