Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wild Thing! I think I love you ... (after all)

I am, my husband tells me, a contrary person. (In fact, his phrase is, 'The most contrary person I've ever met'. Surely untrue.) Maybe it's contrariness that makes me instantly wary of any project - book, film, TV - that is ridiculously hyped. Or, seeing as I'm obsessed with The Wire and love True Blood, perhaps I should say, any project that is ridiculously hyped before I discover it.

So, I was wary of the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers outing Wild Things, the film of Maurice Sendak's gloriously tempestuous picture book, Where the Wild Things Are. But I've been doing some online reading over the past couple of days, and I have to say I've warmed to it, mostly due to Sendak's warm endorsement of the project and cranky comments on contemporary portrayals of childhood, the enormous attention garnered by Where the Wild Things Are over the decades, and ruminations on what Max would be doing now.

If you'd like a sneak peek at Eggers' novelised version of the book, there's an extract at The New Yorker.

The Newsweek interview with Sendak, Jonze and Eggers is where I first fell for the project - and Sendak. Asked what makes a good book for children, he said:

"How would I know? I just write the books. But I do know that my parents were immigrants and they didn't know that they should clean the stories up for us. So we heard horrible, horrible stories, and we loved them, we absolutely loved them. But the three of us — my sister, my brother, and myself — grew up very depressed people."

I was a lover of fairy tales as a child (what 'children's' genre is darker?) and I'm a great believer in the power and attraction of 'horrible stories'. It depends on how those stories are told, what the outcomes are, and how and why the characters meet their fates, but scary stories for children can be cathartic, not to mention instructional. My brothers and I also loved Where the Wild Things Are. It was a bedtime favourite, along with Bears in the Night (where the small Berenstain Bears sneak out of bed in the middle of the night, tiptoe through the woods and UP SPOOK HILL, where they are frightened by an owl and run home to bed).

We enjoyed being scared, just like kids enjoy gravity-defying rides at the Show. These books take you to the emotional brink and deliver you safely back on the ground, to get on with your life. Catharsis.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max, dressed in his 'wolf suit', has a naughty temper tantrum, is sent to his room, and retreats deep within his imagination, where he roams and roars and lets all his anger and mischief out, in the company of the primal Wild Things. It was, these interviews remind me, a revolutionary book for its time (1963) in its honest depiction of childhood, as opposed to the whimsical depictions popular at the time. The film could well break similar ground - in fact, Sendak told Jonze: "You have to just make something bold and not pander to children and make something that's as dangerous for its time as the book was in its time."

Talking about the difference between the European and American approaches to making art for children, Sendak says: "We are squeamish. We are Disneyfied. We don't want children to suffer. But what do we do about the fact that they do? The trick is to turn that into art. Not scare children, that's never our intention." Asked if he thinks Disney is bad for kids, he says, "I think it's terrible." And what would he say to parents who say the film is too scary? "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."

Jonze told that he was attracted to Sendak's book because it "doesn't talk down to kids". He compared the experience of Where the Wild Things Are to the the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film, starring Gene Wilder. "He's compelling and I want him to like me but I'm also scared of him. I want to be Charlie and I want him to give me the factory but I'm also really scared of him and charmed by him and he's mysterious." An intriguing comparison.

So, I still don't know what I'll think of the film, but I do like the idea of it a lot. And it's already reminded me how much I loved the original book. Which can only be a good thing.


Deep Kick Girl said...

Me too. I'm so looking forward to seeing the film but a little scared at the possibility of utter disappointment. The book means so much to me - as a child and now as a mother reading it to my children. The idea of the film being "not right" is awful. Trying to keep an open mind.

Penni said...

Actually I started off being skeptical. Then I got seduced into liking the idea. But now I'm going off it again. I really admire and respect Eggers, but I think he's got this whole idealisation of childhood going in, which Sendak didn't have.

You should read this. Is hilarious, totally charted my initial responses:

Ariel said...

It could well be bad - though I think the possibility of having the book ruined is less than in a novel's adaption for film. This is really a reinterpretation of it, I think. It will be to the book as Clueless is to Emma, or Bride and Prejudice to Pride and Prejudice. So don't worry - unlikely to ruin the book for you!

Yes, it was Sendak's lack of idealisation of childhood that reeled me back in, and the fact that he chose Jonze and then Eggers. If Eggers goes there I'll be disappointed. And I have to say, after the weekend coverage, I'm veering back to sceptical. I don't know.

Thanks for that link - it's brilliant!

Hackpacker said...

Not sure where I figure on the White People Like index, but it's a crucial project for the Eggman after his film Away We Go bombed. I'm really hoping it can go the distance.

Anonymous said...

Bears in the NIght was one of my favourites! I loved the brief pause before... Up Spook Hill!

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