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Warner Bros.

Wild at Heart: On Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are

“Contrary to most of the propaganda in books for the young, childhood is only partly a time of innocence. It is, in my opinion, a time of seriousness, bewilderment, and a good deal of suffering. It’s also possibly the best of all times.”
Maurice Sendak

When Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was released in 1963, a lot of people weren’t quite sure what to make of it. While it certainly had its early champions, many parents and critics worried that the book was far too frightening for children; some psychologists felt it might even be traumatizing to its young readers, or at the very least a corrupting influence, with its angry mother, unruly child, and decided lack of moralizing. Others were merely dismissive, with Publisher’s Weekly infamously declaring the book a “pointless and confusing story.”

In time, though, its mere ten sentences (just 336 words!) heralded a revolution of sorts in children’s literature, marking a seismic shift in a genre that had previously steered clear of depicting the intense emotional world of young children. The book would go on to win the coveted Caldecott Medal, catapulting Sendak into the top tier of children’s authors, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Where the Wild Things Are remains his best-known book and regularly sits atop critics’ lists of the best children’s books of all-time. At last count, there were more than 19 million copies in print—at least a few of which belonged to Barack Obama, who counts it among his favorite books, and would read it aloud to kids on the White House lawn throughout his presidency, funny faces and all.

Despite the canonical status Sendak’s book enjoyed for decades, it took over 40 years to be turned into a proper big-budget movie (though it had previously inspired an opera, a ballet, and a short animated film). But once it finally was—after Sendak spent years trying to convince director Spike Jonze to make it and Jonze, after finally agreeing, then spent over half a decade working on it—what emerged was something every bit as strange and poetic as Sendak’s original vision, a film very much its own thing but nonetheless deeply in touch with the book’s core sensibilities. And, much like Sendak’s book, the initial reception was mixed. While it ended up on a handful of year-end top ten lists, many parents felt it was too frightening for young children, critics worried it was too long, plotless, or self-involved, and more than a few fans of the book—and of Jonze—ultimately felt disappointed by a movie they’d built up nearly impossible expectations around.

In retrospect, this feels misguided, if understandable—it’s a film based on a beloved children’s book, but it isn’t really for kids, at least not young ones. It challenges more than it comforts, meanders rather than marches to a strict narrative beat, and offers little in the way of easy answers or tidy resolutions. Or put another way, it’s an unruly thing, much like its source material—a peculiar and deeply personal work of art that refuses to compromise or condescend to its audience’s expectations. But therein lies a good deal of its magic.

Reading the story and watching the film are quite different experiences, yet both clearly share the same mysterious bones and darkly poetic soul. This is not merely Maurice Sendak by way of Spike Jonze, but rather Sendak as embodied and expanded through Jonze, a spiritually faithful adaptation which takes the book’s arc and themes as both an anchor and a jumping off point. The goal, in the eyes of Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers, was to try and do cinematically what Sendak had done with his book nearly five decades earlier: to capture what it really, truly feels like to be a kid, wild things and all.

“I tried to make it true to my memory,” Jonze would later say, “my experience of being a human being at that age of life—what it’s like to be nine and be alive.”

*

Maurice Sendak first approached Spike Jonze about making a film version of Where the Wild Things Are back in the mid-1990s, while the two were briefly working together on an adaptation of another children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, which never made it out of pre-production. As the two artists became friends, Sendak started to feel that Jonze was the perfect director to shepherd his most beloved book to the big screen. Jonze, understandably, was reluctant to take on Sendak’s classic—feeling he had little to add to a “perfect” book that had long been an inspiration to him—and resisted for many years.

But eventually Sendak, curiosity, and a late-night epiphany convinced him to tackle the book. The breakthrough for Jonze, the skeleton key that unlocked the adaptation, came to him one night in 2003, shortly after his divorce from Sofia Coppola, when he realized he could use the Wild Things to represent the emotional world of a child, the ungovernable emotions in both Max and those around him that frightened him or caused him anxiety.

“As a kid, that was really scary and confusing—both the wild emotions in me and the wild emotions in the people around me,” Jonze said in a GQ profile back in 2009. “Unpredictable emotions, positive or negative—you don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know what they mean. Especially negative emotions. Your own behavior—you don’t know why you’re acting a certain way and it scares you, or you don’t know why somebody else is acting a certain way and it scares you. Big emotions that are unexplained are really scary. At least to me. I guess it’s anger, or sadness, guilt—or guilt for being angry, you know. Just the whole big mess that we’re sort of thrown into.”

Having found a way into the kind of film he wanted to make, and with Sendak’s constant support and encouragement to make it his own thing—provided it be “personal and dangerous”—he set out to do just that.

*

It’s remarkably easy, and perhaps much too tempting, to look back on childhood as solely a time of innocence and wonder. What gets lost in this type of nostalgic reflection, though, is the confusion, the fear, the sheer unruliness of it all: how big and scary some things feel; how emotions can shift under your feet in the space of an instant; how enormous adults are, and how confusing their actions can be.

It’s also difficult for many of us to remember, at least consciously, how utterly powerless it feels to be 9-years-old. But Jonze (like Sendak before him) seems to remember almost eerily well, and what’s more, is somehow able to translate a good deal of these sense memories and feelings to the screen. The many stylistic choices he makes throughout the film—Max’s scribbling over the opening credits, Karen O’s sparse, childlike humming and songs, the frequent use of hand-held cameras and child’s point-of-view shots, the often cacophonous sound mix, a strong reliance on natural light—allows him to build a kind of rough-hewn intimacy to the whole affair, a warm familiarity that draws you into its idiosyncratic world. Much like the book it’s based on, it’s a transporting experience, if never an easy one; a story about childhood you’d imagine a 9-year-old might make if you were to give him access to a big budget and a movie camera.

Perhaps the best way to get at this is to dig into the film’s opening scenes, which are among the finest in Jonze’s entire filmography. In a little less than 20 minutes, he manages to capture childhood so perfectly, in both broad strokes and specific details, that one almost aches with recognition. Watching, we feel young Max’s excitement, disappointment, curiosity, anger, sadness, and confusion in an intensely visceral way. We learn how the world looks through his eyes, and in doing so, are reminded of our own younger selves. It hardly matters whether or not we “like” him—which the studio fretted about after a disastrous early test screening—because instead, we know him.

As the film begins, we follow Max (Max Records) throughout his day, as he goes about doing the kinds of things 9-year-olds do—playing with his dog, kicking a fence, building an igloo, getting into a snowball fight with some of the older kids in the neighborhood. All is well, but a turning point suddenly arrives: the snowball fight escalates, the older kids destroy his igloo, and his big sister leaves with them. Max’s emotions come strong and quick, hot tears streaming down his face. Out of control, he runs to his sister’s room and, in a fit of pure anger, destroys a valentine he’d once made for her. Afterwards, looking at the mess around him on the floor, he immediately feels guilty. He retreats to his own room where he lays in bed and waits for his mom (Catherine Keener) to come home. When she finally comes in, he tells her what happened, and she consoles him.

But of course, it’s never that easy. A few scenes later, he loses control again, this time at his mom. Feeling ignored as she converses intimately on the couch with her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), Max goes wild, standing up on the kitchen counter in his wolf suit and demanding she make him some food. His mom, tired and embarrassed, tries to calm him down, to no avail. Eventually, Max gets so worked up that he bites her on the shoulder in anger. “What is wrong with you?!” she screams at him. The startled look on his face seems almost to be asking the very same question, but then he’s off and running out the door. He runs through his neighborhood and keeps going, until he eventually comes to a forest. Entering the forest, he finds a small boat, and sets off across the sea.

*

By all accounts, Spike Jonze had no intention of spending the better part of his 30s working on Where the Wild Things Are. But the project ended up consuming him; the more he became stubbornly insistent on getting it just right—despite production troubles, studio interference, and eventual reshoots—the less willing he was to compromise his vision.

The result is perhaps the most personal film Jonze has made to date, even if he’s coy about saying so directly. It’s also one of the most accurate portrayals of childhood ever put on screen, a film shot almost entirely from a 9-year-old’s point of view—the camera angles consistently tilted up—and infused with all the wonder and confusion of being a kid. It couldn’t possibly have been everything to everybody, which Jonze appears to have recognized early on; instead, he focused on making it something true to himself, and close to his heart.

In box office terms, Where the Wild Things Are wasn’t much of a success, barely making back it’s $80 million budget. But it’s hard not to get the sense that that was never the point, at least for Jonze. Instead, he seemed determined to use his first (and only) big budget studio outing to make an intensely personal, intimate epic. Those that got it, got it—and those who didn’t, didn’t really concern him all that much. He’d made the film he wanted to make and was prepared to live with the consequences.

And in the end, he won over the audience that always mattered to him most: Sendak himself. “He’s turned it into his without giving up mine,” Sendak remarked after seeing the film. “What flows through the whole thing is such a strange feeling—I’ve never seen a movie that looked or felt like this. And it’s his personal ‘this.’ He’s not afraid of himself. He’s a real artist that lets it come through in the work.”

*

Once Max finally arrives on dry land, he soon encounters the Wild Things. It’s a dark and menacing scene, much like in the original text: “And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws…” But while Sendak’s Wild Things scare primarily with their monstrous appearance, Jonze and Eggers’ Wild Things do so with their words as well, pestering Max with threats, warnings, and accusations.

Up until this point, Jonze has mostly stuck to Sendak’s book, fleshing out Max’s domestic backstory and filling in some particulars, but mostly remaining within familiar territory. But for the next 70 minutes—in other words, the meat and bones of the film—Jonze opens things up considerably, in essence building his own world within the established structure of Sendak’s sandbox. The Wild Things, which for Sendak represented the immigrant Jewish relatives who would visit his family when he was a child, become instead, for Jonze, manifestations of the dark and confusing parts of Max’s interior world that he struggles to tame and make sense of. In the book, Sendak’s monsters rarely speak a word—but in Jonze’s world, they never seem to stop talking.

In addition, each of the Wild Things, disparate as they are, appear to reflect or enhance various aspects of Max’s own emotions and defense mechanisms. Fittingly, they are having trouble getting along with one another—much like Max is struggling to reconcile his own emotional landscape in the wake of his recent domestic upheaval—and are desperately in search of a king to help govern them, an Ego of sorts to manage their collective Id. Max blusters his way into the role, convincing them he has magical powers; among other things, the ability to explode loneliness, and a sadness shield that is big enough “to keep out all the sadness.” The Wild Things are enthralled and quickly decide he will be their new leader. They won’t eat him up after all.

“He’s going to make us happy,” one of them says.

They place a crown upon his head, declare him their new king, and ask him for his first command. Max hesitates for a moment, before screaming out: “Let the wild rumpus start!”

Following the wild rumpus—a glorious, free-wheeling romp through the jungle that culminates in a relaxed communal slumber in a giant pile—the narrative proceeds forward with a dreamlike logic and cadence, as Max begins to live among the Wild Things. They compete for his attention and affections, acting in wild and unpredictable ways, inadvertently creating situations that mirror, or at least echo, the domestic world from which Max has recently escaped. But whereas Max was the disrupter in his own home, here it is up to him to maintain order among the neurotic creatures under his rule. And he quickly learns this is no easy feat.

Carol (James Gandolfini), the big and lumbering monster whose issues appear to most closely parallel Max’s own, takes him out on a tour of the island. The two then decide to build a fortress with the help of the other Wild Things—a place where, under Max’s orders, “We’ll take care of each other and we’ll all sleep together in a real pile.” After a momentary honeymoon period of happiness—as Max and the Wild Things work happily together toward a common goal, while Karen O.’s “All is Love” plays joyously on the soundtrack—social dynamics begin to assert themselves, and the difficulty inherent in ruling a kingdom of monsters starts to arise.

Judith (Catherine O’Hara), the cynical downer of the gang, is the first to start problems. After seeing Max and Carol discussing something in private, she corners Max. “You like to play favorites, huh, King?” When Max asserts that he likes them all equally, she scoffs. “Don’t give me that, I can see how it is. The King has favorites.” As the tension rises, Judith begins to yell at Max, who yells back at her. She staggers back, and delivers some of the film’s most telling lines:

“You can’t do that back to me! If we’re upset, your job is not to get upset back at us. Our job is to be upset. If I get mad and wanna eat you, then you have to say: ‘Oh, okay. You can eat me. I love you. Whatever makes you happy, Judith.’ That’s what you’re supposed to do!”

Afterwards, KW (Lauren Ambrose) comforts the wounded Max. She suggests they go to see her good friends, Bob and Terry, who “have all the answers to everything.” Max, who realizes he might be in over his head trying to rule the Wild Things, quickly agrees. Once they arrive, he is told that Bob and Terry will only answer questions asked in seven words, so he slowly pieces together a sentence to ask the question which has seemingly been on his mind since the beginning of the film:

“How…do I…make…everyone…O…K?”

*

My own son is almost 8 years old now, nearly the same age as Max in the film, and like Max, has plenty of outsized emotions he struggles to make sense of at times. “I didn’t mean to” is a mantra of sorts in our household, and watching him, I honestly believe it. He truly doesn’t seem to mean to do most of the unruly things he does. He’s one of the kindest, most sensitive souls I’ve ever known, but at times he loses control and his emotions get the best of him. His wild things take over: he yells and screams, cries and cavorts, lashes out at those he loves, and then himself. Afterwards, he feels deeply sorry and isn’t sure what to do.

Watching the film, my son winces in begrudging recognition. “I think I’m a wild thing maybe,” he says, looking up at me, hoping I’ll disagree. Instead, I let him know that sometimes I feel that way, too. We’re all just wild things after all, and learning to manage that wildness—so that it doesn’t overwhelm us at every turn—is a big part of the work of our lifetime.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Sendak cut straight to the heart of this paradox at the core of the human condition:

Moyers: Do we all, adults and children, have to come to grips with our own untamed passions?

Sendak: Oh, yes. We’re animals. We’re violent. We’re criminal. We’re not so far away from the gorillas and the apes, those beautiful creatures. So, of course. And then, we’re supposed to be civilized. We’re supposed to go to work every day, we’re supposed to be nice to our friends and send Christmas cards to our parents. We’re supposed to do all these things which trouble us deeply because it’s so against what we naturally would want to do.

Taming our own monsters, then, becomes a hero’s journey all its own—but also a continual work in progress. We are always, on some level, trying to keep our most intense emotions in check in order to hold on to the people and things we love. We worry about being abandoned, so we come to fear our own darker emotions, out of an anxiety that they might overwhelm those closest to us and chase them away. It’s difficult work even for adults, so imagine how complicated it is for young children, who are experiencing most of these big, intense emotions for the very first time. On this point, perhaps more than any other, Jonze and Sendak were very much aligned.

*

Bob and Terry don’t give Max the answers. Or rather, they do, but he can’t understand them: they respond to his question with a series of unintelligible squawks. Max returns to the Wild Things and, left to his own devices, tries to comfort each of them individually. Symbolically, of course, Max is talking to the various emotional parts of himself here, doing a kind of integrative therapy aimed at helping each part of himself feel truly listened to and understood. Seen in this light, Max’s efforts become not only necessary but transformative; he becomes the kind of person that he needs.

But eventually, and despite his best efforts, it all goes bad in much the same way the snowball fight did at the beginning of the film. Max tries to raise the group’s spirits and channel their energy by deciding they will have a “war”—a dirt-clod fight between teams of good guys and bad guys. It begins with great fun, but things end up going too far, until someone finally gets hurt. This leads to a series of arguments, largely between Carol and KW, which Max watches, much like we imagine he must have watched his own parents fight before their divorce.

The anger soon spills over and turns toward Max. The Wild Things blame him for the group’s fraying social dynamics. Things quickly begin to fall apart, culminating in a furious Carol yelling at him: “You were supposed to take care of us, you promised!”

Max, it seems, has learned a good deal about himself—but the Wild Things appear to be beyond saving. Talking with KW after Carol’s tantrum, Max realizes where the problem lies; the one thing he has that the Wild Things never will, and without which, they’ll never be happy.

“I wish you guys had a mom,” he tells her.

In the moment he’s saying it, you can see in his eyes another realization forming. He wants to go home. To, in Sendak’s words, “be where someone loved him best of all.”

*

The boundary between reality and imagination, for most young children, is fragile and permeable. Most are capable of switching back and forth between the two, in a way that most of us have long since forgotten how to do. In fact, it’s often through these richly imagined inner worlds that children seek to gain control or mastery over the myriad of things that confuse, anger, or frighten them. As they attempt to navigate a world which seems to grow increasingly complicated by the day, imaginary worlds offer children a chance for escape—but also for emotional expression, and a way to work things out.

“What is too often overlooked,” Sendak said, upon receiving the Caldecott Medal in 1964, “is the fact that from their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions. Fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”

This notion—that creativity and imagination are the best tools a child has at his disposal for navigating childhood—runs throughout Maurice Sendak’s entire body of work. It’s the secret light he often nestled inside the darkness of his books. But whereas Sendak subtly hints at this, Jonze makes it manifest.

In the book, Max sails off to where the wild things are and works through his anger by taming the monsters, becoming their king, and eventually sending them off to bed without supper. Afterwards, feeling lonely and missing his mother, he returns home, tired and hungry, but at peace with himself. It’s a classic psychoanalytic tale of discharging one’s anger—in this case, through fantasy—and restoring an inner balance. But in Jonze’s film, Max doesn’t express much anger at the Wild Things; he’s more reactive than aggressive. Instead, he works through his own emotional distress by helping them work through theirs, and in doing so, gradually comes to empathize with those in a position of authority who—like his mother—are trying their best to maintain order amidst chaos, without any real idea how to do so. He learns firsthand how difficult it is to lead others and comes to realize, as we all must at some point, that most adults are just making it up as they go along.

*

It’s late at night when Max finally returns home. He’s said his tearful goodbyes to the Wild Things—howled along with them like a benediction as he sailed away from the island, before running joyously through his neighborhood streets, barking along with the dogs that seem to cheer his arrival. He opens the door tentatively, not sure what to expect.

His mother is sitting at the dinner table, waiting. Seeing him, she’s immediately relieved and wraps him up in an enormous hug. They look at each other silently, sussing out where they stand. She starts to cry and hugs him all over again. There are no accusations made, no anger or discipline, no Where-Have-You-Beens or How-Could-Yous.

We cut to a few minutes later. Max is eating a big piece of chocolate cake at the table, his mom watching him with all the love in the world in her eyes. The camera reverses to Max, focused on his face as he looks back at her. Without belaboring the point, Jonze lets us know that everyone is ok; both sides have been forgiven, all is well again.

The camera holds on Max. Slowly, he begins to smile.