It’s wild. It’s wooly. It’s… a movie?
The gnashing teeth and yellow eyes of the wild creatures in Where the Wild Things Are will be springing onto the big screen on in a few weeks on Friday, October 16.
Published in 1963, the popular children’s book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendack is something that we’ve all heard of and most of us have read, whether it was for our children or as children ourselves. But can a book of 10 sentences, especially one so classic, be successfully turned into a feature length movie and remain something that we can recognize and appreciate as well as the original?
Adapted into a screenplay by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze and directed by Jonze—best known for directing Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002)— the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are combines more than five years of work with a mix of live puppeteering, computer animation and real actors to bring the story to life.
The book opens as Max, a young boy, is sent to bed without dinner after he dresses up in a wolf suit and chases the family dog around with a fork. Once in his room, however, his room gradually turns into a mysterious new land, and Max climbs into a boat to sail away and explore the new land.
There he finds monsters —large and hairy, complete with gnashing teeth and yellow eyes—that attempt to intimidate him, but Max tames them by staring unblinkingly into their yellow eyes. The monsters accept Max as their king and they go and raise a rumpus.
A look at the movie’s trailer reveals that the on-screen monsters, otherwise known as Wild Things, and their actions are similar to Sendack’s illustrations. Only one major thing is added: dialogue for the Wild Things.
“I wanted the monsters to retain the strange design that Maurice had created,” Jonze told the Los Angeles Times in a September 13 interview. “Weird, cuddly, charming. Looking at each other out of the corner of their eye. They’d be almost, like, conspiring. You don’t know if Max has total control over them.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that they are identical. While the Wild Things incorporate recognizable elements from Sendack’s original drawings, artist Sonny Gerasimowicz’s illustrations focused on creating the personality according to the screenplay, according to the Los Angeles Times article.
Sendack himself reviewed the drawings and suggested only minor changes, which included more flamboyant feathers on the rooster-like Wild Thing and changes to the muzzle on a bull-like creature, Jonze said.
There’s no question that the additional time in the movie allows for new twists and turns and the filling out of previously unexplored aspects of the book; Sendack even encouraged Jonze to add them.
“His attitude is so counter to that, to protecting anything,” Jonze said. “His assignment to us was, ‘Take this, make it your own. Make it something personal. This book was something I made when I was your guys’ age.’ It was almost like he handed it to us.”
With Jonze’s touch added to the movie, it will almost certainly be darker and more complex than the book. The same lessons remain—ruling a kingdom is not as easy as it seems; living in an imagined world really isn’t that great—but more detail allows for more explanation of those lessons and development of the plot.
We meet Max (Max Records), his mother (Catherine Keener) and her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) and learn more about their situation. In the original, all we know about the mother is that she sends Max to bed and leaves a tray of food for him at the end when he returns from the imagined land of the Wild Things.
It’s a twist that develops the family’s background and allows us to better understand Max’s motivations for imagining a land where he can become king and control everything around him. But it’s also something that may make the movie, with a P.G. rating, less suitable for very young audiences, something to keep in mind if you have very young kids who are clamoring to see the film.
“It’s going to be a place where only the things you want to happen, would happen,” says Carole, one of the Wild Things, in the movie’s trailer.
Jonze has built a world where some of the things that he wants to happen, happen—albeit with approval from the original author and creator. How similar that world will be to the book remains to be seen, but either way, it’s worth spending the money for a ticket and going to see for yourself, if only for a good laugh.
Can a book of 10 sentences be successfully turned into a feature length movie? Sure. Will it be any good? When you add things like monster dialogue, no, of course not.