By Bob Clark
Among the chief architects of my early imagination as far as pop-cultural influences go, there are artists of many disciplines, as befitting a childhood spent in the burgeoning multi-media landscape of the late 80′s and early 90′s. There are predictable entries like Lucas and Spielberg, each of them inventing cinematic experiences out of special-effects assisted whole cloth. There are figures like Jim Henson and the various puppeteers who went into creating the various Muppet productions on film and television. There are Stan Lee and the armies of artists and writers under his Marvel banner helping to weave the pen and ink tapestries of all manner of superheroes. There are Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira Toriyama, Peter Chung and the creators of all manner of other anime I watched during the wee hours, for the sheer pleasure of watching something obviously mature and forbidden. There are newspaper cartoonists like Charles Shultz, Bill Waterson, and even Bill Breathed and Gary Trudeau, even if most of their jokes went over my head until I was almost out of elementary school.
Perhaps most tellingly from the specific time and place I come from, however, there is Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the storied Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda franchises over at Nintendo. What sets his work apart from all the various other creators of film and print media is the interactive quality of his medium– as a game designer, Miyamoto and others like him have crafted not only characters and narratives for audiences to vicariously attach themselves to over the years, but whole experiences to devour first-hand, even if on a limited basis. The adventures that players have shared in the decades’ worth of Mario and Zelda titles allow for a particular kind of generational bond that’s hard to explain fully to anyone who grew up without them, just as I’m sure it’ll be next to impossible for children growing up in the vast labyrinth of cross-media chatter to fully relate to anyone who came of age at the same pace as the technology they use to communicate on a daily, hourly or even minute-by-minute basis. We don’t just remember these stories, these characters, these places– we were there and lived them together and apart in ways that are analogous only to sharing in a great, communal dream.
It helps that Miyamoto was one of the first artists whose identity I was able to latch onto, at an early age, and invest myself with as a man whose creative process was worthy of paying close attention to, if only to better appreciate his work and get that much closer to actually finishing one of his games. Just as I grew up discovering filmmakers like Kurosawa or Godard through reading interviews with Lucas, I learned more about the personal experiences of the artist and how they can affect their work by soaking up everything I could read about Miyamoto in magazine articles. There were the stories he shared about how his childhood spent exploring the mountainous countryside of his family home led to the maze-like dungeons and overworlds of the Zelda games, or the discovery of obscure artifacts of Japanese folklore and mythology through power-ups in Super Mario Bros. 3. Maybe most curiously, there was the way that he spoke with curiosity and energy about the way other creative forms worked, and how he wished he could approximate some of their habits. In particular, I recall reading about his fondness for comics, and how he wished that a video-game screen could change shape or size at times, in the way that a manga-panel could. This wasn’t just a talking point on games, or even something that dealt only with comics– this was an introduction to thinking about art in the scale and scope of its production, of thinking about aspect-ratios, and it’s something that I could relate to immediately by thinking of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Now, Sendak played a role in the percolation of my childhood mind, though not as large as any of those mentioned above, and not even for the book that he’s most chiefly remembered for. My fondest Sendak book growing up was Higgelty Piggelty Pop, a slim volume that still has the capacity to entertain thanks to the wit of its text, the absurdity of its story and the exactness of its illustrations. Where the Wild Things Are didn’t rank quite as high in my attention span as a small child, not having the bizarre juxtapositions of cartoon worlds and exacting wordplay that Dr. Seuss had, or even the out-of-this-world flight of fancy that fueled Sendak’s own In the Night Kitchen (not to mention the sheer naughtiness of its full frontal nudity, which even as a small child you could appreciate on terms of “I can’t believe I’m reading a book with this in it”– shock value for the pre-school set). Even the very premise of a misbehaving boy sent to bed without his supper imagining himself off to an island full of rowdy, rough-housing monsters doesn’t quite fit the particulars of the pop-cultural soup I grew up in and around, or at least the ways in which I digested it on my own. Surrounded by images and stories of heroes going off on adventures, saving damsels in distress and entire worlds at a time in movies, comics and video-games, I didn’t grow up wanting to put on a wolf-costume and get into trouble. I wanted to go out and fight dragons, not be one.
Still, it’s telling that even though it never quite fit my childhood or was ever as heavy a favorite in my personal canon, that Sendak’s most famous books till made as big an impact as any piece of children’s literature can at that age. I may have grown up learning to read with Spider-Man more than anything else, but I was never immune to the charms of a good picture book as a youngling, especially when the illustrative powers were as great as Sendak’s. Especially, I was struck by something amazingly subtle as a child, so subtle in fact that it didn’t fully dawn on me as I reread the book on the occasion of its author’s passing, as a very reluctant young man. Just as much as he fills out the contours of little Max’s world as he leaves the four, boring walls of his bedroom prison behind in favor of the heavily detailed, lovingly sketched tropical paradise of his imagined jungle getaway, Sendak plays a canny game with the size of the image he presents, putting it in direct contrast with the minimalist page of text opposite to it on the book. For the first half of the book or so, Sendak places his text on the left-hand page, as little as possible, surrounding it with endless whitespace. On the right-hand page, he places his illustration, beginning with tightly framed images of Max wreaking all kinds of destructive havoc, as if he’s attempting to break out of the claustrophobic confines of the page itself.
As he’s sent to his room, however, each successive image expands its borders just a little bit, allowing the picture to grow in ways that we may not be fully aware of the first time around, turning from page to page. Picture-books are after all a type of comics, as far as the esteemed creator Will Eisner defined them in terms of “sequential art”– it’s just that the sequences we are presented with do not juxtapose their frames next to one another on a page in co-existing panels, but rather take us from page to page, filling out the experience entirely with splash panels. With each page, Sendak lets his splashes grow larger, his horizons more expansive, even allowing small visual artifacts like trees to expand beyond the borders and into the white space themselves, until young Max reaches the island of the Wild Things. At that point, he stretches the image and text to spread out across both pages at once, expanding the picture to grow vertically down the page with each turn as Max encounters and conquers the Wild Things, until they crown him as their king, and the “wild rumpus” starts. Finally, Sendak gives in fully to the illustrations of the book and does away with white space and text altogether for three luscious, two-page tableaux of Max and the Wild Things capering about the island.
Even if one didn’t quite notice the subtle expansions from image to image as the book progressed, this six-page breadth of full visual explosions is impossible to miss and not get swept up by, especially as a kid. It represents all kinds of freedom and fun that children naturally feel cut off by from the naturally inhibiting patterns of parenthood, putting the whole “being sent to bed without supper” opening in the beginning into stark relief. It also helps the denouement of the story much easier to notice on visual terms, as Max grows tired of the raucous ways of the Wild Things, and yearns to return to the simpler safety of home. One can’t help but notice the way the image begins to shrink down from page to page as Max bids the Wild Things goodbye and sets off back to travel back to the bedroom he never really left in the first place. One might even be a little disappointed by leaving behind all the magic and adventure of pure childhood whimsy, a bit like how one feels looking at the last panel of a Little Nemo comic strip– a whole newspaper page’s worth of wonder and imagination brushed aside by the cold disappointment of a mere punch-line wake-up call. And yet, it’s important to note that in the concluding moments, we’re still left off with a larger image than we started out with, Max’s room filling the whole of the right-hand page, instead of being choked down by framing white space. Max may be back in the boring real world, but at least that world is a bigger one.
It makes sense that Sendak’s book would constitute such an inspiration for the imaginations of whole generations’ worths of artists, storytellers and children of all ages, as the saying goes, since its publication in 1964, and that it would even become a subject for Spike Jonze’s passion project film adaptation in 2009. Following his vaunted career as a director of music videos for artists like the Beastie Boys and Fatboy Slim, and for pairing with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman on the acclaimed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Jonze’s work on this feature-length version of Sendak’s slim story obviously has to cover a lot of ground simply to beef the narrative up to around 100 minutes, to say nothing of how it manages to adapt its contours for cinematic storytelling. Jonze fleshes out the cast and frame tale in ways that are to be expected for movies, even if it threatens to rob the story of some of its beguiling minimalism. In Sendak’s original, the only characters we ever see directly are Max, the Wild Things, and a dog– his mother and any other idea of his family life is kept strictly to the accompanying text, the subliminal world of any visually driven children’s picture-book. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggars, however, populate the first act of their film with not only a whole family for young Max to feel neglected by and hostile towards, but a broken family at that– a divorced father living elsewhere, a big sister breaking off from her little brother to hang out with an older crowd, a lonely mother whose burgeoning love life inspires the expected jealous reaction in her wolf-cub of a son.
These elements, and even a glimpse of his life at school, listening to a teacher excitedly talk about how the sun will eventually explode and destroy the solar system (but only after the human race has likely destroyed itself), provide a little too much grounding for the subjects and themes that come into play when Max escapes to the island of the Wild Things. Whereas the book attains a kind of mythic archetypal quality in the way it spares us from any manner of backstory, making Max’s little tantrum-turned-adventure as universal to the reader as possible, the movie zeroes into a very specific childhood experience– that of the younger child of divorce, feeling persecuted by the whole world outside them as it threatens to end with a whimper or bang. It’s not too dissimilar from the kinds of homes we saw in Spielberg’s classics, actually– most of his families were either broken or in the process of breaking apart. Some of those movies had a storybook mentality to them, as well– E.T., the Extra Terrestrial especially feels like it could’ve been one artist-commission away from becoming a Caldecot award winner, and indeed Jonze feels as though he’s mining that movie’s tone specifically at times, just with a wider frame. And though the addition of all these increasingly specific elements may come dangerously close to taking away the special, open ambiguities of the Sendak story, it’s something that’s uniquely necessary for movies, and one that fits the precedent for these kinds of frame-tale imagined stories. If you want to go to Oz, you’ve got to spend at least a long enough time in the real world for us to recognize when we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The bigger problem in the adaptation comes from the ways in which these various domestic life additions and larger embellishments to the story that arrive as Max journeys to and arrives at the island of the Wild Things provide a bit too much commentary on the proceedings at large, especially as they underline aspects of Jonze’s perspective on Sendak’s story rather than anything connected to the original itself. All that grounding context of a childhood in divorce and feeling neglected by older siblings colors far too much of what happens afterwards, as Jonze arranges the Wild Things into a dysfunctional family unit that’s already rather cliche in children’s entertainment, each Wild Thing standing for one kind of emotional condition or another. Whereas on Sendak’s page the Wild Things all put a friendly face on the wild, aggressive tendencies natural to growing children, Jonze and Eggar’s variations on them spend most of their time moping and babbling on recycled phrases from sitcom pop-psychology. What was on the page a simple story of one everyboy confronting, conquering and converting his inner monsters into the artifacts of a healthy disposition becomes a series of rather lame schoolyard gossiping and hurt feelings, with the Max-as-king plot turned into a full blown exercise in Oedipal father persecution. It resembles less the original Sendak story than it does a kind of soap-opera you might expect to see between the kaiju beasts of the island they send all the monsters to live from the Godzilla movies, though not nearly as friendly.
And yet, that’s not to say that Jonze’s film is in any way a disrespect to Sendak’s story– merely that it’s by and large an interesting reading of it, one filmmaker’s personal experience of the story as filtered through his own sensibilities. That the original is so slight and subtle in its content makes it possible to flesh it out in this way– one can imagine any number of other filmmakers doing their own spin on Sendak’s book here and coming up with something wildly different, and it’s all the better for it. Jonze’s gifts with physicalizing his fantasy world help make the movie a sheer pleasure on visual terms, as well, as his vision of the Wild Things’ island as a place of forests, deserts, immaculately crafted DIY worlds and the glow of a seemingly eternal magic-hour sunlight helps create a fitting cinematic equivalent of Sendak’s original illustrations and their colorful, detail-heavy flourishes. The digitally assisted man-in-suit approach to the Wild Things themselves may occasionally feel less charming than it’s meant to be and more like an elaborate exercise in picture-book cosplay, but it’s by far the best one can imagine anybody pulling off in live action. And if it doesn’t come anywhere near the same kind of subtle elegance that’s present in the original, that’s less a slight to Jonze as a filmmaker and more a testament to the longevity of the book and the impact its author left on countless childhoods. In subtle visual language, Sendak created a clear arc of growth that validates Max’s experiences, and those of imagination and inner-life in general, instead of merely giving into the usual retreat back to the stark disappointments of reality that make up so much children’s entertainment. It brings to mind the last words shared by an afterlife vision of Dumbledore in the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the closest the series ever comes to poetic insight, asked whether or not he’s real, or just a hallucination– “Of course this is all happening in your head! Who’s to say it isn’t real?”