Thinking About Where the Wild Things Are

Principle 1: There are so many ways this movie could have been done badly.

Principle 2: The movie was not at all what I expected, and if it had been, would have been some form of principle 1, primarily because I lack the requisite amount of creativity to imagine something that didn’t fall into one of the Full House–like scenarios I and many other people secretly hoped it would. Instead, it took some real thinking, at least to backtrack from my initial expectations and go where the filmmakers were taking me instead.

Principle 3: The criticisms of the movie I have come across are almost entirely to blame on unreflective responses to Principle 2; that is, they wanted the mediocre, sugary, sentimental pandering they have come to expect from much of Hollywood, and they got a work of subtlety and depth.

Principle 4: The trailers led everyone (including me) astray, implying tear-jerking poignancy when in fact the movie was completely unsentimental (and no less rich for that).

Principle 5: The movie stayed unwaveringly true to the themes of the book by Maurice Sendak, but even surpassed the book in metaphorical and psychological sophistication. (E.g.: [1] The Wild Things Max encounters, while still representative of his various emotions, are fully rounded characters rather than parabolic types and as such are capable of generating serious and moving conflicts and encounters with Max [rather than pat moral lessons], which I think reinforces the strong Freudian imagery of both the film and the book; in other words, the characters convey traits that, while still technically part of Max’s imagination or psyche, are completely unknown to and unexplored by him. [Incidentally, I found out recently that the psychoanalytic themes in the book are quite intentional—Sendak spent years in therapy—and the book has even been called a “psychoanalytic parable.”] [2] Max is only able to tame the Wild Things through deception and facade—eventually it becomes clear that he has only fooled them [himself] with his “kingship”—and he must deal with the consequences. [3] The dysfunction in Max’s life—and, by extension, in his imagination—is serious and real. It hovers at the corner of the movie, and when it breaks in, it is a little terrifying. While he is only a child, Max is “out of control” [a phrase that recurs at key moments in both the “real world” and in Max’s imagination], as are the giant carnivorous beasts he encounters in his imagination. Max, and the viewer, is genuinely afraid. There are both good and bad implications to the “heartwarming” line “I’ll eat you up I love you so.”)

Principle 6: Jacques Lacan sums it all up: “When we learn to make symbols, we also learn to separate from our ambient childhood world of objects and achieve an independent selfhood that is experienced as loss. That lack can never be filled, and all human desire circulates around it, yearning to hark back to the lost unity.” Though this could be taken pejoratively, I don’t think it needs to be.

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3 comments so far

  1. MJS on

    Tom McCarthy, the novelist of failed transcendence, points out that Where the Wild Things Are is

    “Essentially Heart of Darkness done as a children’s book. It’s got near-identical sequences: Max becoming King of the Wild Things/Kurtz, ‘taking a high seat among the devils of the land;’ the Wild Rumpus/’unspeakable rites;’ the anguished cry of the dark mistress as Max/Kurtz leaves to return to European ‘civilization.'”

    Frieze magazine, Oct. 2009, p. 33

  2. jeffreimer on

    Nice. Do you think it’s an intentional literary trope or both authors riffing on the same archetypal dynamic?

  3. MJS on

    Maybe Sendak was into Conrad. I don’t know. The archetype angle’s more interesting, though, because as your post suggests, even if S. was into the deeper meaning, he had to keep it on a simpler psychological level. Max is hardly a microcosm. He’s more like a client on the couch. You can’t exactly plum the psyche by depicting psychotic blood-thirsty rituals and other extremes of despotism in an illustrated kids book. Not even Edward Gorey could pull that off.

    This is getting into the realm of absurd, obvious overstatement. But . . . since the breakdown of theocentrism in the Renaissance, literature and psychology and science and architecture and theology have all had to deal with, or willfully ignore, the frighteningly real ghosts of irrationality (the lingering presence of the superstitious or supra-rational?) at the center of a persistently imperfect anthropocentric universe.


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