The Call of the Wild Things

Books Features Maurice Sendak
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The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another

And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

“AND NOW,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

“NOW STOP!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye

He found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.

Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are first struck critics and teachers as too dark for little darlings. But kids clamored for the book, and parents soon fell under its spell, too. Now Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers have created a movie based on Sendak’s illustrated fantasy. As anticipation builds, we explore the enduring power of this beloved story, which continues—after nearly 50 years—to unleash our collective imagination.

The little Jewish boy, the yingl, lies nervously awake in the dark. It’s September 1939. He’s barely 11. He has lived almost every year of his young life in something grown-ups call The Great Depression. In fact, another kind of great depression will tincture his moods and work throughout his lifetime. Already, at this tender age, oversized, shambling fears throw shadows over Maurice Sendak.

Illness is one shadow. Sendak is not a robust child. He only watches the stickball games in the Brooklyn streets. He suffers odd anxieties—he’s unnaturally distressed by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (Could it happen to me?) His mother is prone to dark moods. He’s already gay, hardwired, the secret perhaps not even known to him yet, but always there, a slow fuse burning toward puberty. School is a daily trip to gehenem, to hell. Meanwhile, the radio reports every day of a real hell—German soldiers round up Jews in Poland, where his people lived before World War I. His relatives still live in Poland.

Well, maybe they do.

Anxiety can also mother invention. Somehow, inside this child, under the stomping feet of the great fears and worries, sprouts a means to cope.

His father tells him stories at night from Jewish folk tradition, or stories from the Torah, and Sendak draws pictures to illustrate the tales. Very good pictures. He also falls in love with comic books, finding escape and delight in lines and ink. In just a year, he’ll be swept away by Walt Disney’s landmark animated film, Fantasia. Sendak makes up his mind to be an artist, to draw things like that.

His beginnings prove modest. He first publishes illustrations in 1947 for a school textbook, Atomics for the Millions. About that time, he and his older brother design and build a few toys. The hopeful entrepreneurs carry them to the fabled upscale Manhattan toy store, FAO Schwarz. The toys fail to impress, but Schwarz hires the younger Sendak as a window dresser. Now, season after season, his talent goes on display for all of New York to see.

He comes to the attention of Ursula Nordstrom, an editor at Harper & Brothers, and, at 23, is hired to illustrate Marcel Aymé’s The Wonderful Farm (1951) and Ruth Krauss’ A Hole Is to Dig (1952). These assignments telescope into steady freelance work—he illustrates more than 50 books during the 1950s, and, more importantly, begins creating books of his own.

Sendak brings something new to illustration. Previously, picture-book drawings simply visualized or clarified for readers a scene or character in a story. But he somehow invests his illustrations with suggestions or hints that take the imagination beyond the literal—his art deepens the stories’ mystery, their allure.

In 1963, Sendak publishes his seventh picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, with Harper & Row. It’s the story of Max, a high-spirited kid who puts on a wolf suit and makes mischief. Max transforms an ordinary punishment (being sent to bed without dinner) into a towering revenge fantasy in which he masters gigantic monsters—“wild things.” He becomes their king, then wholly casts off civilization to join a “wild rumpus,” an atavistic jungle dance in the moonlight. Finally, his anger sated and fears bested, Max returns home to find a love offering—a hot supper, a big slice of cake.

Sendak’s 10 sentences—338 words in all—receive a 1964 Caldecott Medal, and Wild Things grows to become a fourth pillar of 20th-century children’s literature, with The Velveteen Rabbit, The Cat In the Hat and Goodnight Moon. To date, 10 million copies of the book have been sold in the U.S.

But why?

What alchemy has made—and continues to make—Where the Wild Things Are the first book off the shelf at bedtime in millions of homes around the world? On Oct. 16, 2009, deep in the orange-and-black gravitational pull of Halloween, Warner Bros. will release a long-awaited live-action adaptation of Wild Things, complete with toothy oversized Jim Henson beasts tossing Viking-horned heads and flaunting more fur than H.R. Pufnstuf. For select indie-art fans, the movie will require its own brown-paper bags to prevent hyperventilation.

Chief cause for excitement? Spike Jonze, famous as director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the man partly responsible for the MTV show Jackass, and impresario for a number of distinctive music videos—yes, that Spike Jonze—directs this new movie, larded with a reported $80 million in big-studio goodwill.

Another titillation: Dave Eggers, he of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, McSweeney’s and much else admired among a generation of liberal-arts majors, wrote the screenplay (and then turned it into a novel of the same name). Let’s just say it—Eggers is Zeus in the pantheon of hip, postmodern writers. He stands as broadly astride his acre of the literary world as Jonze does cinema. And with both of these fiercely independent, sui generis wild things training their genius on Wild Things, the movie—well, let’s just assume that Tweets and texts speculating on their 24-frames-per-second collaboration are at this very moment draining batteries on personal-communication devices all over the world.

With all this going for the project, you might wonder why Warner Bros. executives are chewing their nails to the quick.

Here’s why. Way back in the I’ll Stop The World And Melt With You 1980s, John Lasseter got a call from bosses at his then-company, Walt Disney. The mousemeisters asked Lasseter to oversee a movie version of Wild Things. The film would blend good-old-fashioned cell animation—think Mickey Mouse in those Fantasia wizard robes—with new-fangled sorcery called computer-generated imagery. But in 1982, just as Lasseter got going, Disney watched in horror as a pricey, ballyhooed new movie, Tron, imploded on the launch pad. Audiences marveled at Tron’s gee-whiz special effects, but recoiled from a script ?apparently written by that legendary roomful of monkeys with typewriters.

Shellshocked, Disney dropped Wild Things and Lasseter moved on to Pixar, where he and his team revolutionized animation with a little film called Toy Story. (FAO Schwarz was delighted with these toys, thank you very much.)

Nearly 20 years passed. Then in 2000, the concept of a Wild Things movie resurfaced, first appearing as a preview ahead of Ron Howard’s painfully bad Universal movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The trailer announced Jonze as director of Wild Things. Hip huzzahs rang out in theaters everywhere.

In 2006, Jonze and Universal mysteriously came to loggerheads, and Wild Things migrated to Warner Bros.

The new studio initially seemed very excited. In the seven years since the Grinch teaser, Jonze had procured a script with Eggers’ name on it, and even won the curmudgeonly Sendak’s approval. Rough footage leaked of huge bobble-headed creatures galumphing about—imagine genetic experiments on Sesame Street characters gone terribly wrong.

The look of this footage sent a flutter of nerves through the Jonze universe. The director soothed these jitters in early 2008, explaining that the costumes in the footage were simply prototypes, and young Max merely a stand-in actor.

Warner Bros. really got the shakes after Jonze showed rough cuts to executives and results from December 2007 test screenings came back. Murmurs of a dark and mature and not family friendly treatment surfaced. Last July, Warner halted the movie’s 2008 release, and rumors flew that the studio wanted a new Max, a new shooting of the movie—even a new director.

Jonze apparently regained the studio’s confidence with some newly shot interstitial scenes, plus assurances that a great deal of expensive CGI work would make the monsters’ facial expressions more realistic. Still, the changes couldn’t erase those early impressions—dark, mature, not family friendly.

Meanwhile, one can almost feel a rift widening between the delirious expectations of long-suffering Jonze and Eggers fans and the wary watchfulness of families who deeply love their Wild Things and can’t bear the thought of a favorite bedtime book forever ruined. (The Grinch has already done that to them once.)

Opening weekend for Where The Wild Things Are will certainly be huge. Viewers nationwide will see a movie shot with indie sensibilities—atmospheric rawness, hand-held cameras, scenes that take on the complex psychological issues of childhood. The big test for Wild Things will come with the next weekend’s attendance.

Audiences will be a most curious mix.

Some parents will be primed to leap to their feet and hustle out their bewildered babies at the first hint of any soul-scarring, nightmare-inducing scene that would compromise the precious book they read nightly to their trusting, innocent children. Others will be there as much for the auteur and author as for their own offspring. They will more closely resemble the hipster contingent, the artistically inclined—the folks with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on their iPods. (The band’s singer, Karen O, wrote songs for the film with help from Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox.) These indie masses yearn to breathe the special oxygen provided yet again by Jonze and Eggers, yearn for director and writer to transport them once more to that holy, separate realm of originality. They welcome weirdness, seek out cinematic mortal danger. They want to leave the movie house feeling the way they did at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, party to secrets and mythical meanings and intelligent art that is hopelessly lost on the unwashed masses. They pray to be, in fact, the washed masses—washed in artistry, then hauled up from the depths like sinners newly baptized and saved. And perhaps more importantly, they want to feel like they did when they were children, lulled into dreamland by this tale of a mischevious boy and his wolf-suit.

The problem is that one natural audience for this movie wants big sweet-spooky huggable wuggables and cuddly toys and wild things that roar, then purr—a film that’s a picture-perfect enlargement of a picture-perfect picture book. And ?another natural audience, full of high standards and expectations, wants their vintage MTV, wants their Staggering Genius, almost as much as they crave that deep hit of nostalgia, the perfect union of their grown-up culture and childhood fantasy. This audience could easily declare an end to a long and glorious honeymoon for Jonze and Eggers if members detect even one false note—one whiff of a sell-out to the suits of Hollywood and the great Satan of commercialism.

It’s hard to see, honestly, how the movie can satisfy both parties—entertain and enchant the families who love the pure original story of Wild Things, and still hold enough edge to satisfy hipsters who desperately want to believe that two great mavericks of our time are still making major mischief on their own terms.

Could Where The Wild Things Are possibly be a new E.T., blurring the line between child and adult entertainment? It very well might roar into the holiday season as that kind of blockbuster, leaving book fans happy, families satisfied and director, writer and Warner Bros. very rich.  

But there’s also a very real chance that Wild Things, the movie, is a little Götterdämmerung—a twilight for two gods named Jonze and Eggers.

All this sturm und drang, these millions of dollars pumped from the asses of Warner Bros. executives, these hard-won reputations walking a tightrope, these countless hours of writing, rewriting, storyboarding, haggling, casting, costuming, filming, animating, dailies, post-production, marketing—all this comes back to Sendak’s 10 little sentences. Lay all the spent energy (and the fallout) at the clawed feet of Max, his misdeeds, his discipline and his delusion, that hot supper, that piece of cake at the end of it all.

So we’re back now to why. What accounts for the enduring popularity of Wild Things? Exactly what spell has this book—of all the books out there—cast on generations of readers, with still more generations in the making after mom and dad pull the covers up tonight over their beautiful sleeping child, lay down the copy of Where the Wild Things Are on the nightstand, and softly slip, hand-in-hand, off toward their own bedroom, their hearts so full they can barely breathe?

It’s the illustration, stupid.

It’s Sendak’s uncanny ability to draw and color an utterly unreal place that is so utterly real.

Look at Max. Look at the lines that Sendak squiggles for his mouth—there’s genius in the strokes that show Max’s triumph, his smugness, his unflinching courage. Who knew a mouth could say so much without a single word coming from it?

Look at the monsters. They’re not only hurly-burly symbols of raging emotions—they’re family. The wild things uncannily resemble those uncles and aunts and grans that stomp through the crowded house on holidays, their nose hairs and big knobby knuckles and moles and age spots and uncut fingernails and massive feet and rheumy eyes and fleshy earlobes at the same time scary and delightful, funny and disturbing.

Look at the wild-rumpus panels, the remarkable six-page illustrated spread with no text where Max and the things go native, pagan, wild. Those big, lavish pictures transform Wild Things into something like a flip book—you could riffle through the pages and know Max’s story perfectly well without reading a word.

But wait! No! It’s not the illustrations at all—it’s the story!

The illustrations are atmospheric, sure, but this is an adventure story: a tale of pure id, as deep and famished as Philip Roth’s, id in young Max that cries like Billy Idol in the midnight hour—more, more, more. (Is there any kid on earth who doesn’t want more?)

Yes, it’s the story! Just look at Sendak’s perfect turns of phrase. When Max beholds his four-poster bed transformed to jungle trees, his ceiling to vines, Sendak gives us this mind-expanding line: “… and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max.”

Tumbled by! An ocean!

Here may be the most brilliant verb choice since Lewis Carroll slew his Jabberwock and “chortled” in joy.

Of course it’s the story! And we haven’t even reached the real money line—the immortal syllables that stick like a leech to the cortex of every young brain that hears them, syllables parroted back infinity times—“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

The wild rumpus!

Put down your pen and uncork the champagne, Sendak—it’s time to open a Swiss bank account.

So. The illustration? Or the story?

How about neither?

There’s still something more. Pictures and words alone fail to deliver us to the wellhead of Sendak’s magic. Even as a destination, as a place you only get to by opening the door to another world—a door called a book cover—the world of Wild Things isn’t quite as whole or unique as parallel worlds under the covers of books by Dr. Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown.

But Where the Wild Things Are has something these other books don’t have. A great secret. And here’s why it endures: Wild Things is not really a children’s book.

Oh, children unquestionably love Wild Things—what child wouldn’t gobble up a tale where the hero gets it all? Max chases the dog with a fork, threatens to eat his mom. When punished, he fantasizes an anger so profound, a vengeance so monumental, that it flattens all in its path. The most fearsome adversaries bow and scrape before his wrath. He inflicts an eyeball-to-eyeball humbling on the poor woolly behemoths … Hah! You’re not so big and bad after all, are you, my ?pussycats?

And then? Once Max’s anger is slaked, once love and loneliness begin to fill his heart again—why, he comes back home.

Don’t we all want that?

Well done, Max. You have your cake and rumpus, too. You got it all.

Where the Wild Things Are gives mom and dad a book that fully acknowledges the catharsis of anger and the wondrous healing power of imagination. It also shows that discipline is a requirement, even as it gives parents a way to show a child that discipline is love, too.

Even better, after misbehavior and punishment, when regret and loneliness are the last embers glowing in the black ashes of anger, when a child misses mom or dad and wants to come home, he always can.

Unconditional love reels Max back.

It’s better than any wild rumpus could ever be.

And it’s not just children who crave that promise. It’s their parents, and those hipsters, too—anyone who once was a child. It’s everyone, it’s all of us.

That’s why the book lives. That’s why parents still sit down night after night, a child’s downy hair under a mother or ?father’s chin, to read of the wild things and the boy who comes back home.

We interrupt this essay for a movie preview.