Monday, October 19, 2009

Where the Emotionally Overwhelmed and Tragically Misunderstood Things Are

Okay, I'll admit it right up front... I don't think picture books should be made into movies. There isn't enough substance to fill a 90 minute film and something always has to be made up to fill space. However, making stuff up to fill in the gaps in literature is one of the main tasks of the reader. It's the mental activity that makes reading a more cerebral activity than watching TV, because active brain engagement is required. No active brain work is involved in watching a movie, in fact most movies are written to avoid any possibility of needing a brain... that's why they make the music so loud and the special effects so enormous and fast... so that any brains not turned off along with cell phones at the beginning of the movie will be caught up in the noise and flash and won't bother anyone with pesky logical analysis. So, now that you know my bias, feel free to stop reading if you loved the movie. If you are planning to see the movie perhaps you shouldn't read this either... just go see it and then come back to compare notes with me.

Where the Wild Things Are is one of my favorite picture books, although I did not read it as a young child, I actually read it in college as an assignment for a children's literature class and immediately fell in love. The reason I loved it was because I have two younger brothers, brothers who I was frequently responsible for when we were growing up, brothers who could easily have been Max. They built forts in their bedrooms, climbed on the roof, burned army men in the back yard, and had rock throwing contests using each other's heads as targets... basically they were walking nightmares for a teenaged sister to be stuck home with all summer. In other words, they were boys. In the book Max is a boy doing normal boy things and annoying the heck out of his mother. Eventually she loses her temper and she sends him to bed without supper, because the book was written in 1963 and sending a child to bed without supper was enlightened parenting, so much more civilized than slapping him silly or sending him out to cut switches to beat his own butt with. Max goes to bed and that night a forest grows in his room and he takes a trip to a place that most boys I have ever known would love... the land of the Wild Things. The land of Wild Things is a place where a boy can be king simply because he is able to stare down scary things, where he can rumpus without being told to stop howling or to get out of the trees, where teeth and claws don't need to be cleaned, and no one ever yells about grass stains on wolf suits. However, the real magic of the book isn't that Max has found the perfect place to be wild, or that, after all of that wild boy energy has been expended Max, worn out and a little crabby, sends his new monster friends off to bed without their supper. The real magic is an everyday miracle that turns the wildest boys into sweet cuddle monsters... it’s knowing that there is a place where he is loved best of all, and finding forgiveness waiting there for him. For me Where the Wild Things Are is a book about the insanity and joy of parenting boys, regular, normal, wild boys. The kind of boys who might make a normal Mom loses her cool sometimes but who are so adorable that we just can’t stay mad at them.

This is not what the movie is about. (Now, seriously, if you are planning to see the movie you really shouldn’t read this next part.) Where the Wild Things Are – The Movie, is updated for our post Ritalin world where children who aren’t perfect must have a good reason for their aberrant behavior. Max is an unhappy, lonely boy with an absent father, a distracted stressed-out mother, an older sister who lets her friends ruins his things, and a teacher who delights in scaring his students with tales of the end of the world. Max doesn’t smile, doesn’t seem to have any friends, and has a tendency to act out in violent and destructive ways. During a screaming fight with his mother which ends with her chasing him around the kitchen, as out of control as he is, Max bites her and then runs away in a rage. He ends up on the island where the Wild Things are. These wild things aren’t the innocent creatures from the book. They are complex characters with serious emotional issues and sociopathic tendencies. The lead monster is a bipolar bully who destroys anything that isn’t perfect and he decides that Max is going to be their king. Max, intimidated by monsters and frightened by the bones of former kings, lies to convince them that he is more than just a boy. He struggles to lead them but is overwhelmed by the unending dysfunctional battles they wage. Eventually he decides to go home. The movie was filled with amazing scenery, fantastic beasts, and really bizarre music that my daughter and her friends were still talking about two days later, but there was no resolution, no deeper understanding and, sadly, no magic at all.

In all fairness I need to say that my fifth grade daughter and her friends thoroughly enjoyed the movie... but I did not. It was the most depressing movie I have seen this year. The best thing I can say about it is that it was so far removed from the original story that it didn’t ruin the book for me. I reread it several times before sitting down to write this and I still stand by my original understanding of the story. Beautiful in it's simplicity, eloquent in just ten sentences, no extra drama was necessary.