My name is Max.
That feels important when discussing Where the Wild Things Are, a story about being young, confused, and wildly imaginative. Through two different versions, this children’s tale has proved personally resonant.
In Maurice Sendak’s original 1963 story, young Max gets sent to his room after misbehaving and imaginatively transports himself to a scary yet liberating world, one where he can be king of a similarly unruly set of monsters.
When he begins to feel lonely among the Wild Things, Max narrowly escapes to come back home to supper. It’s simple, sweet, and beautifully illustrated. It became a fixture of my earliest years.
A few years ago I learned that my dad had at 18, bearing no better ideas, decided to write one of his last-minute college essays on Sendak’s picture-book, discussing the theme of rebellious creativity centered around protagonist Max. I can’t help but imagine that Max of Where the Wild Things Are is at least partially my namesake.
It certainly works out conveniently to describe my early life narrative, one characterized by bouts of isolationist behavior, consumed in imaginative worlds preferred over a scarier reality where I was shuffled across a rapidly changing world with my international and globe-trotting parents — one in which I was described as being shy and introspective.
Sendak’s original story never explicitly delves into the cause of Max’s discontent — his family dynamics, potential emotional disorders, or anything else — but in that ambiguity it leaves room for creative interpretation. I take the liberty to derive some of my meaning from it.
It inevitably didn’t take that many decades for animations studios to consider adapting the story into film, but Sendak was notoriously picky. Eventually, he relented and decided the best director for such a movie would be the eccentric and imaginative Spike Jonze, of Being John Malkovich (and more recently Her, an imaginative sci-fi rom-com where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his phone voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
“[He was] young, interesting and had a spark that none of the others had.” -Maurice Sendak, describing Spike Jonze
The original book was comprised of ten sentences accompanied by illustrations. Just as the story’s minimalist ambiguity helps me make sense of my life, it gave the auter Jonze freedom to tell his own story. Against most odds, that more deliberately defined and detailed story ended up being even more relatable and inspiring to me as a 10 year old.
In the movie version, Max — poignantly played by a child actor actually named Max in reality — is a misunderstood younger sibling being raised by his mother following a divorce. His school behavior reports raise concern, and he is easy irritable when his aloof, teenage sister refuses to play along with him.
He builds an igloo, invites his sister’s friends to a snowball fight, and things go well until they jump on his igloo and destroy it. As the teenagers speed off, Max is left angry and lonely as ever.
That night, he dons his wolf suit and refuses to eat supper, biting his mother when she tries to take him down from the counter. “What’s wrong with you Max?!” she yells as he runs out of the house, and into a small sailboat upon which he inscribes his name as he travels a rough sea.
When he crashes onto an island, he runs into the woods and spies giant, furry beasts arguing amongst themselves as one of them rolls around destroying giant twig balls. He overcomes his fear and dashes into one, before the shocked monsters inquire what this small creature is and explain that he’s destroying their homes. They threaten to eat him until he declares himself king and possessor of magical powers.
What follows is a PG, yet surprisingly dark, fantasy where Max attempts to resolve discord in his new monster kingdom while realizing he may not be up to the task. He ends up being the one learning life lessons, such as when he describes how he learned in science class that one day the sun will die. “How can guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun, hmm?” replies the monster Carol, voiced by Vincent Crowley. The world does not always have to be so rational and depressing.
After a fight between the monsters breaks out, Max runs back to his sailboat and comes back to his mother’s embrace. Roll credits.
While the story begins and ends in similar fashion to the book, much of the specific drama at hand and details of Max’s personality are invented in the adaption. Without going into too much detail, a lot of movie Max’s problems and life circumstances even more closely resemble the parallels I draw with my own experience.
But most of all, I’m just happy that this is one instance where a Hollywood adaption cemented a work more into my consciousness rather than making me reject it. It failed to even make budget at the box office, and drew generally positive but reserved critical reception, with many citing that dealing with themes like depression and being misunderstood made it unsuitable for the young audience the original story was meant for.
I could care less about the film’s percieved adult-exclusivity. I saw Spike Jonze’s adaption when I was 10 and found it affecting. Who’s to say that children’s films shouldn’t occasionally be dark or grapple with being different? I personally found potency in a kids movie having the guts to portray a situation closer to my real one. Zany, manic energy defines so much of modern kids’ media diets that I begin to worry about misrepresenting life. It is ok to be sad, depressed, and introspective as a kid. You learn from it.
“Happiness isn’t always the best way to be happy.” -Judith, one of the Wild Ones.
Let the wild rumpus begin.