I haven’t been young in a very long time, at least in the sort of way Max is in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. That book, which sits on my bookshelf at home with a tattered cover and a note from the author to my six-year-old self: Dear Zack: I’ll eat you up I love you so, was the sole entertainment of so many of my childhood nights and days that I cannot really think of my youth without it. In it, Max is brash and resourceful and crazy and lonely and funny and sad and brave, all in a story of ten or so sentences. He goes from his bedroom to an island of wild things, monsters with terrible roars and terrible teeth and terrible eyes and terrible claws. And they really were so. They weren’t colored an inane blue and they weren’t declawed—they looked like exotic beasts one might find wandering about the woods in some fantastical, far-off place. Reading that book then, as a child, was like staring them in the face and taking command, as Max does when he becomes king. There was a bit of madness in the very act of reading such a story, the story of a little boy who plays with monsters. And how I revered that story. Every once in a while as I grew older I would pull it off the shelf and read it again, and I would once again become intimate with my youth, with a time when I stared monsters in their eyes and didn’t blink once, perhaps because I was naïve and didn’t know rightly what else I was supposed to do. So it was with mixed emotions that I first heard of Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of the book. I didn’t doubt his talent, certainly, and I didn’t doubt the merits of the project. What I feared was what it would bring out of me, or rather what it wouldn’t. Because the whole time I believed the film would be successful, certainly in its own way, but I worried that it wouldn’t do the same thing that the book did for me—make me remember what it was to feel like a child, completely unbelieving all the new images flashing before my eyes but diving in just the same, fearing and understanding very little: a completely clean canvas.
I saw the film the Thursday of Princeton Halloween. The film had been out for over a week by then, and I had read the reviews, some glowing and some less than enthused. I had watched both trailers several times, scouring the Internet for the acoustic version of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” used in them to no avail. I read every article on the film’s production and took in every still. The monsters look just right, I said to myself. Even Max looked just right, even though he was clearly older than he was in the book. So I took the bus down to some no-name mall in some no-name town to watch it, believing it would be good, but hoping it would be something more.
The film opens with no wild things at all, save Max. He’s in his wolf suit and running around the house whooping and hollering. Then he’s building an igloo in his front yard sans wolf suit, and we are reminded right away that Jonze had quite a bit of adding to do to make ten lines last ninety minutes. It is established early on that our Max is lonely. His parents are divorced and his sister is about as cold as the snowy day he runs out into. He tries to play with her and her friends by provoking them into a snowball fight, but it ends horribly when one of them dives on top of his igloo with him inside, drenching him and sending him into hysterics. He retaliates by destroying her bed, then recreating a fort in his own room.
The film is beautifully shot, all the way through. There is something about it that recalls the way a child sees things: slightly different, slightly rosy. Sure, it’s sad and bleak at times, but it’s not a hopeless sadness. There are ways out of everything, ways to rekindle relationships, ways to remake broken-down igloos that seem to escape us as we grow up. Jonze makes sure the tragedies don’t last forever. His film is accompanied by a rather whimsical and generally wonderful soundtrack composed and performed by Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ lead singer and Jonze’s former girlfriend Karen O, and it, too, has just the right amount of menace and joy.
But before that score can really rear up, and before the wild things even appear, the film has its most gorgeous scene. It doesn’t occur in the awesome city the wild things and Max build, and it doesn’t occur on the beaches or in the woods or across the sands of this land far away, but in Max’s own house, where he narrates a story to his mother while she works. Max probably thinks she is typing away and hardly listening as he tells of a vampire ostracized because his teeth fall out, but in fact she is transcribing it on her laptop. This scene is one of astonishing intimacy and is framed beautifully by the director. This and the other scenes at Max’s home tell us all we could ever need to know about Max and his life. He feels a little lost, a little detached, and a lot lonely, and he responds by trying to start a rumpus and getting everyone to join in—to lose themselves for a little bit and just be wild. His sister and his mother and his mother’s boyfriend can’t seem to give him that.
And so he runs off, like we all do at some point, away from definition and safety and certainty into the big unknown world. And he comes upon a boat that seems to sail itself across choppy waters through night and day, and one can only wonder how much time passes as he goes. And then, just like that, he’s on the shore and running towards a mysterious bunch of noises and lights. And there we see the wild things for the first time, masters of destruction, roaring and burning and wreaking havoc. And we don’t really know why they are so angry, just like it’s hard to place what makes Max so aimless in the first place. But it all harkens back to the way we were when we were kids, when things made us cry for no reason at all except that they struck something within us and the response just seemed natural. The wild things turn out to be just as aimless as Max, just as confused. And while they may be the manifestations of his unpredictable character, they are also representations of the people he’s left behind. In Carol and KW’s most doting moments, they recall quite easily his mother and her sympathetic eyes. In their anger and rage we see her calling Max crazy and wishing him to change. In a desolate, sandy landscape we wonder at what was lost, what used to be. In the mayhem that ensues on the island, there is more than one truly baffling moments of film making. A detour to retrieve a pair of owls seemed so nonsensical it made me cringe.
But the film works because of how it all feels. This is not a film about redemption, but one about recalling. The filmmaker isn’t seven anymore, and Sendak wasn’t when he wrote the book. But they kept kindling the sort of feeling that could create this sort of art because they felt it mattered. When Max comes home at last for dinner, I felt myself feeling as I did at the end of that picture book the first time, now so many years ago. I’m going to miss the wild things, I thought. They were lots of fun. But they also made no sense, and were sad and scary and had terrible claws and terrible teeth and lived awfully far away. But when we’re young we don’t think about these things, we just go, and for ninety minutes, watching Jonze work wonders on the screen, I didn’t look at my watch or worry about missing out on campus merriment. I thought about my mom and my dad and places with funny names that are only as real as the images I make up in my mind and dancing in the woods with fire all around. How crazy it all is. And how utterly perfect.