A 2009 Spike Jonze film, and a 1963 picture book classic may not seem the closest of relations, but they are. Jonze’s live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s superb ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ was released in 2009. The book and the film form the second of my combined book and movie reviews (the first was a look at The Black Stallion).
The book itself is one of those big picture books that, with a mastery of economy and a subtle lightness of touch, expresses a pivotal moment in a boys life. This is what happens when Max throws a tantrum. He is sent to his room where suddenly a forest start to grow and he is transported to the island where the wild things live. Max becomes their King, before eventually missing home and sailing back home in time for his still hot supper. That’s a very bald synopsis for a very complex and rich book. Some of the finest parts of it contain no words and show the ‘wild rumpus’ on the island being enjoyed by both the wild things and Max. These are pictures full of an exuberant and glory-filled wildness.
It’s a book that has shifted into iconic status, and rightly so. What I personally love about it is that Sendak allows Max to rage against the injustices of his life. His fury is legitimate. Max will not go quietly into that dark night. He is allowed to be angry, to be fiery, to be unreasonable, and yet to also gain a sense of self and to grow. It’s a fine, fine balance to achieve in a book and an even finer achievement when one considers the relative brevity of a picture book.
Adapting this book into a film would always rely heavily on Max. He needs to be furious and endearing, complicated and naive, brave and scared. He needs to be everything when he needs to be, and nothing when he doesn’t. And Max Records, the actor cast to play him, delivers superbly. When he’s still, his eyes tell everything, and when he’s caught in fury, his body expresses his rage. Wholly. He’s an all or nothing sort of actor, and delivers without an inch of self-consciousness. I loved him. I fell in love with him in the opening sequence, practically instantly, when he caught that subtle moment of having fun and then suddenly it all goes too far and somebody gets hurt.
What’s also pleasing is that one of the other pivotal roles, Max’s mother, is equally astutely cast. My beloved Catherine Keener takes the role, and brings to it a lovely sense of warmth and sympathy. I also had a bit of a moment at the sight of Percy Jackson’s mother chatting to the Incredible Hulk and briefly entertained the thought of an epic crossover between the two franchises.
On a personal level, I had some severe doubts at hearing the Wild Things actually speak, and the accents they spoke in, but a lot of that relates to them being book characters in the first place. When you read books, you read them in your own voice and so I imprinted my perceptions onto these monsters. It did grate initially but I barely noticed it after ten minutes or so.
There is a lot of love in this film, from the quite beautiful and subtle soundtrack (Karen O) to the warm and potent script (Jonze & Dave Eggers). Jonze shoots this film with an epic sense of romance, allowing the camera to dwell for long beats on sunshine drenched frames and beautifully staged moments. The final beat of the film is particularly potent. I also enjoyed that there was a lot of respect for the source text; shapes and colours and elements from the book were brought to the film’s visual identity with wit and grace.
The transition to film perhaps pulls the story slightly into a more adult perspective, what with the careful construction of the Wild Things who slowly pull and question Max to facilitate his development. It’s vaguely reminiscent of a Woody Allen film at parts, but as a whole, this film is a languid, subtle experience and one that, when the dark moments come, hits you very hard. There’s such tension here, and such beauty, even in the anger and sadness.
Where The Wild Things Are is an utter gem. It’s a stunning book, and a valuable, elegant and beautiful film.