On One Hand

July 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are is Either Awesome or Ruins my Childhood

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 6:34 pm

Where the Wild Things Are, a forthcoming 2009 film written by filmmaker Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers, faces expectations higher than the moon.

There are three storybooks that define my earliest memories: Green Eggs and Ham, The Little Engine that Could and Where the Wild Things Are.

Where the Wild Things Are is the only one even vaguely resonant with me today. Green Eggs and Ham is too bizarre, and reads too much like a grammar lesson to be anything but cute, and Dr. Seuss’ styled characters have long been comercialized in freakish CGI movies and ancillary products that destroy their timelessness. The Little Engine that Could is similarly repetitive and sing-songy, and the pencil-thin lines of its memory have become too crossed with the cheezy stories about Thomas the Tank Engine.

But Where the Wild Things Are is, as my grandma always called me, something else. The protagonist in the book is mischievous and misunderstood – I can grasp that feeling even to this day. There is a celebration of deviance and our deepest, uncivilized desires – desires that struggled with conventions and professionalism, desires that were tortured to sit through boring lessons in church and school, desires to explore the world alone, to stick our hands in the mud, to imagine ourselves befriended to terrible beasts part fairytale legend, part wild animal and part made of the very dirt and clay that our mothers scrubbed off our cheeks with their spit.

Maurice Sendak, born of Jewish Polish immigrants in Brooklyn on the eve of the Great Depression, wrote the story in 1964, when my parents were children. President Obama read the story to a group of kids at the White House during a children’s egg hunt there this spring, and told them it was one of his favorite childhood stories. I was born in 1985 and my parents read it to me then, so there are a lot of people out there who rank the story among their fondest childhood memories and are eagerly awaiting this movie.

There’s a thing that happens when you see a reflection of your youngest self, set to upbeat music and wrought with the message that something both innocent and soulful is happening in this moment. I was practically in tears watching the trailer, which perfectly fit what I remember Where the Wild Things Are being about.

The trailer’s soundtrack lyrics reveal the intended audience: “children don’t grow up / our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” Kids don’t spend their lives thinking of poetic relationships between adulthood and childhood; adults do that when they look back over their lives. I think this film will be geared towards adults who read the book as children, or more specifically, to the never-grownup children that read the book 20 or more years ago.

Every single aspect of that trailer is brilliant, from its immodest declarations of what is in all our hearts, to its repeated return to the image of running, something that decorated our early years along with our persistent, latent desire to flee all the soul-killing routines and boundaries that have become our lives since then.

Also brilliant is the choice to not have any dialog from human characters in the trailer. That too evokes memory, because visual images stick around longer than words. It also means there is less there to weigh down the impact.

One of my theories about literature draws from something all good writers know about their craft: less is more. That’s because a vague, quick impression gives a reader a sense of perfection as a Platonic form. Saying “imagine the most terrific, powerful spaceship!” leads to a sense of something more exciting than “a truck-sized gray cylinder with ninteen-foot wings and large round engines.” Anything you make more specific with your words is almost guaranteed to be less compelling than the unfulfilled expectation. A monster is always more terrifying hidden in shadows than it is when it steps out into visibility. That’s not to say description is bad, but it is very difficult to do it right if you want a sentence to be universally evocative. In literature, words more often chip the spectacular down to something tangible than build it up.

Similarly, a silent character is always more compelling. In her or him we instill all our own inarticulable thoughts and conflicts. When the character speaks, we are made aware of how we wouldn’t put it quite that way, and become less and less engaged if she or he continues to get wordy.

So all of our wildest dreams for What the Wild Things Are are left possible by that trailer. The first bit of dialog in the movie will rule out a million directions the film could take, and as each minute ticks by, a thousand more viewers will say to themselves, “hey, that’s not what I thought the book was about!”

It could be magnificent, if it keeps to the limits of what it is capable of and leaves some things delightfully vague. The writers and producers must strike a careful balance between saying enough and saying too much, and if they try too hard to make the film contain the whole universe – hope, fear, and adventure, as the trailer indicates – it will stop being about those things.

And this is a case in which the stakes are very high. Even the president is watching. It must awe us the way we were awed as children, but we approach it with the cynicism of adults. This isn’t an epic novel we read when we were twelve, like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, which can win us over with special effects because the dialog is predetermined by a lengthy novel. This is bedtime storytime, when we are most vulnerable. It is the first five years of our lives and the last five minutes before we fell asleep. And finally, it is a feature-length film based on ten pages of text and illustrations.

Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, I expect nothing less than awe and wonder at this movie. And if you ruin this story for me – if you ruin this part of my life – I will hunt you down.



  1. wow….


    a) that is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. arcade fire is amazing, and if you ever have the chance to see them live, run, don’t walk…

    b) spike jonze and david eggers?? this could be amazingly good… or a trainwreck. i’ll hope for the best. 🙂

    Comment by whitman22 — July 17, 2009 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

    • i take back the trainwreck; this has to be awesome. there’s no alternative.

      Comment by whitman22 — July 17, 2009 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

  2. Matt–I love the trailer analysis. I hadn’t recognized that the humans didn’t speak and it was definitely a genius choice. The trailer manages to be vague enough that we aren’t really able to pre-judge it based on our own perceptions of the book. Personally, I can’t wait for the movie. 🙂

    Now I’m just waiting for a big screen adaptation of “Brother Eagle, Sister Sky” or “The Bernstein Bears”

    Comment by matthewtroxel — July 19, 2009 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

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