Title: Where the Wild Things Are
Author: Maurice Sendak, also illustrator
Published: Harper & Row (1984); (c)1963 Maurice Sendak
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener; and the voice talents of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, and Forrest Whitaker
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonse and Dave Eggars
Released: Warner Bros. Pictures (2009)
How do you take a children's picture book and turn it into a feature length, live-action film?
Judging by the attempts of others to translate Dr. Suess' books into big budget movies, it's nearly impossible. Spike Jonze did it with Maurice Sendak's work, however, and did it well. And he accomplished this task by doing something risky with the source material. He changed a key piece of the story and approached the subject matter from a totally different perspective.
In the book, Max is a precocious little boy playing around the house in his wolf costume--and, man oh man, would I have had fun with one of those as a boy. After being sent to his room, he uses his imagination to escape into a world of monsters that crown him king. They play, and roar, and sleep in a big pile. And after a time he the land of the wild things recedes and he's back in his bedroom.
In the movie, Max is a little more than precocious; he's an emotional and fragile boy who lashes out with great intensity towards his sister and her friends who mistreat him and a mother who is overworked and dating a man who isn't Max's father. After a particularly rendering scene in which he and his mother have a confrontation, he runs away from home and happens across a small sailboat. He rides this into the waters until he washes up on an island inhabited by the wild things.
The book captures the magic and imagination so many kids have, where as the movie shows the frailties behind those worlds we create as kids. I can see why some were disappointed by the movie when it finally hit theaters. We all remember and cherish that children's book so much, and when we saw those first trailers for the movie and the jaw-dropping visual of the monsters brought to life we all had some instant preconceptions. The movie isn't a kid's movie in a traditional sense, but more of an ode to childhood as told by a grownup who lovingly remembers it and wants to peel back some of the sugarcoating.
Carol, K.W., and the other wild things aren't just humungous monsters that include Max as one of their own and their king. They're kids themselves that are trying to navigate their way through a world that is slowly changing all around them, and they're slowly changing too. They're not just playmates for Max, but creatures that existed before he ever got there and will still be there long after he's left. And Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is the most like Max of them all, as he deals with his own issues of his emotions and relationships with the others.
It's not exactly subtle with the lessons shown through the film, but Spike Jonze managed to keep it all from feeling like we were being thumped over the head by a lecturer. It feels genuine. It looks amazing. And it rings true. The book, as much as I love it, was a brief adventure in Max's world. The movie showed that world in all its glory and its folly.
Winner: The Movie. There's just so much more added to the film that it's a wonder where it was mined from in the book. It's kind of an unfair fight between the two, since they wind up being so much different in tone and duration. For the littlest kids, give them the book. It's one of those tiny masterpieces that should add a little enrichment to their lives. Then, as they get a little older and are able to recognize something beyond the now, give them the movie. It'll be like seeing Sendak's world again for the first time.