26 October 2009

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius

Of all the reviews I’ve seen about Spike Jonze’s movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, one of the most incisive comes from student dn in Monica Edinger’s class at the Dalton School:

Where the Wild Things Are is a good movie. The only problem is there is not an appropriate age to see this movie.
I take “appropriate age” as reflecting the idea that there’s a level of maturity at which one can relate to the emotions and milieu of a movie without also being troubled by them. And there’s no such age for children or adults because Where the Wild Things Are is a troubling movie.

Far more troubling than Maurice Sendak’s masterful picture book, which explores young Max’s wildness only to bring him, and his readers, back home. Of course a ten-sentence book must change to become a two-hour movie. But the movie’s story, fleshed out by Jonze and Dave Eggers, isn’t just a longer journey over the same path. It’s different in fundamental ways, producing a deeper and less reassuring work of art.

In the picture book, the Wild Things are reflections of Max’s wild mood. By taming them, exercising them, and finally leaving them behind, he gets himself back under control. Those Wild Things come in different shapes and colors, but they don’t have individual names or differentiated personalities. They’re wildness in general—Max’s own wildness in particular.

In contrast, the Wild Things in the movie have names: Carol, K.W., Alexander, and so on. And they have distinct personalities, broadly drawn. Some critics, such as Claire E. Gross at The Horn Book, interpret them as reflections of Max: “Each Wild Thing embodies a different aspect of Max’s psyche — his anger, loneliness, disaffection...” But that typology provides no place for officious Douglas or depressed and sniping Judith.

Carol, the most prominent Wild Thing in the movie, has the same problems as Max: feeling abandoned and lashing out. It’s only natural that they bond most closely. But Carol isn’t simply a manifestation of the boy’s angry mood; he’s a separate character. All the Wild Things are difficult personalities writ large, and beyond Max’s control.

As disconcerting as it might be, I think we have to consider the possibility that within the movie’s reality Max’s entire visit with the creatures occurs just as we see it. In the picture book, his bed and room clearly melts into being his boat and the sea, and he famously returns before his supper gets cold. The movie doesn’t provide the same sort of reassurance that the adventure is all pretend, taking place within Max’s psyche. From what we see and hear, he is really away for days on an island of monsters. Jonze is, after all, the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, neither fully in the world we know.

In the book, Max chooses to leave the Wild Things because he gets homesick. It’s entirely his choice. In the movie, Carol turns against him, and he leaves in part out of fear, in part out of the realization that he can’t make the Wild Things’ lives perfectly happy, as he’d promised them—and himself—that he’d do. And that’s what so troubling. While the book’s Max controlled the fantasy land, the movie’s Max cannot.

Some critics make much of how some of Max’s early episodes of anger come in response to family tensions: his teenaged sister wanting to be with her older friends, his divorced mother having a boyfriend. But he also wears a wolf suit, rough-houses with the dog, and plays kill-the-man on the school playground with no link to those family frustrations. Max feels and acts wild at times like any nine-year-old boy; his family struggles just hurt the worst.

I think the ultimate lesson in Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is that such struggles will always be with us. Max can’t escape them in his family life. (What younger sibling doesn’t watch the older sibling become more distant?) And Max can’t shield his furry new friends from sadness, either. Their troubles arise from their own personalities, rivalries, and resentments.

We can’t make everyone’s life happy. All we can do is show our family and friends that we love them, whether by making a heart out of twigs or by serving warm soup, and hope that in the long run that’s enough.

That’s not the level of comfort we expect from a children’s film. Or from any genre film. But it’s the emotional experience we should expect from a work of art.


Monica Edinger said...

Definitely a work of art and definitely an enigma regarding audience. I wrote about it and another work of art that also has me puzzled in a blog post entitled (don't think I can put the link in here) "On Elephants and Other Wild Things".

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link. (Links can go in Blogger comments, but are live only if they’re embedded in HTML code.)

I think Where the Wild Things Are has proven that it can entertain and entrance audiences—as well as alienate or confuse or possibly even distress some viewers. The challenge is that those groups can’t be identified simply by age. Which is troubling to our system all by itself.

At the screening I went to, there were several tweens with their parents, and a burst of sincere applause at the end. Were those kids happy that Max had succeeded in getting back home (pulling a standard happy ending out of the story)? Grateful that they had experienced a beautiful and cathartic two hours (my response)? Or some combination?