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 MovieRetriever.com 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.