As a child, I was obsessed with Where the Wild Things Are. My favorite scene wasn’t the famous six-page wordless rumpus. It was the three pages in which Max’s room turns into a forest. I’d flip back and forth (the pages aren’t consecutive spreads, as the rumpus pages are—they’re separated by pages of white space, each with just a line or two of text), noting how the room devolved a little more with each page. First the bedposts turned into tree trunks and the cross-hatching in the rug got mysteriously grassier. Then more trees appeared, lusher ones, and the bed faded a bit more into the background; the rug changed from light brown to green. And finally the bed was gone. Max stood in a green forest glen. Only the moon, shining through Max’s window, remained constant.
Now Maxine, age 5, loves the book. When she looks at the wild rumpus, she likes me to chant RUMPUSRUMPUSRUMPUSRUMPUS in a deep voice. She always whispers the last line along with me: “And it was still hot.”
In a recent New York Times Book Review essay, Bruce Handy posited that Wild Things (originally published in 1963) is one of those books loved more by critics than by actual kids. I beg to differ. As a toddler, Josie (who has been known to have Max-like anger-management issues) wanted to hear it over and over. She loved the depiction of wildness. Maxine, who is far more even-keeled than her sister, merely laughs at the rumpus (Josie would stare at it, wide-eyed), and says her favorite part is the sailing home and the warm supper.
I wasn’t sure what to think about the movie. I knew Spike Jonze, vaguely, long ago. (I worked for Sassy magazine; he worked for our “brother magazine,” Dirt.) Even way back then, he was infinitely cooler than I was. (The only other person in the Sassy office who intimidated me as much was a fashion intern named Chloe Sevigny.) Anyway, years later, I liked the guy’s movies fine. I knew Sendak had given his Wild Things project (with its screenplay by Dave Eggers, another achingly hipsterish tastemaker dude) his blessing. And my kids wanted to see it.
So we went. And you know, it was fine. Most reviewers seemed to love it or hate it, but we found it … fine. When (SPOILER ALERT!) Max bit his mother, Maxine grabbed my hand and whispered, “I know what it feels like to be that angry.” We all loved the beginning, in which Max builds a snow fort and crazy fun turns instantly to destruction and unfairness. Been there, done that—the intensity was a perfect encapsulation of the whiplash emotions of being a kid. Jonathan and I liked the music, the way Eggers captured the rambling, hallucinatory way children tell stories, the gorgeous Burning-Man-like structures built by the wild things, the sweeping beauty shots of desert and shore.
But we were all a little bored by the wild things themselves. The RUMPUSRUMPUSRUMPUSRUMPUS seemed to go on forever. The heavy-handed idea of the wild things as warring elements of Max’s emotions, his id, his contradictory impulses, whatever … it all seemed very overly therapized California to me, and interminable to the kids. Ach, these monsters, with all their processing and sharing and blaming. And all the questioning about whether Max is really a king? Geez, it was one big furry psychoanalytic institute.
It’s funny, Sendak is a super-Jewy children’s book writer, what with his shtetl-born parents, Brooklyn childhood, analytic and psychological deftness about how children think and feel. The Sign on Rosie’s Door! Pierre! Brundibar (with Tony Kushner)! But the movie, written by a non-Jew, feels far more stereotypically neurotic than any of Sendak’s own work. The minimalism of Where the Wild Things Are—228 words! 38 pages!—makes it feel richer, more allusive, and far more timeless than the movie.
I think it’s telling that in 1961, Sendak wrote a letter to his editor at Harper’s children’s books, Ursula Nordstrom, pouring out his heart about not achieving as much as he wanted as a writer. He was unimpressed by his own quiet simplicity. He wanted to be … more. Nordstrom wrote back drily, “Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and ‘cohesion and purpose’ in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that.” She concluded, ““Yes, Moby Dick is great, but honestly don’t you see great gobs of it that could come out?”
There were great gobs of the movie that could come out.
And the one gob I really wanted, I didn’t get. In the film, Max’s room doesn’t become a forest. Instead, he runs away, racing through neighborhoods and woods before taking a boat to the land of the wild things. (Jonze has said he didn’t want to use CGI animation, only live action. So it would have been impossible to deliver mysterious growing trees and a fading bed anyway.) To me, it’s important that the visit to the land of the wild things happens in Max’s room, where he’s exiled, furious, and powerless. He can’t escape, bolting through the suburbs. I like the notion that anger is where you live. It’s more childlike and more resonant to adults. Most of us don’t get to run away, except in our furious, fevered imaginings.
At bedtime, Josie said ruminatively, “I liked the book better than the movie because the book was also an amazing adventure but it didn’t take as long. And with a book, you can just make it a movie in your head.”
The little children understand.