A night to remember – musing on Where the Wild Things Are

The remixing of the film, through adaptation, shows how the fantastic can be found in realist culture, living cheek by jowl. The novelisation and the film turned toward placing the fantastic firmly within the framework of the mundane. This does change the tenor of the book slightly from being potentially being a celebration of play to partially being a bildungsroman; from dream to epic. It is tempting to say that the fantastic celebrates the darker side of the Enlightened, “civilised” world but the latter adaptations feel a bit heavier but the island becomes a safety valve, a suitably sidelined part of the world like the original fairy tales, to express a truth.

Image for Where the Wild Things areIn interview with Alex Billington, Spike Jonze described his motivation for directing the 2009 film of Where the Wild Things Are:
“Well, it’s a book that I always loved since I was a kid and it was something I was really hesitant to adapt. Maurice had asked me about it and I was very excited and, because it’s something I’ve loved for so long, but also apprehensive for the same reason … It’s like adapting a poem – this very, sort of, impressionistic, evocative poem… And there is a narrative there but it’s a very slight narrative, it’s more the feelings that are really strong”. (http://www.firstshowing.net/2009/interview-where-the-wild-things-are-director-spike-jonze/, Alex Billington, accessed 5 January 2012)
Both Jonze and Dave Eggers show a love for the original but manage to develop it and give it their own take. Although not necessarily known for art created in the fantastic mode, they do appreciate that it has a role as manage to steer away from trying to explain the island.

Maurice Sendak’s book, originally published in 1963, is an illustrated short story with very little text. Its images are the driving force of the book which has less than 100 words in it. Its most famous phrase is “Let the wild rumpus begin” which, along side the central image the crowned Max throwing his head back with outsize monsters. The sequels follow this sense of the wildness of the imagination of the little boy who has been sent to bed for being naughty by his mother. The rumpus comes across as the extension of the carnivalesque play in which has meant that he been sent to bed but the book has little real world focus.
In the film, when Max has run away to the island and discovers the monsters, puts in a show of strength to avoid being eaten. He claims that he is a king and re-invents the world that he currently feels bullied in, as one in which he has control. After the monsters start asking him about how he keeps the sadness away, he claims to have  a “sadness shield” (27:09 minutes) and his response to being challenged is to raise his own expectations and deeds. It is a playground transformation from using the rumpus as something which is a continuation of play, into trying to fit into a society. Boisterousness turns into bravado which spirals as it has an undercurrent of real anger to it.
cover image of where the wild things are novelisationHaving written the screenplay for the film, Dave Eggers wrote the novelisation. Originally he wanted to put in some of the ideas and scenes that were cut.  In an interview with the New Yorker, Eggers comments that, “[f]rom the beginning, though, Maurice was clear that he didn’t want the movie or the book to be timid adaptations. He wanted us to feel free to push and pull the original story in new directions.”(http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/08/dave-eggers-on-wild-things.html, accessed on 5 January 2012) Allowing the book to be remixed and rethought allowed it to explore parts of the story which had previously been left and also to allow the new authors to explore new avenues rather than just remake the story.
As the story is moved around, it builds on the emotional story and changes the idea of the rumpus.  Clearly it becomes part of the what Conjunctions journal called the Betwixt the Between (Issue 52) and the fantastic is used to explore the emotional turmoil that Max feels. On the edges, almost ghost-like, his family have to deal with his selfish disappearance and he finds his own place within the family. Much as Coraline does in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. The space given by the fantastic to the author to visually express the paradoxical nightmare of the monsters. Though clearly monstrous, the roundness given to them in the drawings suggests a cuddly, non-harmful creation. The monstrous is changed from being fearful to a slightly lesser something to be watchful of which has the potential to become nightmare outside of the real world.  There is a subtle, but somewhat unexplored question, of the monstrous. Is Max the real monster here? Through his behaviour as he ends up scaring the monsters with his out of control actions and is isolated, finding himself in the same predicament from which he ran away. In his accidental quest to the island, he begins to grow up; something that he refuses to do through wearing his wolf suit.
The nature of the journey subtly changes between versions, from one sort of fantastic journey to another. In the original Sendak novel, the trip to the island ends up being Max’s dream as he falls asleep in disgrace, waking up to a forgiving meal. In that sense it echoes Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland when Alice wakes up and realises that she has dreamed the nonsensical world, giving it a sense of the carnival. For Jonze and Eggers, the journey is more like a quest where Max returns from the island in the boat, giving it more of a sense of the quest. The quest turns the island into a rite of passage rather than a temporary overturning of the world. As Max dons his crown, he begins to learn his place in the world and that he has responsibilities and well as a role. He is able to take the imagined role to an extreme before his return journey when he understands that accidents have consequences.
By changing the mode of the fantastic, from the joyous one off to the quest forward, the tone changes but both Jonze and Eggers respect the original. These are more slight uses of the fantastic than either Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem but it does nod towards the influence of works of the imagination to vividly break through the skin of the real and express the animal.

Earlier post on the Dave Eggers novelisation.

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