My own perspective on Where the Wild Things Are

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I was up for the gig writing the screenplay for Where the Wild Things Are a million years ago, when the project was at Universal. I had mixed feelings about taking on the project, because the book is so slim, and so primal, so, well, "wild," that I knew no studio would spend $100 million doing it properly. Where the Wild Things Are should be weird, intense, edgy and deeply personal, the exact opposite of what i knew a studio wanted out of a four-quadrant hit.

I was fortunate enough, in my dealings with Universal on the project, to have a 2 1/2-hour phone conversation with Maurice Sendak, the book’s author. Sendak is a true artist, something I rarely meet in my Hollywood travels. We got along instantly on the phone and jawed for a long time on many topics, from Disney (Sendak thinks he was a genius, up through Pinocchio, but then it’s all downhill) to Beckett (Sendak loves his plays but can’t get into his prose).

Sendak had only one note for me as a potential screenwriter of Wild Things: he didn’t care what form the movie took, he didn’t care if it was faithful or not, he didn’t care what the Wild Things looked like or what sort of house Max lived in, his only requirement was that the movie needed to be as shocking, and as revolutionary, as the book was in 1963.

Well. Is that all.

I felt his pain and I shared his concern. I had spoken to the studio executives at length, and the one thing I knew about them was that "shocking" and "revolutionary" were the last two adjectives on their list for this project. I warned him that the studio would never make the movie the way he wanted it and he said "Fine, then they don’t have to make it. The book is still selling fine, I have plenty of money, I don’t need this, I don’t need a movie to be made of Where the Wild Things Are. Either they make it according to my one requirement, or they don’t make it, I’m fine either way."

Readers may or may not be aware of the battles Maurice Sendak has fought over the decades on the behalf of his vision of children’s entertainment. Wild Things was indeed shocking and revolutionary when it was released in 1963, and many teachers, parents and librarians felt strongly that it was not proper entertainment for children. It taught no lesson, it was not created to edify or instruct. It was dark and weird and scary. It presented childhood the way it feels to a child, not as it’s idealized by adults, and that was something quite shocking and revolutionary indeed in 1963.

Anyway, I did my best to find a compromise between "shocking" and "commercial," I did my best to come up with a narrative that would be psychologically grounded and dramatically propulsive while fulfilling the demands of the marketplace. I didn’t get the gig, that project fell apart, and nothing happened for a few years, and then it turned up at Warner Bros with Spike Jonze directing and Dave Eggars writing the screenplay. And I said "Well, good, that sounds like it will either be a brilliant movie or a noble failure."

Well, it’s not a noble failure. As I read over the weekend’s reviews, I’m a little surprised to see that the battle Sendak’s been fighting since 1963 is still being fought. I keep reading over and over that this movie isn’t appropriate for children, but this time it’s couched in a strange kind of reverse-snobbery. People seem offended, for the sake of the children of course, that the movie is too "arty" or too "pretentious," too boring or too psychological or too sophisticated or too adult. "This is not a movie for children," one online-critic sniffed, "this is a movie for film critics."  David Denby in the New Yorker worries: "I have a vision of eight-year-olds leaving the movie in bewilderment. Why are the creatures so unhappy? That question doesn’t return a child to safety or anywhere else."  Well, no, it doesn’t, does it?  Denby’s remark assumes that children are here to be comforted and reassured by Hollywood entertainment.

I guess I’m not quite sure why these self-appointed guardians of childhood innocence wish to protect the little ones from art exactly, but the same online folk who whined that they were worried that Warner Bros would turn Wild Things into Shrek are now insulted that the movie is too intelligent, that it was not made to entertain but to display the filmmaker’s prowess. As though the parents of the US should be concerned about exposing their children to quality filmmaking. How dare Warner Bros, how dare they try to pass off a nuanced, detailed portrait of child psychology as light entertainment!  The same people who complain about the rote, chipper quality of most children’s entertainment, where all morals are clearly spelled out every ten minutes, timeless bromides like "Be Yourself" and "Believe" and "Dare to Dream," are now aghast that a major studio has the effrontery to offer something not so easily figured-out.

Well, I saw the movie Saturday morning with my son Sam (8), hissister Kit (6) and their friend Rahi (7), in a theater packed with parents and their kids.  There was a round of applause at the end from the crowd, and while Kit got a little restless at times, both Sam and Rahi were riveted throughout and later declared it "the best movie ever made in the history of everything." They were not bored or baffled or confused or upset. They recognized that, yes, the commercials made it look like a light-hearted romp, but they certainly didn’t object that the movie offered a more personal, more intense experience than the commercials promised. They were overwhelmed in the way that young filmmakers are when they see 2001 or The 400 Blows, that sense of "Wait, movies can do this? Why didn’t anyone tell me movies can do this?"

Myself, I’m looking back at a season that included, in short order, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man and now Where the Wild Things Are, and feeling pretty good about the year. What do the above four movies have in common? Well, of course, they are the products of intensely personal visions, brilliant individuals bringing their idiosyncratic worldviews to the movies and greatly expanding the limits of the art form.


23 Responses to “My own perspective on Where the Wild Things Are”
  1. craigjclark says:

    The audience I saw this with was mostly attentive as well, which makes me wonder what the critics you cite would have written if they had actually seen the film in a theater full of children. Saying this film is not for children is like saying Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a film I thought this one deliberately evoked during the boating scenes) isn’t, which is a load of hogwash in my book.

    That said, I have a friend who went to an early evening showing that was mostly populated by teenagers and, well, let’s just say they’re obviously not the target audience.

    • The audience I saw this with was mostly attentive as well, which makes me wonder what the critics you cite would have written if they had actually seen the film in a theater full of children.

      I’m a critic, and I saw it in a theater full of children. (So did presumably every other critic in the DFW area, as this was the only screening in the city I was aware of.) In fact, I had a boy of about Max’s age sitting to my right!

      And they were bored. The kid next to me fidgeted, kicked the chair, talked to his dad/uncle/whatever, etc. (And this is a kid who came in wearing a gold crown; he wanted to be wowed.) Others talked loudly about other stuff (one kid, about 75% of the way through, loudly proclaimed “I’m thirsty!”)

      A heck of a lot of screenings (at least in this area) have both critics and general public, so let’s not make any assumptions here.

      I don’t think the movie was too “scary” for kids, and I’ve got no particular use for a movie that only seeks to comfort or affirm. But this one didn’t seem to have anything to say to children; it seemed primarily occupied with making Gen-Y (again: me) people cry.

      Of course, the spread of opinion on this one is so wide that I tell everyone I talk to about it — “if you have interest, go see it and decide for yourself.”

      • jhaygood says:

        not as a comment defending this particular film, but if you go to movies with small kids much they are usually a feast of chatter, requests for bathroom breaks, distracted chair kicking and other disruptions. i think unless someone is a regular in kid-heavy audiences they might misinterpret some of the behavior. “i’m thirsty!” would not be something i’d take with a lot of weight…

        • I’ve been to a LOT of screenings of kids/family movies with kids in attendance. You can tell when they’re into it. These kids were not.

          • Todd says:

            I think the lesson here is that “kids,” like the members of other demographics, are people too. Some will be into it, others won’t. My son “got” it, my daughter was perhaps expecting something else.

            • Which is fine. Just addressing a generalization about critics, that they see movies in sensory dep chambers or something. Some may do private screenings or whatever, but most of us are in packed theaters like everyone else.

              • jvowles says:

                “Some” vs “most” is probably debatable, depending on where you’re located and what your position on the local press hierarchy is. The big opinion-shaping, national-level critics are usually getting into advance screenings of one sort or another, because it’s the only way to get their review out before the movie hits.

                I go to a fair number of press screenings (which are about 30% press and 70% contest winners and film enthusiasts with the right connections, depending on the blockbuster vibe of the movie). The unifying factor there is that the audience is typically full of people who love movies, understand and embrace the moviegoing experience, and in general approach movies differently than the typical parent taking the kids out.

  2. alephz says:

    So the big complaint from people is that it’s too smart and too arty?

    Man, I am SO there.

  3. malsperanza says:

    David Denby is singlehandedly reviving the tradition of the theater critic as pompous, hand-wringing conservative bloviator. The ghost of Bosley Crowther is jealous.

    OTOH, it’s a safe bet that any movie Denby thinks is the Downfall of [Fill in the Blank] is probably a good flick.

  4. jhaygood says:

    i know what you’ve been through…

    hey todd – i was one of the editors on the movie. the same struggles you had did not end when spike came on board. what made the final film possible was the combination of spike’s vision, his stubborn determination, and that alchemy that some directors possess to both create beautiful films and keep the forces at bay that would threaten the films delicate originality. people think directing is all about filmmaking skill, but it is truly so much more complicated than that.

    and as you describe, it could not (and would not) have happened without sendak’s artistic line in the sand. while the studio certainly had their complaints (complaints spike really tried to accommodate) sendak’s support was impossible to argue against. and to be fair, this movie would not have been made if not for the support spike got from warners, legendary, playtone, etc. to cast them all as enemies of spike’s vision would be totally unfair. they stuck their necks out, and i really hope they are rewarded for it. (i’ve definitely been on films where that wasn’t the case – at least in the short-term).

    as far as kids liking the film, i think it will do as any specific vision will do – polarize. i went with my kids yesterday and was really pleased to see the audience hanging in there for what the film offers. i know as well as anyone that it’s not perfect – and there are places where my opinion was not the winning one – but all in all it’s something i’m proud of. it’s really the film project that’s closest to my heart. so thanks for your comments fleshing out a bit of the history of the wild things. groundwork was laid by many along the way that led to the final film!

    (and we’re santa monica neighbors apparently. find me on facebook if you’re so inclined. happy sunday!)

    • tawdryjones says:

      Wild Rumpus

      Thank you for your hard work on this film! I saw it last night and loved it. I expected real-life issues and I expected fantasy, but I never expected to feel uncomfortable. The best films I’ve seen* have always left me leaving the theater profoundly affected and this film did that. It’s not just beautiful to watch, there’s so much more.

      I’m glad to hear that Sam and Rahi liked it, too. The kids in my audience reacted well to the movie as far as I could tell.

      *including, but not limited to, “There Will Be Blood,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “No Country For Old Men.”

    • Re: i know what you’ve been through…

      Thanks from me as well. Though for whatever reason, I don’t remember the original book being one of my big childhood favorites (though I later developed a lot of respect for both it and Sendak), I have been completely in love with this movie since the first time I saw the trailer with half-asleep Max looking up at Carol. The movie did not disappoint me in the least. Both my husband and I – both art school grads – were struck by the film’s incredible visual beauty and thought it was just about perfect all the way through. So again, thanks.

    • Todd says:

      Re: i know what you’ve been through…

      Hey, thanks for checking in and sharing your thoughts. It’s good to hear things from the perspective of someone on the other end of the process.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I had the same thought that it wasn’t a movie FOR children, though “inappropriate” isn’t exactly the right word.

    It, like the book, seems enigmatically eerie and intriguing, but a child could never really understand WHY it is or fully grasp what it’s about. That doesn’t mean kids won’t like it. Kids like the book. When I was a kid, I liked all kinds of things I didn’t understand.

    I don’t consider it a movie/story FOR kids, I consider it a story ABOUT kids. Kids identify, but adults understand WHY. Just because kids likely can’t grasp the entirety of it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing, though. It’s not FOR kids, it’s for everyone, just to different degrees and for different reasons.

    I’m a total proponent of exposing children to depressing material (not needless so, of course). Coddling children with bright colors, infallible All-American heroes, and clear-cut black and white morals and lessons seems more “inappropriate” to me than a story about honest and inescapable experiences and emotions.

  6. vinic says:

    I would be very interested in reading your analysis of the screenplay for Where the Wild Things Are. This is one of those films every person walks out of taking something different with them. It affected both the child inside me and the man I am today in both drastically unrelated and undeniably entangled ways. Having read what you’ve kindly shared of your younger years and your adventures as a father, the specifics of your personal impressions and more cultured analysis of this film through its ticking parts should prove most enlightening.

  7. Speaking of the usual. cookie cutter, driven by market research flicks that make up way too much of movies aimed at kids these days, did anyone else have the misfortune to catch the trailer for the new Jackie Chan movie? I am convinced that it is the same film as the Vin Diesel vehicle The Pacifier. I know it’s not all that unique to take an action star and put him in a film where he gets saddled with some kids, but this literally seems to be a carbon copy, right down to the family having a weird pet (a duck in the earlier movie, a pig in this one.) It was rather depressing and only made Where the Wild Things Are look that much better by comparison. I’m also rapidly losing tolerance for kid characters who bear no relation to real kids. For some reason, it just really rubs me the wrong way. Again, the movie I actually saw was even more of an achievement when compared with the nonsense in the trailers.

  8. First off-

    I don’t really care if it’s for kids or not- when I’m watching a movie it’s for me.
    Did I enjoy it? (Yes) Did it work for me? (Pretty much…?)

    So the pretty much is where I’m at- This may be premature- I’ve only seen the movie once…and I don’t think you will find a bigger fan of either Spike Jonze or Maurice Sendak (or a fan, as I am sure Todd can attest to of weird, shocking, indecipherable or not generally “gotten” movies)

    BUT- I feel that there was something missing from this flick.
    It was magical and I did like it enormously, but I feel haunted, can’t stop thinking about the missing piece- not sure what it is…
    The only thing coming to the top of my head is the involvement of Dave Eggers- who I think contributed a certain 21st century coldness to the affair (again- I may be completely wrong about that…)
    Just testing the communal waters and curious to hear what y’all might have to say about it.

    • moroccomole says:

      Agreed: It’s a movie I very much like and admire, but never felt swept up enough to actually *love* it. I think all involved made a lot of wise choices in the adaptation, but I still found the final product cool to the touch.

    • uncacreamy says:

      I know this is a month later, but I just happened upon this discussion, and I have a thought about the ‘missing piece’. I think what might contribute to this sense of something missing is the way this story resolved itself. In such a personal journey as this, I think we all want a satisfying resolution; problems solved, or a hopeful outlook.

      Max doesn’t solve his problems. He comes to some peace with himself, but it isn’t a solution. His father is still not there. His sister is still becoming a stranger, he’s still lonely. There is no happy ending, there’s no ending. We don’t leave him with things wrapped up, we leave him in a moment of his life, knowing that many things will continue to suck for him.

  9. sadrx says:

    Your comment about film critics trying to coddle children reminded me of this quote film reviewer Ted Goranson said about the failure of The Spiderwick Chronicles:

    “What do parents think? That you can scrimp on children’s imagination and narrative sense and not have them suffer?”

  10. Anonymous says:

    A great counter point

    I must admit that I was/am one of the people who doesn’t think this is for kids, but your article brings up some very valid points that I had not really considered.
    1. When I was a kid there were many books/movies that impressed on me things that adults would have thought greater than my ability to understand, so perhaps it’s not so bad to let kids decide for themselves.
    2. The definition of kid is very large. 5, 8, 12 year olds are all going to take very different things from this movie. Even in those age groups some will get more than others. A young child who knows what it’s like to have a single parent will identify greater than one with both parents.

    I didn’t mind the kids in the theatre asking questions. I thought that was appropriate (though some what distracting).
    Perhaps I should change my thinking and give children more credit.