Every kid worries about the end of the world. And every kid knows – if they’re loved – the world can’t end. Childhood is best described as a mixture of anxiety and total acceptance, where a mother’s hug is like an apocalypse-proof force-field. That’s why, even though every kid feels vulnerable to axe-murderers at bedtime, they all know their bed-sheets will protect them. Home – and family – is a fortress, constantly assailed but impregnable to threat. A kid who knows this knows nothing on earth can harm him, but a kid who doubts this gets gobbled up with worry. The wild things in Where the Wild Things Are could also be thought of (by grown-ups) as “angst”.
This is the story of a boy called Max, who one day bites his mother. Max is a moody, imaginative kid who has more feelings than his vocabulary can cope with. He is of an age where he can’t quite get away with acting like a six-year-old (he’s about age ten), and his single mother has a new boyfriend. The combination of a candlelit dinner and Max putting on his wolf costume leads to catastrophe. Max is made to feel an outcast from his own home. To spite his mother back, he flees to a land Where the Wild Things Are; an island inhabited by strange beasts. Turns out, he picked an auspicious moment to land, because the wild things name Max “king”.
Maurice Sendak’s original story is roughly the length of a Henry James sentence (probably shorter). It plugs deep into the feral nature of most small boys and, crucially, it knows there isn’t much to tell about the Wild Things other than that they’re wild and they look cool to Max. Apart from “roaring their terrible roars” and “gnashing their terrible teeth” the Wild Things of the book don’t do much. They just represent the untameable part of Max. And this is fine if you’re reading a picture book to a six-year-old, but not so fine if you’re making an hour and forty minute movie. Max’s story is more about playing dress-up than a Beowulf-style hero’s quest.
Screenwriter Dave Eggers (a brilliant writer, but not exactly Joe Plot Mechanics) has consciously sought to avoid plot in his script. Max doesn’t have adventures, he has playtime. So he and the wild things dance, they fight, they build a fort, feel weird around girls, say goodbye when it’s time to go home, and vow forever to be best friends. It’s all acutely well-observed in terms of childhood social interaction, it’s just that: it’s dull. It’s like watching the Muppets if Mike Leigh was directing. And it’s all the more disappointing because the wild things steadfastly refuse to be memorable apart from their looks. They never become more than bits of Max.
Director Spike Jonze couldn’t make a dull-looking movie if he tried, but he isn’t the man to give his movies structure. In the past he’s relied on Charlie Kaufman for the monkey bars to hang his visions on, but Dave Eggers doesn’t have half the ideas that Charlie Kaufman has. Eggers can craft a sentence as well as any writer living, but screenwriting is far more about what happens than how it’s described. Even if a movie is anti-narrative, that doesn’t mean you can’t write dramatic scenes (see: Charlie Kaufman). The fatal problem with the movie is that there’s more life, more heart, and more audience interest in Max’s family (who are on-screen for twenty minutes) than all the wild things put together (although I grant you, I say this as an utterly biased worshipper of Max’s mum, a.k.a. Catherine Keener).
Books written for young children don’t need plot. They say one thing beautifully (though we needn’t agree on what the “one thing” is). Where the Wild Things Are has endured as a book for young children precisely because it doesn’t dwell on a place, or the monsters’ deeds. It’s about childhood, and cosseted barbarism, and inner-demons, and selfishness, and the necessity of the id. And it’s probably about a shitload of other stuff. But the main thing is: it’s brief. In 338 words, Maurice Sendak created a masterpiece. Where the Wild Things Are (the movie) is like seeing William Blake’s The Tyger adapted for the screen. Some monsters should be left to roam.