Dave Eggers The Wild Things is a retelling of the Maurice Sendak book that dovetails and segues from the forthcoming Spike Jonze film. Rather than trying to retell a classic story, Eggers explores what the Wild Things are and how Max re-appraises his world.
Max is coming to terms with his parents’ divorce and their new relationships. After soaking his sister’s room, he runs away and eventually finds a boat and travels to the island where the Wild Things live, becoming their king.
Patrick Ness’s review in the Guardian complained that “the powerlessness follows him[Max], and the island becomes not an escape from the world but a representation of it” (Patrick Ness, The Guardian, October 24th 2009) but carried on to write that he’d see us there. Max comes to realise that he is powerless as Alexander scoffs “[y]ou’re just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king” (Dave Eggers, Where the Wild Things Are (Hamish Hamilton, London, 2009), p 256) and screams “[y]ou don’t even know who you are” (Where the Wild Things Are, p 256). That’s a key to Eggers’ version of the story: Max is trying to find his won place in the world. He feels isolated by his parents and sister’s friends and opportunisitcally remakes the world around himself, learning that actions have consequences.
The Wild Things are analogous to the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, a tribe of lost and scared children (of all ages), who are trying to find their own strengths and characteristics. The Wild Things are the Lost Boys who become ourselves (a link I’ve only just thought about – d’oh!). Max is not allowed to really play, his life is bounded by parents’ fears as he is stopped cycling to school. He echoes Michael Chabon’s essay, Manhood for Amateurs, where Chabon questions what world we are leaving children if they cannot play and maps out the way that their lives are continually bounded and those boundaries are getting narrower. In the face of this, Max explores and lives with an unbounded life and realises that total freedom is equally dangerous.
His, perhaps unfortunate, reign teaches him this as he also learns the other children are equally frightened and scared. Max listens to the other Monsters and learns something about himself. He comes back from the island into the world and is not the king any more, except of himself and moves his mother’s glasses so that they won’t break as she sleeps.
One of the issues of rewriting such a well known story is that choices to make the story the writer’s own is limited and so Eggers fleshes the story out. He extends Sendak’s orginal story where he accepted that the world was frightening and monstrous but manageable. Ness’s reaction still shows that the monsters and the story still frighten us and that is a good thing because both Sendak and Eggers (and I suspect Jonze will) show us that the world can be understood. The island is a temporary refuge but still part of the world.
Perhaps there is only one real response to the story: ARRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO