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“I have a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness, and it’s big enough for all of us.”: Spike Jonze’s Adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are

Posted by Ronak M Soni on May 24, 2010

Originally published at PassionforCinema.

Film Poster

One of the most beautiful movie posters.

Movie: Where the Wild Things Are (2009), 101 min, 2.35:1

Writers: Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, based on a book of the same name by Maurice Sendak

Director: Spike Jonze

Cinematography: Lance Acord

Actors: Max records, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forrest Whitaker, Chris Cooper

Where the Wild Things Are is certainly the best film I’ve watched on a big screen since Inglourious Basterds in October, and the line-up includes “greats” like Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Personally, I’m not yet completely sure what all the ambivalence about the quality of the movie was about in American critical circles (except Roger Ebert’s, who found parts boring).

Anyway, after watching the movie (Saturday), I’ve read Maurice Sendak’s classic thrice already, and that’s the piece I find myself ambivalent about. Not that I think it’s not a good book, it’s just that I’ve come to expect books to last a while, that part of the joy of literature (even the graphic variety, which this book certainly is of) is the time invested in it. Even poetry, because if a poem is worth anything to you, you spend significant amounts of time poring over it, and in some cases even the literature about it. This book counters that, however. Look, it says, I can tell a story in ten sentences and a few drawings (which are beautiful, by the way), I don’t need your time, I just need merely as much attention as a parrot can provide.

Again, it’s not a bad book; it’s about as good as it can be, given the form. My real dilemma with this original/adaptation pair is this: I am unambivalent in my admiration of the movie, but am somewhat unimpressed by the book, yet I’m not sure which constitutes the better work of art. Hah! A problem worthy of attention from Dostoevsky’s underground man!

So, my dear, underground man wouldn’t ask, what be your problem?

Of course, not being as much underground man as normal person, I do pose myself with the charge of uncovering the eternal verities I can get at by asking myself the selfsame question.

About the movie:

The movie, in many ways, is to me about the cathartic and epiphanic possibilities of art for people, and in particular children. Of course, there’s a lot more, by which I mean a lot more, but that is the direction any general thrust that the movie has is in.

So, why do I say that it’s about the cathartic and epiphanic possibilities of art? For that, we’ll have to ask ourselves what we learnt most strongly from art as kids. I’ll tell you what I learnt, a lesson that I believe to be one of the simplest art has to offer to us as human beings: I learnt to put myself into other people’s shoes, a lesson which (even if I say so myself) has had a very profound effect on the way I’ve lived my life.

But then, maybe I didn’t learn it from the art around me, maybe I learnt it from within, from some innate understanding that other people are human beings. Then, how did I learn it? Through a story I told myself, one possibly not unlike the one in Where the Wild Things Are.

Fact is, this is not quite the lesson Max – the protagonist – learns through the story he tells himself. The lesson he actually learns is, for the purpose of this review, completely and utterly irrelevant.

The only thing that is relevant is that he learns a lesson, and a deep and complex one about the structuring of human societies at that, and he learns by way of self-authored art.

He’s built an igloo, and he, like every human being who’s ever successfully built an igloo, wants to show it off. His sister is talking on the phone and tells him to go play with his own friends. Of course, there’s a slight problem with that in that he doesn’t have any. And, much like I used to play endless cricket matches with the wall in a similar situation, he starts playing out his own story, till he sees his sister’s friends, and therefore an opportunity to show it off. A snowball fight ensues, his igloo collapses in on himself, he is dug out crying, and the sister’s friends run off: the amount of fun a child can provide is inversely proportional to how much responsibility you have about him.

His mom, who is a sweet, sweet woman, comes home. He interrupts her and tells her a story (which she, in one of the sweetest moments in the film, types out):

There were some buildings… There were these really tall buildings, and they could walk. Then there were some vampires. And one of the vampires bit the tallest building, and his fangs broke off. Then all his other teeth fell out. Then he started crying. And then, all the other vampires said, “Why are you crying? Weren’t those just your baby teeth?” And he said, “No. Those were my grown-up teeth.” And the vampires knew he couldn’t be a vampire anymore, so they left him. The end.

Need I say any more?

The Wild Things

As it turns out, I will anyway. It is after Max’s story that we can see the subversive “adaptation” coming out of the clutches of the movie-world. It is true that the movie is not a good adaptation of the book. The book is a ten-sentence/twenty-image piece that is about growing up – the theme introduction: “he sailed off through night and day/and in and out of weeks/and almost over a year/to where the wild things are” – and the value of love. How can you adapt that into a full-length movie? More appropriately, how do you adapt it into a good full-length movie? You can’t, unless you think Horton Hears a Who, a sweet normal movie interspersed with reminders of the infinitely more compact original in the form of narrated extracts, was a particularly good movie: the movie should have been marketed as inspired from the book, but I don’t suppose Spike Jonze had much of a choice, with pressure probably from Warner Brothers as well as the fact that Maurice Sendak himself sought him out to direct the film (I wonder how Dave Eggers got involved, though; he’s certainly not a very bankable name).

Judith, the horned one

Carol

I was planning to describe how so many elements of the movie were lifted off the edges of the drawings in the book, but I just read the book again, and then decided that that would take all the fun out of it. All I’ll say is this: it is awesomely fascinating to sit around after watching the movie and look at how the positions of each wild thing in the pictures resulted in its position in the (very realistically and insightfully set up) social structure of the movie’s world. For example, the wild thing Eggers and Jonze call Judith is the one foremost in threatening Max on his arrival, and she’s the most contrary – not that she’s a generic contrarian, more that she approaches his crowning with a certain trepidation with which the others don’t – to Max in the movie. Or, the one they call Carol is the one foremost in saluting Max’s crowning as king, and… the movie more or less revolves around the relationship between Max and Carol.

The final point I would like to mention about the wild things is their social structure. Two years of my life, my eleventh and twelfth, I was in a boarding school with a set of around twenty well-knit male classmates (talking about the girls too would add an unnecessary level of complexity to the proceedings), and the wild things’ social structure very well mirrors how we were, the twenty of us (with appropriate changes for maturity and numbers). I mean, not only is the social structure a direct parallel, but the reasons behind the structuring are also very much the same, which is something I find simply amazing.

The Verdict

So, which do I like more, the book or the movie? Which of the following two visuals looks better?

All

Movie

All

Book

To be honest, I find that both the book and the movie are not perfect, the book is – as I’ve already said – too short for my taste, and the movie has moments of implausibility as well as the larger one that Max is making this up, but in the end I have to say one thing: Maurice Sendak did well, in writing the book as well as in choosing his adapter: I love both the book and the movie, and no amount of comparison is going to change that.

The Reviews of Others:

  1. Strongly positive: Joe Sylvers (whose piece I took the last still from), Bryan Whitefield for the Muriel Awards, Andrew Bemis.
  2. Mildly positive: Critic After Dark
  3. Negative: Stephanie Zacharek, whose characterisation of the movie as a “tone poem” was plagiarised by The Hindu’s reviewer Parvathi Nayar.

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