Better than the Real Thing: Where the Wild Things Are

It must be really difficult to adapt a children’s book that takes less than thirty minutes to read into a ninety-minute movie. To do so, the filmmaking team has to add in subplots that weren’t actually in the source material by extrapolating believable events from bare-bones text. It rarely ends well.

Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are was adapted in 2009 by the inimitable director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation – two of the best films of the past decade – plus his famous music videos “Praise You” and “Sabotage,” among others). The movie has an incredible visual style and great characters (with a breakthrough turn from child actor Max Records), but it can’t capture the spirit or wonder of the original text.

In Sendak’s book, Max (the actual character’s name) is sent to his room without supper by his mother after pretending to be a monster in a white wolf costume. He imagines that his room becomes a jungle and he takes a sail boat to get to the land of the Wild Things. He’s named their king. He dances with them in a wild rumpus and enjoys a world without rules, but eventually he longs to go back home, and when  he does, he discovers that his mother left him supper and it’s still warm. It’s a beautiful story about a boy not quite coming of age, but growing just a little past his “wild thing” stage.

The movie is quite different (as it no doubt has to be). It was critically acclaimed when it came out and it was that, along with the trailer, that made me interesting in seeing this film. I was disappointed when I saw it. The spirit and wonder of the original had somehow been sapped out into a movie that was filled with melancholy, false identity, and suspicion. In this version, Max convinces the Wild Things that he has magical powers and that he can bring harmony to their group. That’s why they crown him as their king. Unfortunately, tensions arise between the Wild Things, and it’s discovered that Max lied to them and that he has no power. He decides to leave the island, and even though the Wild Things bid him goodbye and it seems like everything is alright, it’s hard to believe it.

The film ends like the book, with Max eating the supper left by his mother, and in this version, she sits with him while he eats. It’s a nice ending, but a large chunk of the film isn’t very much fun. Living with the Wild Things isn’t enjoyable like it is in the children’s book, and when Max leaves it isn’t because he’s outgrown them, it’s because he doesn’t belong with them. It’s a key distinction that paints Max as a lonely outsider, which is unfair. If you can’t be the king in your imagination, where can you be?

That’s why this movie has been included in the hallowed halls of the Better than the Real Thing catalog. The trailer manages to evoke a sense of wonder, pain (when Max sees his mother with her boyfriend and feels rejected), but more importantly, fun. The land of the Wild Things looks like an enjoyable (though somewhat dangerous) place. It also has an excellent song accompanying it (Wake Up by the Grammy-award winning Arcade Fire) that compliments the exuberance and excitement the trailer evokes. And you know what? Maybe a two-minute trailer is the best way to adapt a twenty-page illustrated children’s book. Just maybe.

NOTE: I know that I’m comparing a book and a movie, something which I’ve ranted about before. But my feelings aren’t based on the movie not sticking to the source material or that ilk. I understand that the movie had to add subplots in order for it to be a movie. My problem with it is that it just doesn’t work (for me), regardless of whether or not it’s based on a book. In short, the book was not better. It was different.

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2 Responses to Better than the Real Thing: Where the Wild Things Are

  1. Dace says:

    Great piece and I agree for the most part. I read this to my son every now and then (he’s 3), but I dont think he’s ready for the movie. It would require a lot of patience on his part. Either way, it was an admirable attempt by Jonze, a lyrical and sweet movie. But you’re right: the trailer alone captured the book’s real wondrous spirit.

    • Modest Movie says:

      First off, great book to read to your son. It, along with Robert Munsch books, are experiences I look back fondly upon. I agree that it was an admirable attempt by Jonze. I mean, it’s a Herculean task taking something as short as Where the Wild Things Are and making it into a feature-length film. And for the most part it’s a fairly well-done and commendable effort. But the film didn’t make me feel like a kid again. The trailer did though, however briefly.

      Just out of curiosity, what parts don’t you agree with?

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