My son and I saw Where the Wild Things Are, last night. Maurice Sendak originally published the book in 1963, the year I was born. Dave Eggers adapted the screenplay for the movie which was directed by Spike Jonze. Jonze and Eggers collaborated with Sendak on the film.
A lot of people are angry about this movie because they say it’s too violent, dark and depressing for a kids movie. Maybe it is. Rumor has it that Warner Brothers was going to scrap the whole project because they thought it was too dark. But in the end they gave Jonze time to lighten it up a bit.
Had I been taking very young children to the film, I may have been a bit disturbed, too. But I didn’t read this book to very young children because it’s not meant for young kids. I think most people know this. There were very few kids in the theater when my son and I viewed the film. It is rated PG, after all. There were a few kids, but the vast majority of the theater was filled with adults and teens.
Max, the main character of the film, is at least five years old. He’s at a major developmental turning point. Three and four year olds aren’t going to get it!
I first read Where the Wild Things Are when I was in Kindergarten. I was 5 years old. I got it from the school library and checked it out so many times that the school librarian got angry with me and told me I needed to give other kids a chance to read it, too. I can’t tell you exactly what appealed to me about the book. I suppose I was a kind of wild child. Probably ADD, although it wasn’t medicated back then. Just threatened. My mother said she had to keep a picture of me from when I was four to remind her of how sweet I could be. Developmentally, 5 & 6 is a difficult age for parents to deal with. I have never had a stitch of issues with my daughter (who is almost 15) except when she was 5 or 6 years old!
Around six years of age is known developmentally as the narcissistic stage of our development. At six years old, we have become somewhat world savvy, yet we have not yet acquired the ability to see beyond ourselves. No matter what charming creatures we may be, at six years old, everything is about us. The Twilight Zone had a fantastic episode called, “It’s a Good Life” about a six year old who has mutant powers and controls the world. This child is considered a monster. What the show makes clear is that you don’t want a six-year old controlling your world!! And if you do have a six-year old controlling your world, you better do everything in your power to make him or her happy or else that child will make your life absolutely miserable.
One of the points that The Twilight Zone is making is that very often, adults are stuck in that six-year old level of development and don’t require mutant powers to control the world. All they need is intellectual brilliance, a good marketing scheme, and a bunch of people willing to keep them happy.
But Max is a 6 year old and is going through what every single 6 year old goes through. He’s not always so nice. And when things don’t go his way, he gets really angry and acts out in sometimes very violent ways.
So back to my Kindergarten days. When I was five and six years old, I was deathly afraid that the end of the world was around the corner. Seriously. We had to do those crazy “duck and cover” drills in case of a nuclear disaster and I had seen that guy getting his brains blown out in in Saigon in 1968 on NBC prime time news. I remember my mother apologizing to me for having seen it and we weren’t allowed to watch the news (or much of anything on television) after that. I had nightmares for months afterward. I don’t think anybody had ever seen anything like that on television, before. And even though television has become increasingly violent, I don’t think they’ve shown anything quite like that on prime time since. That was televised execution!
If you are 5 or 6 years old and are going through natural narcissistic development while the world around you seems permanently fixated at this stage, then “Where the Wild Things Are” is likely to resonate with your world.
The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another, his mother called him “WILD THING!”
He was sent to bed with nothing to eat. And in his room, a forest grew “until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”
Personally, I think the best fantasy occurs in this way – when you can walk into a wardrobe or a picture in your home that leads to another world. You don’t have to run away from home to access it. It’s already there, just waiting to be discovered. But in the movie, Max’s mother doesn’t send him to his room. He runs away from home. He has to physically leave to access this other world. It’s not waiting dormant for him in his room, like it is in the book. My son and I were both deeply upset that the movie changed this aspect of the book.
But either way, Max sails “in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are” who roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws.
Max confronts the dark side and tells it “Be Still!” And it complies. For this, he is made king of the wild things. He doesn’t run from the dark side in fear. He becomes king and demands a wild rumpus. But despite the rumpus, the king of all wild things discovers he is lonely. The only thing that will solve his loneliness is to leave the wild things and go home. The wild things don’t want him to go and tell him they will eat him up because they love him so. They roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws. But Max steps into his boat and waves good-bye. He sales back over a year and in and out of weeks to find dinner waiting for him in his room. And it’s still hot.
That’s the book. If you want to know how the movie differs, go see it! The monsters are our egoic mind. They are what we project “out there”. Sendak said he had drawn the monsters according to his aunts and uncles. So these monsters are definitely adults, but they act like Max! They are narcissistic projections. And what do these narcissistic projections do? Demand happiness from one another, which, of course, comes at the expense of actual happiness!
Most six year-olds go through their necessary narcissistic stint and quickly figure out that wanting things to be the way they want them to be does not bring them what it is they want. And so they grow up and begin to recognize the genuine importance of “other”. Yet, our politicians, corporate leaders, and others who have a significant impact on our world often seem to be stuck “where the wild things are”.
Potential Spoiler Warning….
In the movie, the wild things are willing to let Max go although they don’t want him to go. There is a sort of mutual “growing up”. In the book, the wild things don’t want Max to go and threaten to eat him up. The wild things don’t change. They remain wild. But Max moves on, anyway. And despite what horrible things he did to deserve to be sent to his room without dinner, he returns. There dinner is – and it’s still hot. Forgiveness.
Our ego doesn’t want us to change and when we want to leave it behind, it becomes angry. It roars its terrible roar and gnashes its terrible teeth and rolls its terrible eyes and shows its terrible claws. It becomes exceedingly relentless and increasingly boisterous. We either give in and remain in that narcissistic state, or we wave good-bye with forgiveness and without judgment.