I admired Where the Wild Things Are as a film (2009; dir. Spike Jonze), but not as a version of the 1963 Maurice Sendak story. The illustrations and the minimalist narration of the book make it a classic bit of story-telling. Illustrations that bring to life the few words on each page work on the imagination—imagination fills in the gaps. Each child reads the story in a different way. When I read the book to my sons we spent much time pouring over each page, each sentence and illustration, filling them in, wondering about them, speculating.
The film (which Sendak coproduced and apparently approved of) gives a specific reading to the original story. The images of the original—the wild monsters and their jungle—are better preserved in the film than the story itself, which becomes a tale of morose adult monsters who can’t get along, like small children just learning to play, but also like adults who have learned to play too well. The monsters in the film interact as if they’re living on the same level as the boy, but they also seem to have other lives that extend beyond the limits of the film and the story and the boy’s comprehension. The boy in the film has run away from home because of arguments with his mother. The film tempts us to think that the monsters have been banished to their island because of their own problems in the adult world—divorce, failing relationships, disappointment.
The film has its moments—the boy Max’s journey by boat across the sea, his first encounter with the monsters, the wild rumpus, his departure from the island and return home to his worried mother and warm soup. The visual imagery from the Sendak story, and the beautifully exotic settings, bring moments of recognition as the book occasionally comes to life in the film. But all the filler and emotional baggage drag it down. I can’t imagine it holding the interest of many young children.
But then it’s been a long while since I was a young child. What do I know?