Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 1963 kids fantasy
- WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
A 9-year-old boy named Max lives with his sister and their divorced mother. After a family row, Max runs away and finds himself in the land of the Wild Things. Despite being giant, scary beasts, they adopt Max as their king. Let the wild rumpus begin!
DIRECTED BY Spike Jonze
STARRING Max Records, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener
Spike Jonze is the former video director who, for his first movie, was called upon to make sense of Charlie Kaufman‘s mindblowing screenplay for Being John Malkovich, where a puppeteer discovered a dimensional portal in a movie star’s head.
He worked with Kaufman again on the equally dazzling Adaptation – about a screenwriter’s struggles to adapt a best-seller. With both these films, Jonze and Kaufman found themselves duly celebrated as pioneers of a new wave of postmodern, meta-everything cinema.
But, for his new film, Jonze has collaborated with lit-hipster Dave Eggars, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – a novel that shared many of the witty, self-conscious, postmodern quirks of Kaufman’s screenplays. You could be forgiven then, for imagining that together these two would gleefully concoct some kind of previously unmatched down-the-rabbit-hole lunacy.
But, in fact, nothing could be further than truth. They’ve chosen, instead, to adapt a 10-page children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are, by author Maurice Sendak. Published in 1963, it’s the story of a small boy called Max who, in his imagination, travels to a distant land inhabited by ferocious monsters – the Wild Things – and he becomes their king.
But as strange as the idea of Spike Jonze adapting a children’s book might seem, you can certainly see links to his other work – particularly the phantasmagorical cinematic universes of …Malkovich and Adaptation, his creation of other worlds and alternative realities. (Indeed, this isn’t Jonze’s first attempt to film a children’s book. In 1995, four years before he made …Malkovitch, Jonze was attached to direct a live action version of Harold And The Purple Crayon, about a boy who lives in a world of his own imagining; whatever he draws becomes his reality. You could perhaps argue that Jonze himself is Harold – a filmmaker who’s had the relative luxury of being able to fully explore his creativity without interference.)
By necessity, Jonze and Eggers have considerably expanded Sendak’s story. In their version, Max (the brilliantly named Max Records) is a 9-year-old boy who’s home life is chaotic – his parents are divorced and his elder sister has abandoned him for more adolescent preoccupations. Max feels neglected.
In a framing device at the start of the film, we see him dressed in a wolf suit, chasing the family dog with a fork around the house. He trashes his sister’s room as revenge after a snowball fight gets out of hand. He disrupts a family dinner at which his mother’s boyfriend is the guest. A row erupts, during which Max bites his mother (Catherine Keener), and runs off into the night. Fighting his way through waste ground at the end of his road, he finds himself unexpectedly at the coast where a boat awaits. It’s then he sets sail for the island of the Wild Things and his adventures begin.
Jonze and Eggars have also loaded their movie with plenty of symbolism and themes that might seem remarkably unsuited to a pre-teen audience. Once he reaches the island, we begin to see allusions to Max’s home life. The Wild Things, particularly, represent members of his own family, or aspects of his own personality. These Wild Things – aside from the occasional rumpus – are sensitive, melancholic creatures with issues of self-esteem. “I have a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness,” Max explains. “We forgot what it was like to have fun,” explains Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) – a shy but smart behemoth of a Wild Thing who’s prone to destructive outbursts of jealousy and rage. Rather like Max himself, you might think.
Elsewhere, little details that have appeared in the “real” world are replicated here – Max’s make-shift bedroom fort becomes a reality on the Wild Things island, a mud-fight which ends in tears echoes the snowball fight earlier in the film, and comments levied at Max by his mother (“This is not acceptable behaviour, you’re out of control,”) are repeated almost word for word by Max himself. In fact, much of Where The Wild Things Are is about a boy learning to assert control of his own emotions.
Evidently, the tone and feel of the film is some distance from traditional kid’s movie fare. Jonze has mentioned that among the inspirations for the film’s dialogue were John Cassavetes’ movies – and perhaps this accounts for some of the uncomfortable emotional intensity in the film’s opening sequence back home. On the Wild Things island, Jonze and regular cinematographer Lance Accord shift into an expressionistic, dream-like tone, as if trying to replica/te the subconscious world of Max’s imagination. It’s a bit shoegazey.
The narrative moves in fits and starts, rather like the wandering attention span of a 9-year-old boy. One minute, he’s deeply focussed on building a fort, the next he gets distracted by two talking owls. Some sequences, of the Wild Things racing through forests while light streams through the canopy above and sun spots flare on the camera lens, might even resemble a Terrence Malick film. With monsters. Other signs that this is not for kids include a rambunctious and freewheeling soundtrack by a former girlfriend of Jonze, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ singer Karen O.
Certainly, you could be forgiven for asking whether this is even a film for children; rather, I think, it’s a film that evokes the trauma, exhilaration and frustrated mixed-up emotions of being a child. Catherine Keener – who appeared in Being John Malkovich and Where The Wild Things Are – recently told The New York Times a story about her 10 year-old son, who asked her why Jonze didn’t live with his folks; apparently the boy didn’t realise Jonze was an adult. In some respects, Jonze is the geek who never grew up: and with Where The Wild Things Are, he reminds us that the simple pleasure of childhood is running around and screaming with abandon.