When Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers set about adapting Where The Wild Things Are into a movie, Maurice Sendak encouraged them to take a free hand and change stuff. But Eggers and Jonze tell us one change made Sendak nervous.
This feature definitely includes some spoilers for the movie version of Where The Wild Things Are, so if you wish to remain unspoiled for that film, you may want to stop reading here.
We were lucky enough to be among a few reporters who sat down with Jonze, who directed the film, and Eggers, who collaborated with Jonze on the screenplay adapation — plus Catherine Keener, who plays the mother of Max, the young boy who travels to a mysterious land of monsters and weird creatures, where everything is wild. They talked about striving to be true to the book — and yet finding ways to transform a relatively short picture book into a full-length movie, with fully realized characters and a fleshed-out story.
Sendak's one reservation
One major, significant change from the original book is the way Max enters the world of the Wild Things. In the book, his bedroom transforms into a lush forest. ("That very night in Max's room a forest grew, and grew — and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.") But in the movie, Max runs away from home, running down city streets and past dark parking lots, until he finds a waterfront with a boat, and then he sails to the world of the Wild Things.
Jonze and Eggers admitted that even though Sendak supported all their choices in the movie, this was the one choice Sendak kept coming back and questioning:
Jonze: We thought that if we did this amazing sequence that Maurice had illustrated, of the bedroom turning into the forest, it would say that the whole thing was in his fantasy, and it didn't seem to be doing justice to what we were writing up to that point. When I think about those four pages in the book, I vividly remember being captivated by them. They seemed like magic to me. Between the bedpost turning into the tree, and the wallpaper turning into leaves, the way the thing transformed was so captivating. And Maurice was the one who said we need to make this our own, and that was something that it had to lose along the way.
Eggers: And the funny anecdote was, Maurice was so supportive of every choice, and really understanding what it took to expand the book. But this is the one thing he kept coming back and sort of saying, "Really? You really don't want to [do the original sequence]?"
Spike: [Sendak kept saying] "You gotta make this your movie. I totally understand. But what about [the bedroom scene]?" And after we talked about it, he'd be like, "Oh good, you guys seem like you're confident in what you're doing with this." And then two weeks later, he'd be like, "I was thinking…" But to his credit, he wasn't coming at this thing as a protective artist, like "This is my thing. Don't fuck it up." It was sort of like he jumped off a cliff. Once he decided he wanted us to do it, he gave it over to us entirely and said, "Make it your own. The movie is not mine. The book was mine 40 years ago. But the movie is yours." He really lived by that. And it made the movie what it was. Without that, I don't really think I would have been able to make the movie, go down the path. I would have been too scared of making something that he didn't like. But because of his sort of commitment to us making something personal, it let us do that.
What the Wild Things mean:
As in the book, the movie of Wild Things is sort of a dreamlike story where nothing feels quite real. But because it's a full-length movie and the monsters are much more fleshed out as characters, we get a much bigger story. And to me, it felt like a parable about violence: Max in the movie acts out more violently in the book (he bites his mother), and when Max becomes king of the monsters, he incites them to start a play-war, which escalates until some of the monsters get seriously hurt. The monsters are huge and powerful, but they never hurt each other until Max incites them to do so.
So I had to ask Jonze and Eggers if there was a message about violence here. Jonze demurred: "I am loath to say what the movie is supposed to be about, or not supposed to be about, because it's more interesting for it to have its own life." Just like the book means something different to everyone who reads it, the movie should likewise have its own personal significance to everyone who reads it. Eggers agreed that he wants people to be able to take away their own interpretations from the movie: "That's the beauty of a certain type of art, whether it's poetry or picture books, or whatever: there's a certain spareness that leaves some room for somebody to... [make their own meaning.]"
But then Eggers added that there is a sense in which the violence in the movie is about fulfilling Max's desires:
For a nine-year-old boy, a lot of this is wish-fulfillment, where you really get to act out. There's a little boy who might feel a little bit contained within the walls of his school or his home, but in a land without any boundaries or borders, he can act out his wildest fantasies. And that includes a full-scale war with people at his beck and call. And that's why he says, "I know something that always cheers me up: A war." Which is the way boys think, or at least how I remember thinking.
In response to another question, Eggers said Jonze really resisted the idea that there would be any parallels between the Wild Things and the people in Max's "real" life at home. From "day one," Jonze insisted, there should not be any direct correlation. "It's not going to be, 'This one's the dad, this one's the mom..." At the same time, you can definitely see that the different monsters correspond to different parts of Max's personality, and because Max has an absent father at home (more on that in a moment), he's more drawn to Carol (James Gandolfini), the big, fatherly monster. "Spike did a great job of keeping it vague enough that it isn't tidy," says Eggers. "The book isn't tidy. Childhood isn't tidy."
And the land of the Wild Things in the movie shifts a lot depending on the scene — at times it's almost a normal forest, and at others, it's sort of surreal, with a giant dog wandering huge sand dunes, and weird owls that need to be hit with rocks to get their attention. Jonze says this is meant to be "a place where everything is wild. It's emotionally wild, geographically wild, weather wise — anything can happen at any time. It's just trying to represent what it feels like to be nine. That was sort of the goal of the movie... to capture the feeling." The movie is definitely meant to be from the point of view of a nine-year-old, so the audience sees everything from that vantage point.
And Keener chimed in that the landscape is not unlike our myths of the Wild Wild West, where anything can happen. "There are still places here that are dangerous to go."
The Absent Father
Speaking of Keener, she plays Max's mother, mostly in the sequences before he goes off to the land of the Wild Things. And in the film, she's clearly struggling to keep it together in the wake of a nasty divorce.
Keener said she was allowed to use her own imagination to come up with her character's backstory — "That's kind of how Spike works" — and she imagined her ex-husband as being an absent guy, who doesn't contribute as much as her character needs, financially and in other ways.
I thought he was wrong... she's just there with two kids, and working, and struggling with her job, and it's not going very well, and she's probably way out of her depth on it, and wants to have sex and be loved and all that stuff, and it's hard with a couple of kids around who need you. And it's beyond her control to fullfill their needs as well, so everybody's a little out of control in the movie.
Eggers says that when he first joined the project, Jonze had already decided that Max's parents were divorced, even though the book doesn't say one way or the other. And the fact that world is out of control is key to Max's experiences: At home, there's a man whom Max doesn't approve of and doesn't want there (his mother's new boyfriend.) At school , we see the science teacher telling Max and the other kids that the sun will eventually die, but that the human race will probably be extinct by then. Max's sister, who used to be his friend, is no longer interested in him. Max "can't control all these external factors, and can't control the turmoil inside of him, [so] all these external factors pop, and he runs away."
Everyone's very fearful. The mom is fearful that her boyfriend is going to be scared away, she's fearful about paying for this house [and] raising her kids. The daughetrer is fearful about her peers and being accepted. And Max is fearful that everything is going, everything is falling apart. And he just ends up going out and slaying that dragon, he goes off on his adventure and he becomes at peace with it and less afraid and [more] successful as a result of it. When kids are fearful growing up, they are less successful in life.
The wonder of James Gandolfini
Everybody was full of praise for Gandolfini, who plays what Jonze calls the "most essential" of the monsters, the huge tusked Carol. This character needed "his kind of presence and his kind of vulnerability, and his emotions are right under the surface," adds Jonze.
Eggers described Gandolfini coming in for the first day of voice recording, wearing an enormous wide-striped shirt and looking way more imposing and intimidating than he does on The Sopranos. "He was Carol from the first time walked in, and all the other creatures — the other actors — assumed a subservient role... He's such a powerful actor."
Crafting the storyline
Eggers and Jonze also talked about the difficult process of turning a short storybook into a full length movie. Eggers had never worked on a screenplay before, and he didn't have any software. He and Jonze wrote the first draft in Microsoft Word, adding tabs and capitals themselves. Jonze kept getting easily distracted and wanting to go to the store or watch Youtube videos, so Eggers was more of a task-master, keeping him in focus.
The big thing was figuring out who the Wild Things really are and what they want. "That's how you grow a 12-page picture book into a movie," said Eggers. "Not by applying a quest on top of it, like a Golden Chalice, but he gets there and has to learn about who they are."