a longer review of that movie with that kid and those things WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, as a straight adaptation of the book, fails miserably. I haven't (yet) heard anyone argue that it should, admittedly, but/and at over an hour's worth of running time, it never could.
Maurice Sendak only chose Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers to do the movie once he was sure they understood what he'd made in his original book and still wanted to do their own thing, anyway; it was never going to be the book, and that they asked if he wanted it every step of the way tells me that he never wanted it to be. You don't bring the original writer on set and call him for critical advice nearly every week of shooting to make a movie he doesn't agree with, after all.
The book was a pared-down, simplistic non-fable filled with riotous energy and very little else; everything in the story furthers along that sense of pure power fantasy until it sputters out and collapses back into tired normalcy.
It's just that - it's a nice tale, and it resonates, but it's a story about a boy who does not exist and never could because the Max of the book is a cipher and necessarily so; he could be anyone, and so he is no one. The art makes it more: those wonderful, fantastic, deliriously hairy and weird Wild Things crash into the story and fill it with a woolly, fanged zest that the story's really only just there to provide space for, as the plot rushes headlong into an ending that's incapable of reading as more than an exhausted collapse.
Which is where the difference between book and movie lie most heavily: the movie's art, its wonder, its imaginative staging and lyricism, all service the story it wants to tell instead. And it's no less imaginative than the book, but oh, it makes a difference, that emphasis does.
The Max of the movie is all too real - in ways that will resonate more powerfully with modern audiences than the simple cipher of the book; and I say that not because I in any way have a distaste for stories with simple ciphers and simple plots (I read too many stories with them for such an impulse to survive very long), but because I went to see this movie with an audience composed of roughly a third children ages thirteen and under (and maybe half between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two) despite it starting at nine at night, and heard them all laugh, cry, sing themselves heartsick, and at the end there was dancing in the aisles, and laughter, and smiles.
I do think it helps more than anyone else who's seen it has yet bothered to point out, because while it resonated for me, I am twenty-two years old and not a child anymore, and I was so very worried I'd been handed a movie made for adults about children, rather than a movie made for children. I do not think I need to have worried, now; as I said, there were families in the audience, smiling at each other, dancing with each other. There were children talking during the movie - children who connected with Max enough to be worried that he'd be punished for running away when he came home at the end of the film.
I don't have to guess that it connects, that it works; I watched it work, I saw the proof with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears. Spike Jonze made this movie for those children, and he made it with love and care and raw, powerful honesty.
And you can argue that the fantasy is better, that the unreality of the book makes it more potent and accessible, and I'll tell you: those children felt otherwise. Those children knew Max was theirs, their friend, themselves. And so who's to say the escapism of the book is better? Does it give those children a home?
Flights of fancy don't bring those kinds of tears to other people's eyes.
We lose a lot in the worries about "universality", I think. This is not a universal movie, it's very dangerously specific - it's a story about a boy who has trouble interacting with the real world who lives with his single mother who can't cope and doesn't want to try and sees the world like a broken place and if only he could fix it with a pajama-clad fist it would be better - but we live in a world that breaks universality apart and eats it for lunch. Sendak himself wrote the book (all his books) to exorcise his own childhood traumas and fears - an act of personal catharsis that the film illustrates with incisive clarity.
Everything is dying in the movie, running away and hiding; the sun, a teacher informs Max's class with all the kindness and warmth of a sledgehammer, is going to explode and die someday and take us with it, maybe. The purple and green and gold forests and swamps and jungles of Sendak's book are here autumnal and dry, easily burnt and slashed with bright reds and oranges and browns, the color of earth (of dust), the color of a place that Max, who lives in the suburbs and plays in streets, has never thought of as "home" and so of course thinks is the perfect place to run away to because he's never really been.
Sendak buried those traumas in the subtext because he grew up in a time where that's what you had to do; the movie lays them bare because this was the shape of Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers' childhood (and mine, too), not Sendak's. You don't cover your ears now to keep from hearing what you don't want to hear; even if you did, the sound would just leak through, because that old trick never really works.
But for all the painful awareness and cathartic struggles, real warmth and real joy and really vital chaos thrum under the surface of every shot, and roar to life just when they're needed most; the ending shot is so perfectly right that it breaks me down into all my component parts and knits me back up cleaner and saner than I was before.
I wouldn't know if this is a movie for anyone else but me, if not for the audience I saw it with. I knew from the first moment I heard "Rebellion (Lies)" in the trailer that this would, love it or hate it, be a movie intensely for me - my relationship with the Arcade Fire as a band and as a source of emotional connection is a freakish, weird, and uncomfortably personal one that I know no one else really shares even if they like the band because sometimes I don't know if I like them - and so I wasn't going in expecting a movie I could recommend to everyone. I figured to expect the "emo" version of the story - "emo" here defined as the Promise Ring, Dag Nasty, early-post-hardcore kind that first coined the phrase: raw, hurt, and primal, pain as performance but unavoidably real. The word people like to throw around for this sort of thing is "unironic" but that implies there wasn't a sense of irony involved, and you can't imply that about anything made in the past fifty years (and that includes most of Maurice Sendak's children's stories, too, by the way).
I remember the first time I truly understood I could hurt things - hurt people, to have them defined for me in the shape of pain and shock and anger and fear; it was enthralling, empowering, liberating and terrifying. I did not know what to do with it. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry - but I couldn't help smiling, anyway, because it felt good to hurt someone else, when the world was so scary. But I knew it was bad and I shouldn't have done it because people had taught me that other people's feelings mattered too, somewhere along the line. And so I felt scared of what anyone would do if they knew what I had felt after I had done it. And so I never told anyone that I liked it and wanted to do it again. Which made it better when I hurt someone worse, later, because I only knew I liked not feeling scared for that brief moment and not how to deal with it after. It was never enough to hear "you wouldn't like it if they did that to you, would you?" because I was not a child who internalized that statement properly and I assumed if someone was going to hurt me it meant I should hurt them worse first because then I'd feel safer if I just knew how. Other people's pain was something to fear and it had to be eliminated before it reached me. I was not very good at this and so I felt scared and hurt and diffusely aggressive a lot when I was a child, growing up as a boy. I did not grow out of this until I was much older; I had no way to grasp what I was doing and no one to see inside my head and explain it to me except myself and I wasn't much help on my own.
I still don't know if it's a movie for everyone, but I can recommend it to anyone over the age of nine - not six, like the book; this is not a story for little children, I suspect, but you don't have to be a teenager to cope. Children are sturdy things - they can take a lot. I could take a lot, at that age, and I may be a freak in other ways, but I was no more emotionally mature than anyone else when I was nine, believe me, and I not only survived GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES around that age but I knew it was about kids like me and knew it got us just fine. That's about how I feel about WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: I want to hand it to nine-year-old me and say "it's okay, we can still be friends when you're older". I think she - although I still identified as "he" at the time, not being conscious of myself well enough to know different - would know what I meant. This movie was my life, more or less.
It's an impassioned film, blistering and beautiful and not at all well. I suspect it will make a lot of people uncomfortable.
I am kind of okay with that. (And, I expect, so is Maurice Sendak, and so is everyone else involved in the movie.) Children are not comfortable being where and who they are. It's good to have movies that remember that fact and treat it with the reality it deserves.
I just wish I'd have seen this movie when I was still young enough to need it.