Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are (1963)

[This week's 'EN3225 Children's Literature' course lecture is on picture books, taking Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are as a case study. So, accordingly, here's another repost from Punkadiddle—this time from 2010, soon after my New Model Army came out (which I mention because I mention it in the post). It discusses Sendak's original, and the David Eggars novelisation of the 2010 film. I still haven't seen the film, even though it has come on telly several times. Some part of me recoils from it, I guess; though why the recoil is happening isn't clear to me. The original occasion for blogging was that my son loved it so: I must have read it every single night for three months straight. Now I am obliged to think about it in the academic context of teaching a 3rd year course; some 2014 thoughts are added at the bottom of the post.]

Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are is one of my holy books. I’m not alone in that, of course: it’s a widely adored picture book. But I can make a boast true of few Sendakophiles: I have rewritten Where The Wild Things Are, as a novel called New Model Army, very far removed from the original in terms of its manifest content, very much closer (perhaps too obviously so) in terms of its latent symbols and mood.

I haven’t seen the Spike Jonze movie version, although I probably will, at some point. But I have now read David Eggers novelisation. It’s not a bad novel, exactly (though neither is it a very good one), but it gets the original very wrong, I think; and more pressingly it gets the process of adapting the original wrong. What I mean by this latter observation is that it puts all its energy into the surface details of the picture book, and seems weirdly blind to the deeper currents of the text ... it maintains and elaborates, sometimes at pitifully diluted length, the manifest content of Sendak’s original, and misrepresents and distorts the latent elements. Since it’s the latent elements that give the book its extraordinary potency, this is little short of disastrous.

Of course, maybe I am saying nothing here. It could be that I’m talking not about Maurice Sendak’s original book, only the hybrid of it twined bindweedily around the stem of my imagination. Eggers is under no obligation to write a novel about my imagination, after all. And lots of the specifics of the novelisation are cannily worked out: Max is the son of a bitter single mother, and has an older sister who doesn’t want to play with him any more. The forest grows not in his room, but exists actually outside his house (he’s warned against entering). He runs away, into this forest, takes the boat from there, and ends up where the wild things are. The book calls them ‘infant-like, almost cute, and at the same time pathetic, tragic’, which isn’t how they strike me. But let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that. Anyway, the wild things themselves have a strange selection of names—strange, that is, for wild things (I suppose that’s Eggers’ point): Carol, a male, is the main figure, but there’s also Douglas and Catherine. There’s a lot of ‘I’ll eat you!’ running about. Max burns their forest down. They build a fort. Towards the end, to escape the wrath of Carol, Katherine does eat Max, and the lad is later cut from her stomach. Then he goes home.

Where The Wild Things Are is a boy’s book: it’s a book about the joys of playing rough, of consciously misbehaving, and being a beast. But much more potently than that, it’s a pure narrative distillation of Fort-Da. The boy’s mother stops his fun, and he casts her, metaphorically, over the side of his cot, via the brilliant expedient of generating a whole new imaginative world that doesn’t contain her. But of course the logic of Fort-Da is that he must, symbolically, spool the mother back in to him—or in this case draw in the real world of his room again.

Sendak’s original has so many beautiful and eloquent moments, and is so potently economical, I could spend many thousands of words talking about it. But I’ll limit myself to noting only a couple of things, because they strike me as illustrative of the way in which Eggers retread wholly misses the forcefulness of the source text. In Sendak, it’s the case that the land of the wild things is more immediate and vivid than reality -- look at the way he portrays Max’s initial mischief in tiny boxes of illustration surrounded by several inches of white margin, and the way the size of the picture grows along with the forest in his bedroom, until it fills the entire page. (That the final image of Max in his room, with the meal waiting for him still hot, also fills the page suggests to me that he has been somehow enriched by his sojourn in the Wild Things’ land). Watch what Sendak does with the moon in his illustrations. There’s nothing so nuanced in the expository blubber of Eggers’ prose.

But more fatally, Eggers wholly fluffs, or misses, the two crucial beats of the story. The first immediately follows the three-page Wild Rumpus (Eggers includes the Rumpus, although shifts its tenor from sheer jouissance to fright and chase). Then:
“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all the wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being kind of where the wild things are.
I never cry at books (I almost never cry at anything at all: my upper lip being so stiff) but there’s something in the piercing directness of that articulation, about Max wanting to be where someone loved him best of all, that makes my eyes hot with incipient tears. There’s nothing equivalent in Eggers novel; which is to say, the moment of loneliness is smeared and diluted and spread over the whole section.

Then there’s my favourite moment of all the original book. My 2-year-old [2014Good grief he's six now! Six! Where did the time go?] is fond of this bit too: I think it speaks (to him) of the awesome power he has recently discovered, and which he utilizes a great deal. The power of saying ‘no!’

But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go—
We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”
And Max said, “No!”
So he gets back in the boat and sails home. Look at the picture: Max is smiling. He’s happy. He understands that wildthingishness is not violence, or malevolence, or fear, or existential dread, or anything of the things Eggers talks about. It’s a purer joy. We’ll eat you up—we love you so! is so perfect a line: it captures both the extraordinarily edible quality of little kids, the way our (parental) love for them almost spills over into wanting to devour them, they’re so delicious. And it also captures the childish perspective too: where apprehending the world is most completely and immediately done orally, where eating is the most immediate sensual pleasure. Egger has nothing so brilliant in his account.
When he awoke he saw all of the beasts, all but Carol, before him. They had untied his boat and had prepared it to sail. Max rose from Katherines lap and stood, still feeling light-headed.

"So you're going," Douglas said ...

Max nodded.

Douglas extended his left hand. Max shook it.

"You were the best thinker we ever had," Douglas said.

Max tried to smile.

"I'm sorry for all this," Ira said quietly. "I blame myself."

Max hugged him. "Don't."

Judith and Max exchanged glances. She made a face that said Oops, sorry! then emitted a high nervous laugh. "I never know what to say in these situations," she said. [273]
To be clear: Eggers reads this superb, intense, poetic moment, almost the climax of Sendak's book, in terms of downbeat social awkwardness and embarrassment. Has he ever met a child? Has he ever been a child?

And Max said: NO.


[2014 postscript]: As with Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, commentators on the original post made interesting points in the comments. Abigail Nussbaum damned the film with faint praise:
I've seen (and been underwhelmed by) the film but haven't read Eggers's book. The Sendak is, of course, an old favorite, though it's been years since I read it. There are ways in which the film captures childhood very well, particularly in the first half in which Max plays with total abandon, to the exasperation of his mother and sister. But the interlude with the Wild Things is about the loss of childhood and a sense of tragedy and heartbreak at that loss that, as you say, seems entirely un-childlike. It's how an adult, even a young one, would feel once they've irrevocably passed out of childhood, not the reaction of a child still capable of running off to the king of the Wild Things.
'DC' liked the film better, although still with some reservations.
It transposes the story onto a 9 year old child - the Max of the book must be younger, right? What 9 year old wears a wolf costume? - and I think captures something of both the giddiness and the fractiousness of the way children of that age play together. I remember alliances shifting day to day, underpinned by absolute notions of who was supposed to be best friend's with whom. It is also, I guess, about a child trying to understand why a family might be fractured. I can quite see that this would jar against what seems to be a more primal, or fundamental, reading, Adam, but I don't think it's quite as necessarily invalid in itself as you suggest.
And then, a few weeks ago, and with rather splendid synchronicity, my friend Waxbanks added to the debate. Of course he has a kid of his own now, Feliks, so he has mellowed some:
Feliks loves to 'read' it aloud -- he's memorized the sounds, many of the words, and even our intonations. He's about 2-1/2 now.

The other day he got to the first 'terrible eyes' page and dug into it with theatrical abandon. ROOOAAAARRRRED!! TERRRRRRIBLE CLAAAAAWWWS!! I was so proud!

Then he turned the page and looked solemn, and lowered his voice to a whisper, and said very quietly to himself: 'Til Max said, Be still.'

The rest of the book he was silent, just turning the pages and taking in the pictures. He was very focused and intense; he almost looked puzzled. When he reached the end he flipped back a few pages and said again, 'Roared their terrrrrible roars, and gnashed their terrrrrible teeeeeth...' Then he closed the book, whispered something to himself, set it aside, and started to play with a piece of ribbon.
He adds, with a slightly mournful turn: 'I want to carry that memory with me my whole life, but I know I won't.' I wouldn't be so sure, mate.

What about me? Well, I'm still with Feliks, aesthetic-judgement wise. This remains one of my holy books. But thinking about it in a specifically academic context is making me re-evaluate aspects of it. I remember talking about the book with an old girlfriend, many years ago. She wondered whether the Wild Thing on the left, in this image, was visually coded as 'Black':

What do you reckon? At the time, I disagreed; and it still seems to me that the monster isn't obviously or stereotypically 'Black'. But, a white man, I of course suffer from the representational blindness of my kind. Black herself, my then-girlfriend was more sensitive to such visual coding. And 'Blackness', or more precisely the colonial and post-colonial context, is almost too obviously a feature of the text. What other story does Where The Wild Things Are tell, if not the story about how a young white boy travels far overseas to a 'tropical' land (palm trees, jungle), overcome the hostile natives and appoint himself his king? The natives do what he tells them; at first he indulges their 'wildness' in the rumpus; then he punishes them, arbitrarily, by starving them. Finally, in a little re-enactment of the drawn-out post-war process of de-colonisation, he heads home, happy with himself.

Does this seem too far fetched a reading of the text? Look again at the image immediately above. What about the Wild Thing on the right? Long, lank red hair. Chicken legs, like Baba Yaga's hut. Yellow-coloured, like the yellow star? The red-hair alone makes me wonder if Sendak (of course, a Jew himself, many of whose Polish family members died at the hands of the Nazis) is playing with stereotypical notions of Jewishness. Is the point to mark the Wild Things as Other, racially as well as in terms of their animality? The most famous of the beasts is probably the minotaur who appears on the front cover.

Is that the Otherness of myth? A sort-of Greekness, or ancientness, as if Max has stepped out of time? A nobler version of Othernes, in other words; elevating and resonant. Minotaur-Wild-Thing is, after all, the only character to have human feet. That's a more forgiving reading of the semiotic of these monsters than the racial one.

It gets quite arbitrary, quite quickly. The guy in the middle, with the close-cropped hair, big red nose and bear body? Let's say: the proletariat. The eagle-headed guy is America. This mode of clumsy allegorising is jejune, of course. I still find myself thinking that the larger context of western imperial adventuring is harder to wish away, though.


  1. Did you know it as a child? I didn't, but I agree with your valuation - it strikes me as very nearly a perfect book. (The colonial thing is troubling, once spotted. I think the best we can say is that the borrowing was innocent on Sendak's part - and the Wild Things are only as tied to that setting as Caliban, or the Monsters from the Id of Forbidden Planet.)

    there’s something in the piercing directness of that articulation, about Max wanting to be where someone loved him best of all, that makes my eyes hot with incipient tears

    Yes indeed. If I'd had a rough day they were sometimes positively cipient.

    And you're right, of course - "But Max said No." is such a powerful line, all the more so because it's immediately followed by getting back into his boat (his private boat, no less).

    I discovered the book when my son was small & read it to him, and then to his sister, for really quite a long time. A lot of those books ended up going to charity shops (the kids are now 18 and 13), but not this one. I may still know it by heart, page(-turning) breaks and all.

  2. I did know it as a kid; but it didn't obsess me the way it obsessed my son in his twos and threes (though he's not so fond of it now). It has a greater power over me now, as an adult, than it used to. Isn't that strange?

  3. Somebody on Twitter (Im sorry, whoever you are: I searched back through my feed but couldn't find the tweet) said that, in interview, Sendak claimed the monsters were all based on his aunts and uncles, as he remembered them from childhood. If so the 'racial otherness' angle looks shaky: and it's certainly possible to see the Wild Things as all versions of Polish-American Jews family members of a certain age.