“Where the Wild Things Are” has achieved a rare quadruple-media self-referential storm that has taken the beloved children’s book from its place at the bottom of boxes in attics and elevated it to a multimedia cultural force to be reckoned with. Not bad for a book that took two years to be recognized for its popularity, a book that consists of a grand total of 10 sentences that leave as much to the imagination as they suggest] Thus far this year, the original picture book has been adapted into a novel, a documentary, a movie and a soundtrack, all of which encapsulate the original work in their own related but distinct ways.
The soundtrack — the brainchild of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O — perhaps overtly has the least to do with the original work, but it still captures the spirit of the book in ways readily apparent after seeing the movie. Almost every page within the original Maurice Sendak text has some sort of sonic analogue within the soundtrack, which features collaborations from Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, Nick Zinner of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a choir of children. The soundtrack avoids the kind of self-conscious indie-ness that might be expected of a soundtrack produced by an artist as hip as Karen O. It manages to develop a basis for the intersection of an adaptation of a children’s book, more or less the full score of a major motion picture, and a stand-alone sonic artifact as the kind of achievement that I can’t think of an analogue for.
Karen O captures the spirit of Sendak’s work simply through the medium of music. The best song on the album, for my money, is the minimalist orchestral “Hideaway,” which captures some of the emotion of what it’s like for a child to feel alone. Karen O’s voice has never been so soft as it is on “Igloo,” which shows a side of her hinted at only by a hidden track at the end of 2003’s Fever to Tell. Also noteworthy is the Arcade Fire-lite single, “All Is Love,” which captures some of Animal Collective’s best moments in the format of a song for kids noticeably lacking the arty pretense that defines Animal Collective’s work.
The film benefits from its soundtrack immeasurably. To accurately capture director Spike Jonze’s vision, cherry picking a collection of obscure pop tracks was not going to be an option. This surely would have disrupted the insular piece of art that Jonze created. The film has been criticized as being light on story, but what is to be expected from a work generated from a 10-sentence book? Jonze crafts a work that doesn’t depend on narrative to move the action forward. Instead, it is pitch-perfect character development, expert pacing and camerawork to develop a film that adheres to the mood created by Sendak but introduces new narrative elements that make the work distinctly Jonze’s own. The movie isn’t so much a kids’ movie as it is a movie for the child inside of all of us. Although the story is simple to the point of ridiculousness and the protagonist is a preteen boy, the themes Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers hit upon are resonant no matter your physical age. If you don’t like this movie, you should probably spend some quality time with a psychologist figuring out why it is you are so grown up and boring. Also, look into a job collecting tolls.
Max (Max Records) does an excellent job as the king of the Wild Things, and his performance is complemented by competent voice-work by James Gandolfini (Carol) and a host of others. However, to judge this movie by traditional terms would be to mistake it for a traditional movie. This is a film that doesn’t talk down to kids and doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. It got a little dusty in the theater as Max leaves the Wild Things behind, but the emotion is clear, and it’s real and doesn’t feel at all contrived. That’s where this movie succeeds where so many others fail. Although it might be scary for kids, and kids might not “get” all the themes at first blush, this is one movie that I’m sure parents would be more than happy for their children to get obsessed with.
Similarly for kids is the Dave Eggers novelization, The Wild Things. Although his adaptation is based on the screenplay that he collaborated on with Spike Jonze, as well as the original work by Sendak, Eggers’ work too becomes something independently its own upon closer examination. It contains more of the original book than the film does and also expands upon sections and emotions that the film elides with a few suggestive cuts. However, the book is more what a simple novelization of a film usually is. The Wild Things is a fast, easy read clearly meant for a young adult audience perhaps more accustomed to pictures in their books. But the novel avoids insignificance and carves out a place for itself in the Wild Things universe by including a decidedly personal touch that can be identified as Eggers’. The book departs from the movie in several respects, but Eggers does an excellent job taking us inside Max’s head and motivations. Although I don’t remember what it’s like to be a 9-year-old, I would bet that this novel is at least a competent reflection of what it would be like to drop buckets of water all over your sister’s room just because.