SPOILER ALERT: This post discusses the film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are.” It came out quite a while ago. If you wanted to see it, you probably already have. Still, if you don’t want any spoilers, mosey on along.
I saw “Where the Wild Things Are” with my wife, back when it was in theaters. I didn’t see it because I had any particular attachment to the book from my childhood. Nor because of the controversy at the time surrounding the question of whether it was too visceral or violent for children (though I now realize young children are not, and never were, its audience). I saw it because we hadn’t gone to a movie in a while, and we had a sitter.
After, we walked out into the blinding afternoon sun, and my wife asked what I thought. I recall not saying much, because I didn’t really know yet. So I turned the question back to her, and I remember that she sounded unimpressed, and a little confused. What on earth was the point of that movie, she wanted to know. It’s a fair question, given such a short story stretched to the length of a feature film. She was looking for the moral, I guess. But where was it?
- Max gets into trouble at home.
- Max runs away to an island full of Wild Things.
- Max becomes their king and has adventures.
- Max goes home, hopefully wiser.
The plot is hardly more complex than the book. Maybe the point was to take something familiar and show it in a funhouse mirror under a blacklight. (A technique known as Tim Burtoning.)
What I’ve since come to realize is the reason she didn’t get the movie. It’s because her parents are still married.
In the beginning of the movie, it’s apparent that Max’s dad is gone. I don’t recall if it’s spelled out where he’s gone, but given modern American culture, the default assumption is divorce.
Max is alone a lot of the time. He seems to have no friends. He acts up. He gets into trouble. Frankly, he’s a bit weird, wearing a wolf costume and wrestling his dog. You can see that Max has been profoundly affected by his situation. He’s changed, for the worse.
When Max reaches the island, he sees one of the Wild Things (Carol) in a rage. Carol is wandering around destroying things. He’s saying it’s all wrong; it needs to be destroyed; we need to start again. He smashes the Wild Thing huts. He smashes everything he can. Max comes out of hiding and joins the destruction. This makes sense to him. This feels right.
The Wild Things, seeing him, encircle him and try to figure him out. Logically, you know they aren’t going to eat the star of the film so early, yet you’re kind of afraid they just might. I mean, they’re wild things after all. Max is beset on all sides by seemingly insurmountable opponents, gnashing their teeth, towering over him, blotting out the sky.
Max takes charge, and convinces them he is their king. Madcap adventure ensues. I’m not going to rehash the entire plot; either you’ve already seen it, or you haven’t (in which case I don’t want to ruin every scene, right?)
The initial scenes are what tie it all together. It’s not about Max being on a fantasy adventure. It doesn’t matter that he’s on an island, or that the creatures he’s cavorting with are ten feet tall with razor-sharp teeth and conflated species. That’s just eye candy.
Here’s what matters: fracture, change, growth, illumination.
Max was once, we assume, a fairly normal kid, now scarred. Nothing is as it should be for him. Like Carol, he feels a desire to start over, to tear it all down. To start fresh, because it can’t get better from where he’s standing. No, from here every direction leads downhill. He is surrounded by impossible problems, staring up at them from the bottom of a pit he can’t see a way to climb out of.
Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure that everyone does. I suspect anyone who has lived inside a system and had that system suddenly disintegrate around them knows. Everything makes perfect sense, and then boom—the fundamental assumptions you have lived under turn out to be bullshit. What now? You want to destroy everything and go back to the drawing board. You’re the proverbial author at the typewriter who’s given up on the page, crumpling it up and tossing it away. That new, blank sheet holds so much promise, doesn’t it? It hasn’t been soiled by reality yet. It still looks so perfect.
Tear it Down, Start Again. A feeling familiar to Tyler Durden, Noah’s God, Carol, Max, and myself. It’s liberating and confining, all at once.
But does my wife know this feeling? Honestly, I don’t know, and I haven’t asked her. But if I had to guess, I would say no, not really. In another form, maybe. But not the way I think of it.