I wish I could take credit for that phrase, but it was a friend of a friend who coined it. And it’s perfect.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is everything the adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book should be. In a non-Hollywood world. One can only imagine what this film might have looked like in the hands of a Ron Howard (the live-action HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS starring Jim Carrey) or a Bo Welch (the live-action THE CAT IN THE HAT starring Mike Myers). But in the hands of Spike Jonze, the film is a raw, emotional journey more akin to a poem than a plot-driven narrative. Kudos to Warner Brothers for getting behind Jonze’s vision and seeing that a mature and artistic film was produced and released. And while it’s true WILD THINGS didn’t make as much money as the two above-mentioned atrocities, nor did it receive any Academy Award nominations (THE GRINCH won for Best Makeup and was also nominated for Best Costume Design), even though WILD THINGS is brimming over with creativity and the creatures are simply the most expressive and individual creations I’ve seen on screen in many a year (and that includes AVATAR), I believe WILD THINGS will stand the test of time better than any of those more immediately “profitable” films.
There’s a Stanley Kubrick quote I often repeat and I’ll do so again here:
“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”
That was certainly the case with Sendak’s book. It wasn’t a long book, just a few pages, really, with some vivid images and very few words. So while the story itself wasn’t “fleshed-out” in the way a novel would be, the book stirred the imagination and evoked feelings, both joyous and frightening, but always honest. And Jonze’s film adaptation stays true to this in spades. Jonze:
“One of the things I was worried about is that the book is just so beloved to so many people. And as I started to have ideas for it I was worried that I was just making what it means to me, and what the book triggers in me from when I was a kid. And I’d be worried that other people were gonna be disappointed, because it’s like adapting a poem. It can mean so much to so many different people. And Maurice [Sendak] was very insistent that that’s all I had to do… just make what it was to me, just to make something personal and make something that takes kids seriously and doesn’t pander to them. He told me that when his book came out, it was considered dangerous. It was panned by critics and child psychologists and librarians, because it wasn’t how kids were talked to. And it took like only two years after the book was out that kids started finding it in the libraries, and basically kids discovered it and made it what it is. And now it’s 40 years later and it’s a classic. So he said you just have to make something according to your own instinct.”
It should be noted that WILD THINGS isn’t necessarily a film for kids. Now that doesn’t mean, of course, that kids won’t like or appreciate it, but it doesn’t speak down to them and Jonze pulls no punches in his telling and interpretation of the story. It is incredibly scary and unsettling at times. The film does, after all, explore the wild emotions that surge through all of us when we’re young and don’t yet have the tools to control or understand the sweeping inner turmoil we are subjected to. And lead actor Max Records imparts this inner conflict with such abandon that it is impossible not to participate in his wildly emotional journey.
From the first frame of Max, dressed in his now famous wolf costume, chasing his dog around the house as if interacting one wild beast to another, the audience is told immediately that this film is more about emotion than plot; more interior than exterior. As Max catches up with his dog and latches onto it like a wolf pouncing on its prey, his mouth open wide and screaming with the fierceness and joy and exuberance of a creature both out of control and in its element, Jonze freezes the frame as the main title appears. Wild things, indeed. We are clearly not in for a saccharine ride.
And the tone that Jonze sets in that opening sequence maintains its momentum and strength throughout the film. From Max’s interactions with his sister and her friends, to his mother and her boyfriend, Max’s journey is a roller-coaster of
joy, sadness, anger, loneliness, exhilaration and confusion. But it is also a journey and celebration of small moments. Like when Max plays with his mother’s stockinged toes under her
writing desk where she works. It is one of those intimate moments we have as kids; a private world–a cave of sorts–where we get to examine things up close, to touch and feel and poke. A place we rarely go to as adults, but which linger deep in our subconscious and in our sense-memory. Places of comfort, be it that space under the desk or a self-made igloo created in the aftermath of a blizzard or, as the film later parallels, a nest to be built and destroyed and rebuilt again. Creation is often followed by destruction and then creation again, much in the same way we eventually leave some of our wild beasties behind, even though we never forget them and still hold them somewhere close, just out of reach. They are the building blocks of our personalities, our way into the world, how we interact and comprehend.
And the world of both Max and his Wild Things are presented to us as equally real. Not a fantasy world painted with broad, colorful strokes or a CG wonderland of unreality, but an organic world of dirt and shadow, of sunlight and cold. As children, the worlds of our imagination are all-consuming; they are real to us and Jonze honors that world. He takes it as seriously as we ourselves do.
As a writer myself, I have learned to embrace and celebrate the process of writing stream-of-consciousness; not working from a pre-determined plot or sequence of events, but instead, allowing my subconscious to run free, uninhibited; to let the characters and events speak for themselves, to dictate what will happen next. To allow myself to be surprised and to trust that my own inner voice has something to say, something to reveal. It is, in many ways, the antithesis to how Hollywood approaches storytelling.
Hollywood today can be seen as the death of subtext. Stories are written and rewritten by committee until the story has been stripped bare of that individual voice that is–or would have been– our most personal link to the story and characters. Gone are the unspoken themes that emerge regardless of an author’s intent; the layers beneath the layers that are imparted to our unconscious, those things that are felt before they are understood. All too often in the contemporary Hollywood film, emotional responses are calculated, plot beats and motivations explained. It is more often than not whittled down to something that works on the surface, but rarely touches on the primal, where I believe the best stories flourish and thrive. Spike Jonze:
“I slowly just tried to trust that there were certain feelings in the movie that didn’t need dialogue, and that we didn’t have to have dialogue saying what the movie is about so much as the movie just being about it. So we slowly just tried to find places where we could strip the dialogue back and let the feeling of the photography and the mood and the performances do the work.”
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE inhabits this primal, poetic world, and it does so with the exuberance of life and childhood, with honesty, and without apology. It is truly an inner journey–helped along by Karen O and Carter Burwell’s stunning, evocative score–that trusts our hearts over our minds, while intimately celebrating both.
It is truly a love song to boys. And to all children. And the adults they become.