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Spike Jonze Re-envisions "Where the Wild Things Are"

Max’s Hollow Utopia

by KIM NICOLINI

If you’re like me, you probably wondered how anyone could possibly adapt Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are, into a feature-length film. The book consists of a total of ten sentences and relies on illustrations and individual imagination to fill in the blanks. If you’re like me and you loved the book as a child, you probably have a whole series of complex relations to it. You feel a kind of personal ownership of this magical book and questioned how anyone could successfully transpose it onto the screen. Well, the answer to these questions lies in the ambiguity of the book. The very fact that the book is so minimal in its delivery is what allowed Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers to project their own vision onto it and make an exceptionally beautiful piece of art that is not necessarily a recounting of the book Where The Wild Things Are but a stand-alone vision that re-imagines the book through Jonze and Eggers’ eyes.

Sure, the film has creatures whose shape and size resemble Sendak’s creatures, and, yes, there is a little boy in a wolf suit. But other than that, this film has its own unique vision. It is Where The Wild Things Are as seen through the eyes of adults reflecting back on their childhood.  What Jonze and Eggers deliver is a perception of the book from the perspective of the Post-Boomer generation, a generation where children were surrounded by adults who were encumbered by the decaying dregs of 60s counterculture. This view shows a sad, melancholic and terrifying anti-Utopian view of a world that lingers with the trace of too many drugs and too many dreams turned sour and empty, a world where adults are both uncomfortably frivolous and terrifyingly disillusioned, bitter and lonely. What Eggers and Jonze give us is not a children’s movie but rather a Bad Trip Utopia Gone Bad narrative. Every bit of the movie takes a dream that skirts the edge of a nightmare and shows how this little boy attempts to navigate that terrain through his imagination.

I will openly state right here that Where The Wild Things Are was a tremendously important book in my childhood. In 1969, when I was in second grade, I checked the book out of the library at school.  During that entire year, it was the only book I wanted to read. I checked it out over and over again and carried it around with me like a bible. Once, the book was recalled because someone else wanted to read it, and I was devastated. I felt like I was having my arm cut off or my heart ripped out when I had to return it to the library. I spent a lot of time in my room on restriction as a child. I didn’t vacuum the stairs correctly. I didn’t eat all my rare bloody meat from my dinner plate. I laughed too loud. I got in a fight at school. I failed to scrub the fat from the broiler pan. I didn’t clean the bathroom, forgot to take out the garbage, argued with my brothers, screamed when I saw a beetle, jumped on the bed, left my toys on the floor.

Whatever the reason (and there seemed to be an infinite number of infractions that would suffice), I spent a lot of time in my room. And I powerfully identified with this little boy who was sent to his room without any supper. My favorite part of the book was always the moment when the trees sprouted in Max’s room and his room transformed into a magical place. What an incredible moment that was, to imagine that my walls could become a forest, that my world could be transformed, that I might even step into this better place and have a rumpus with the Wild Things. That’s why I was so looking forward to seeing Where the Wild Things Are: I wanted to experience that magic again.

I consciously entered the theater primed for Massive Identification with the story. The movie opens in a violent flurry. Max bursts onto the screen screaming and chasing a dog, and he is a vision of chaos and rage. The camera then pulls back and we get to see Max in his alienated state. His sister is distant, his mother absent, and he has no friends. He discovers an igloo in the front yard, but no one will play with him inside it, and eventually his sister’s friends destroy it. The mother comes home, and we are introduced to the working mom who is too tired to feel and too preoccupied with her boyfriend to play with her son. All of these opening shots, filmed in Max’s working-class environment (the trailer parked on the sidewalk, the details of his house) perfectly capture the loneliness, anger and confusion of childhood. All Max wants is someone to play with him, but no one will. When his mother fails to engage with him, he leaps onto her, bites her, and runs out the front door in his wolf suit. Let me say that again: He runs out the door.

Up to this point, I was completely absorbed by my identification with what was happening on the screen. I felt Max’s loneliness and anger, but I also identified with the over-worked, over-stressed mother. But the minute Max ran out the door and I realized that there was not going to be any transformation of the room, I felt my identification with the movie cut clean as if Max had torn through it with his teeth. As Max ran out the door, my personal attachment went with him. How could Jonze and Eggers leave out the transformation of the room, an absolutely critical point in the book? There is no being sent to bed without any supper, no punishment and isolated restriction. Instead, we just see neglect followed by running away.

I know that I am not alone in thinking that the most important moment in the book is when Max’s room transforms. Leaving this scene out had to have been a conscious decision. You don’t just break with the source material that abruptly without having considered the consequences. In thinking about my response to this break – how at the exact moment when I realized there would be no transformation of the room I had suddenly felt my identification with the film cease – I realized that it was almost like it gave me a new set of eyes. I was no longer watching the film through the lenses of my personal history, but seeing it through the eyes of the filmmakers. Now I had established the critical distance necessary to digest what I was seeing. The minute Where the Wild Things Are takes that giant leap away from the original narrative, when Max runs out the door instead of retreating to his room, it radically departs from the illustrated children’s book and becomes Jonze and Eggers’ own story. This abrupt change in narrative forces us to see the movie as their individual and unique vision. And what we see is a movie that is existential, melancholic, horrific, and terribly beautiful, even if it’s a far cry from the book’s literal text.

When Max opens the front door and runs outside, he not only breaks with the book’s original narrative, but he also pushes the story into the “real world” rather than the imaginary world of his room. He is not isolated in his room. He is outside his house , and he runs through real streets, comes across a real park, and seems to board a real boat in on a real lake. The fact that the film is set on locations in Australia –with real forests, real beaches, and real rocky landscapes – and is not set in a digitally created FX landscape heightens the sense that Max’s journey actually documents his real life landscape and how he uses his imagination as a survival mechanism to cope with it.  It is this joining of imagination and reality that creates the film’s disturbingly hallucinatory feel and fucks with our sense of what is real and what is not.

Where the Wild Things Are’s saturated sepia tones, splintered light and confusion of day and night further enhances our sense of disorientation. Even when sunlight does find its way onto the screen, it comes in a confusing haze. The film conjures an existential hallucination where night is day and day is night. In fact, once Max steps onto that boat, the whole movie is filmed like an acid trip in a style that was no doubt influenced by psychedelic cinematic visions like those in Easy Rider and Zabriskie Point. The sound editing and vocals also add to the hallucinatory feel.  The Wild Things’ voices rumble and undulate like they’re rising from depths of the unconscious. They sound ominous and haunting, terribly sad and frightfully menacing, eerily alive yet also like something from the underworld. And the sound editing gives the whole movie that echoing unreal feel with the aura of a hallucination, the stomping feet, crunching leaves, crack of timber, grumbling voices. A landscape of disorienting menace is created through the soundscape.

It makes sense that the movie would feel like a bit of a bad acid trip since we eventually learn that the Wild Things are like the confused remnants of an acid trip gone wrong. That acid trip is the whole Utopian myth of 60s counterculture and the adults who lived through it and eventually ended up occupying the world where children like Max grew up (as imagined by Eggers and Jonze).  Sendak has said that “He based the monsters of Where the Wild Things Are on relatives who visited his family home as a child, speaking practically no English. ‘They grabbed you and twisted your face, and they thought that was an affectionate thing to do,’ he said.” Indeed, to children, adults are often creepy and menacing. To Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers (born in 1969 and 1970 respectively), some of those adults would have been aging hippies finding footing after the fall of Utopia.   

Where the Wild Things Are presents the legacy of the 60s counterculture as a world of burnt-out disillusionment. The Wild Things in this movie talk in a perpetually stoned residue of hippie culture full of “bummers” and “downers.” They aren’t so much wild as they are decaying, sad, lonely, angry, terrified, terrifying, bitter, resentful, resigned, and lost, not unlike the multitudes of ex-hippie adults that haunted the childhoods of those of us who were born in the 1960s. Like the Wild Things in this movie, these aging hippies wore their tired Utopian ideals like some kind of dirty laundry. Their glazed eyes remember a time when things were supposed to be better while resigning themselves to the fact that things will always be the same.

While the shapes and sizes of the Wild Things resemble the creatures in Sendak’s book, the close-focus view takes out the color and soft edges and instead replaces them with a kind of decaying sad reality. You can feel, hear, and smell the Wild Things, and they’re not necessarily anything you want to get particularly close to. Their fur is matted and dirty; their noses are runny, and their eyes are rummy. When the Wild Things open their mouths, their teeth are rotten and decaying, just like the Utopia they once imagined. Max is surrounded by these Wild Things that operate in a constant flux between dream and nightmare, nurture and menace, love and hatred. His anxiety is clearly evident in his eyes, yet he keeps pushing his imagination into believing these creatures are his friends, that they will play with him.  Max believes in the Wild Things even if he is wary of them because ultimately they are not bad and they do try to be good. It’s just that their vision of good is a bit off. They try to do good, but eventually human nature  — which ultimately is a Wild Thing — takes over, and the Wild Things become cynical, bitter, resentful, competitive and morose. It’s just like many of the well-intentioned "good" ideas of 60s counterculture ended up being a bad trip instead of a good trip. What makes the Wild Things empathetic is that they clearly understand their predicament – that they possess good intentions but are unable to execute them successfully.  When they look in Max’s eyes, they see his innocence and desire to believe, and they feel their own failure which reflects in their eyes as remorse, regret and loss.

There is nothing very Utopian about our first view of Max’s Utopia. We are thrust into a crazy scene of destruction and chaos. We meet the Wild Things as they are gathered around a giant bonfire and one of them, Carol, is stomping on and destroying the others’ homes. The Wild Things stand around in a kind of confused daze shaking their heads and talking in mumbling confusion while Carol hurls himself at huts and obliterates them. The whole scene is like some kind of bonfire acid party gone bad, and that sense continues through the movie. Max declares that he and the Wild Things will create “a place where only things you want to happen will happen” (not unlike the place 60s counterculture envisioned), forcing his childhood imagination onto these tired and disillusioned adults in attempt to carve out a happy place and create a Utopia. But try as he might to hold it together, at every turn Max’s vision of Utopia crumbles.

The Utopia he and the Wild Things create is beautiful on the outside, but hollow and divisive on the inside. Every encounter with the Wild Things is like a weird trip — freaky, disturbing, and tainted with desperation and violence.  What should be cute instead borders on the hallucinatory and horrific, as we witness Utopia crumbling all around Max. Utopia crumbles when forests are toppled and owls are plucked from the sky by hurling rocks. Utopia crumbles when jealousy and bitterness infect the community. Utopia crumbles when “the downer” Judith accuses Max of playing favorites. Utopia crumbles when everyone sleeps in isolated loneliness instead of together in a “real pile.”  Utopia crumbles when Carol rips off Douglas’s arm, and Douglas’s arm is replaced by a stick which waves pathetically from his torn socket. At one point, Max attempts to fix everything in a new way: "I know something that always cheers me up — a war!" Then utopia really crumbles, when enemy lines are established, the weak and timid Alexander is targeted with violence, and dirt clots tear skin. Some may argue that it is perfectly natural for boys to play war, but I must note that there is no war in the book. There is no destruction. There is no hurt. These are things that Eggers and Jonze wrote onto the story.

While this utopia is crumbling at every turn, Max’s imagination –  as represented by the beautiful cinematography, costumes, light, sound, and music –  desperately holds it together in a vision of beauty. A sometimes terrible and terrifying beauty, but beauty nonetheless.  One of the most beautiful things in the movie is the model utopia that Carol shares with Max. It is a magical place created out of sticks and figurines. Conical mountains rise across a landscape occupied with mini figures of the Wild Things. Max asks Carol why he stopped building it, and Carol shares a beautifully poetic allegory about what happens when teeth go rotten and fall out and you’re left with just an empty place. Carol is telling the story through his mouth which is filled with rotting teeth. It is, of course, the story of the failure of 60s counterculture to achieve its uptopian ideals. After Max declares war and everything falls apart into violence, hurt, and disillusionment, he returns to Carol’s model to find it literally destroyed. Utopia cannot last even in its artificial model form.

When Max finally departs the island, it’s not with the Wild Things waving and smiling enthusiastically as we see in the book. It is with a sense of loss, regret, sadness, and resignation, an acknowledgment that there is no Utopian fix. There is only life. When Max gets back home, his mother wraps her arms around him, yet her face remains worn, tired, and distant. She gives him a piece of cake and falls asleep at the table. Max is still on his own. The question is will he go back outside and attempt to create another Utopia, will he start another war, or will he just go to bed and tuck himself in? Perhaps the next generation will make that movie.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.