Art, ideally, uses its form to further its content. Maurice Sendak’s 1983 book Where The Wild Things Are and Spike Jonze’s 2009 film adaptation of the same name both explore the same themes of belonging and powerlessness in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the other medium. Sendak’s book maintains heightened, immediate emotion for its entire length, and uses its brevity to allow the reader to fill in most of the specifics. Jonze’s film, with an hour-and-forty-four-minute runtime, could feasibly do neither of these things. Jonze uses a bright color palette and an effusive soundtrack, as he fleshes out Sendak’s story with inventive details, disrespecting neither the immediate feeling nor impressionistic plotting of the book. It’s a testament to Jonze and Dave Eggers’s skill in writing the screenplay that watching the film, I never questioned why Jonze decided to turn Sendak’s story into a movie in the first place.
Early in the film, Max tells a story to his mother:
Okay, there were some buildings...There were these really tall buildings, and they could walk. Then there were some vampires. One of the vampires bit the tallest building and his fangs broke off. Then all his other teeth fell out. Then he started crying. And then, all the other vampires said, “Why are you crying? Aren’t those just your baby teeth?” And he said, “No. Those were my grown-up teeth.” And the vampires knew that he couldn't be a vampire anymore, so they left him. The end.
With only eighty-seven words, and without any similarity in setting or premise, Max’s story captures the essence of both the movie and Sendak’s book: the need for belonging, the uncontrolled emotion, and the dreamlike plotting. In Max’s story, there is no guarantee of a happy ending, and, indeed, there isn’t one. The world behaves unpredictably. Buildings sometimes walk and the wrong teeth sometimes fall out. Animating his story is a sincere testament to childhood anxiety about abandonment. Through no true fault of the abandoner or the abandoned, one can find oneself alone and stripped of one’s defining identity.
In Jonze’s film, Max feels real fear even though he’s never in real danger. At home, Max is actively unsure about the permanence of his place in his family. Objectively, his concerns are obviously unfounded, but such a viewpoint denies his perception of his experience. His anxiety of being abandoned by his family is to him little different than his risk of being killed by the wild things. Max’s first encounter with them is witnessing and aiding Carol’s destructive rage and the other wild things threatening to eat him. His crown is pulled from a pile of skeletons and he is told, near the end of the film, that he is the first king they haven’t killed. His danger here is of course mitigated by the island’s unreality, but this is an emotionally meaningless distinction.
Max’s sojourn to where the wild things live reflects his dreams and fears. His dreams of power and respect are fulfilled, as the wild things make him their king, generally obey him, and essentially accept his fantastical stories about conquering Vikings. He is free from authority, but never alone. Carol, who mirrors Max more than any of the other characters, and who, like Max and the audience, cannot understand the words of two ambiguously sentient owls, is preoccupied with fears of abandonment and lashes out violently at the very people he doesn’t want to leave him. Max’s fear of the sun’s eventual death, planted in him by a wildly thoughtless science teacher, not only follows him to the island, but begins to weigh on Carol’s mind as well.
The wild things are, in the film, basically children with power, with all of the obvious problems created by that situation. Max (and the audience) can make little of the allegedly wise owls’ response to his question, “How. Do. I. Make. Everyone. O. Kay.?” The problems of the wild things are relatively simple, but the wild things are measurably worse off after Max’s short reign. The film occasionally meanders unduly, but this is perhaps due to its childlike perspective. Max’s aphoristic journey doesn’t eliminate his frustrations and anxieties, but does seem to make him resigned to their necessity.