"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“They were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all.”
- Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
“I could use a story,” says Max’s mom (Catherine Keener), taking a break from her stressful day to type out the latest tale by her nine-year-old son. Spike Jonze constructs this simple yet meaningful scene to illustrate the value of a child’s imagination, and in turn captures the enduring theme of Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book Where the Wild Things Are.
"I refuse to lie to children," Sendak once said. "I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence." A bluntness not uncommon from the author, who spent years battling adults intent on labeling his work inappropriate for children. Unsurprisingly, their attempts did very little to prevent the intended audience from discovering and wholeheartedly embracing his stories. Originally published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are remains one of the most cherished children’s books of all-time, and with Sendak’s death in 2012 the world lost one of its most imaginative storytellers. The stories he left behind, led by this enduring classic, are embedded with his conviction that you should never speak down to a child, that innocence cannot be preserved forever, and that imagination should always be respected and encouraged.
Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers embarked on their own imaginative journey to turn Sendak’s picture book, consisting of only ten sentences, into a feature length film. Of course, this required numerous changes, including turning the “wild things” into full-fledged characters complete with names, complex emotions, and strained relationships. The film brings Sendak’s vividly illustrated monsters to life with a combination of puppetry from the Jim Henson Creature Shop, humans in costumes, CGI, and the phenomenal voice talent of James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, and Forest Whitaker. While the unruly creatures are meant to be projections of Max (Max Records) and the people in his life, the adaptation travels beyond the fantasy to explore more melancholy depths. Floating somewhere between reality and Max’s dreams, these themes enrich the story and pay tribute to its timelessness by connecting with adults through a child’s perspective.
For many the book has traveled with them from childhood to adulthood, which is a journey the film complements. While Sendak’s book celebrates imagination in the form of youth's free-spiritedness, the film expands on Max’s surroundings to reveal where his desire to escape originates. References to his absent father, the growing distance between him and his older sister, the hours spent playing alone – all of it builds to the disruptive presence of his mother’s new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), causing Max to lash out violently and run away. Although Sendak was ultimately a fan of the film, this particular departure from the source material, in which Max runs away instead of being sent to his room, was one that he questioned. A valid concern considering it removes the element of Max’s adventure sprouting entirely from his imagination. However, by the time the boy dressed as a wolf arrives where the wild things are, across the turbulent sea to the vast forests and sprawling sand dunes, we’re constantly questioning what’s real and what’s not.
When Max becomes king of the wild things, he manages to keep everyone happy for a short period of time. Inevitably, the problems that existed among them before he arrived start bubbling to the surface. “It’s hard being a family,” KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) confides in him after their failed attempts to reconcile the group. Max struggles to understand why he can’t make the creatures in his kingdom happy and his loneliness returns once they begin to turn against him. Realizing what he’s left behind, Max chooses to return home, departing with the wish that the wild things had a mother to look after them. Jonze gives no definitive explanation for what Max has discovered on his journey, although he returns home with a newfound understanding and appreciation for his mother. Leaving the rest open to interpretation, the answers lie somewhere between reality and a dream.
Much like the book, the film invited criticism for depicting themes inaccessible to children. While it’s true that understanding certain elements of the story will differ with age, the film intentionally explores the disconnect between childhood and adulthood. The same disconnect that inspired adults to label Sendak’s book as inappropriate for young readers. For more than fifty years, children have proven that their ability to connect with and understand Max’s journey has been greatly underestimated. Sendak’s refusal to sugarcoat themes of loneliness and sadness to shield them from the truth made him a unique and invaluable storyteller. As former wild things, reading and watching this treasured classic becomes a melancholy reminder to encourage the spark of imagination before it goes out. Fortunately, we have artists like Maurice Sendak, who remain unabashedly young at heart and wondrously capable of connecting with the child inside us all.