Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is not, thank god, a film about growing up.
Its opening credits, in which hand-scrawled monsters devour corporate logos, and its glorious freeze-frame opening title (hand-lettered against a smeared image of protagonist Max thundering down the stairs, fork in hand, in pursuit of his dog) announce that this is a film about childhood.
And Where the Wild Things Are is a film that’s smart enough to understand that childhood is scary. It can be as cruel as it is joyful and as senseless as it is wondrous. And often, these contradictions occur because the world of childhood bangs up against the world of adults.
Working with the omnipresent Dave Eggers (if he didn’t write the book you’re holding, he wrote the introduction, or at least provided a blurb for the cover), Jonze perfectly evokes childhood situations and emotions – and their friction with the realm of grownups.
In an early scene, Max has built an “igloo” – a tunnel in a snow bank – and tries to show it off to his older sister, who, busy talking on the phone, tells him to go play with his friends. From his lack of response or movement, from the way he stands on tip-toe, peering through the window at his sister, it’s clear that he doesn’t have any. In an attempt to connect with her, Max instigates a snowball fight with his sister and her friends – a fight that ends with Max’s snow fort collapsed on top of him, and Max in tears. Childhood play runs smack up against the adult (or at least adolescent) world, and it hurts.
The snowball fight/fort incident later become a heroic tale in Max’s retelling, and finds a happier resolution when Max, having run away from home and ended up on the island of Wild Things, organizes them to build the ultimate fort. It also finds an analogue when Max, playing king of the Wild Things, divides them into teams (good guys and bad guys) for a dirt clod war. (If you’re not familiar, it’s a melee in which people pelt one another with, well, clods of dirt. It’s actually a pretty awesome part of childhood.) Predictably, participants get hurt, get hit when it’s “not fair,” and storm off, sulking. But in this case, it’s Max, in the adult-responsibility role of king, who’s to blame for the hurt and tears.
Of course, Max is not the first to bring adult concerns to the land of the Wild Things. (Who, it turns out, have names. Apparently, when the book was being adapted for an opera, Sendak named them after his relatives, and they’ve been renamed for the film.)
Even before he arrives, the Wild Things have relationship issues. Personal issues. Interpersonal issues. Perhaps even psychological issues. Many of them mirror Max’s own problems: like Carol, he has trouble controlling his anger; like Alexander, he wants to be noticed; like Judith, he is bossy; like Ira, he is clingy; like Douglas, he desperately wants friends; like The Bull, he is worried what people think of him. And like KW – ?
Is KW some part of Max? If she is, it’s not a part of him that I can readily identify. Is she representative of his sister, who ignores him to spend with her friends, or his mother, who’s dating Mark Ruffalo?
It’s around KW that the simple metaphor of the Wild Things as representatives of aspects of Max’s personality breaks down. And I think this is purposeful. The film isn’t legible in simply Freudian terms. Childhood is not about metaphors. It’s about experience.
Throughout the film, we encounter other discordant elements – animals that, while in the land of the Wild Things, are not themselves wild. There’s a housecat. An improbably large dog (“Oh, it’s that dog. Don’t feed it, he’ll just follow you around.”). And a raccoon, an animal that straddles the wild/tame divide.
What are these animals doing in the land of the Wild Things?
I think we get the answer to that question when, at one point, we meet the raccoon inside one of the Wild Things (where Max is hiding, from one of the other Wild Things). The promotional campaign for Where the Wild Things Are claims that inside all of us is a wild thing. But it seems that inside every Wild Thing is also a domesticated thing.
Inside every child, not to put too fine a point on it, is an adult.
But thankfully, we don’t see adult Max, because, as I said earlier, this is not a film about growing up. In the end, Max solves his problems by not solving them. Why? Because he’s a kid. So he runs away again, but this time he runs away to home, there to find waiting for him soup, and chocolate cake, and his mother, not hysterical, just happy to see him. She sits and watches him eat, and the expression on her face seems to quote Ginsberg:
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night
The Wild Things have issues, yes. But they talk around instead of about them. Instead of discussing, like adults, they throw dirt clods and knock down trees and build forts and lash out and run and hope. Perhaps it’s because they lack the vocabulary.
Or maybe it’s simply because they know that sometimes, it’s better just to howl.
Ian Driscoll likes to think that Max’s mother is actually dating Mark Ruffalo, not just a character played by Mark Ruffalo.