Reading the Book and Film
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is another classic example of children’s literature. In reading the book and film, I began by analyzing the story elements. The most striking element between the book and film is Max, the main character. We are introduced to Max in the film by a series of close-ups and wide shots as he is causing a ruckus and likely getting in trouble. This is similar to how we are introduced to Max in Sendak’s book. In the book, Max is also getting into trouble, leading to the fantastical adventure that takes place. One difference between the movie and book is the depth with which we get to know Max. In the film, we learn that Max is lonely, exemplified by his attempts to get his sister to play with him. Rather than play with him, she tells him to go play with his friends. In the next scene, we see Max bossing around his “friends”, showing viewers both Max’s loneliness and creativity. We also see Max as being sensitive, a side of him not shown in the book. When Max’s snow fort is destroyed, you can see the hurt in his eyes after seeing what has been done.
I found the setting in the book and film to be very different from one another. Sendak’s drawings and descriptions of the setting of the book do not align with the direction chosen by the film makers. In the film, the world to which Max travels is very dreamlike and ethereal. The land in the book is much more concrete and closely resembles an actual jungle. It is likely that filmmaker Spike Jonze chose to go in this direction since Max’s adventure is imaginary. Adding a dreamlike quality to the film was perhaps intended to allow viewers to experience the journey in the same way that Max would.
The plot in both the book and movie are a bit more complex than most children’s stories. For children reading this book and viewing the movie, the plot is simple. Max gets in trouble, Max gets mad and goes away, Max comes home to a warm dinner. As an adult however, the plot becomes more complex. The story becomes a tale of anger and love and how a boy realizes that no matter how naughty he is or what he does, he still has people that love him.
Stylistically, the book and movie are surprisingly similar. I was surprised to come to this conclusion because the book and film seem so different. They are very similar, however, because they are both so surreal. This effect is achieved in different ways, but both techniques leave viewers with the same type of surreal experience. One interesting observation of the book is how the illustrations are laid out on the page. As the story progresses and the action intensifies, the illustrations get larger and take up more of the page. As the story nears the ending, the pictures gets smaller and take up less of the page. This could be a subtle way that Sendak set out to intensify and conclude the story without adding extra text to the story.
Overall, it seems that critics that reviewed the film focused heavily on the psychological and metaphorical elements of the film as well as the choices made in the visuals of the film. In a review on Timeout.com, a critic specifically discussed the use of puppets and CGI to create a surreal feeling in the film. This, coupled with “handheld shots and magic-hour light” created the solid and detailed world that is “uncanny in an age of virtual imagining”. The critics also discuss the social structure of the wild things, comparing them to “a group of long-arrested adolescents left to their own devices”.
Another review, this one by Sarah Silver, is much more critical of the film. She calls the film, “Unnecessarily gloomy and emotionally convoluted,” taking a much different stance than the other review I examined. Silver mentions that Jonze uses a very naturalistic tone in the movie, rather than the fantastical tone set in the book. This visual tone is echoed in the use of tribal sounding music throughout. Silver continues to state that the film takes “itself too seriously”, especially in Max’s “hipster” attire. He is dressed in fingerless gloves and trendy Converse sneakers, something that does not really fit with Max’s persona in the book. She also points out the lifelessness of the characters, something I did not notice at first, but a point that I agree with. In the book, the wild things are very fluid and mobile, unlike the film where they are much more heavy and rigid. During the wild rumpus, the characters seem to dance and float in the book. This is not the case in the movie.
In reading the film, the critics looked at the underlying meaning of the story as well as the quality with which the movie was created. From costumes to puppets, lighting to CGI, the reviewers evaluated whether the choices made by the filmmakers made sense to the original story and to the story being told through the film adaptation. Most of the critics used more of the film language than the literary language, something I found a bit surprising. While they did discuss settings, characters, and plot, most of the reviewers fixated on ideas like metaphors, underlying meanings, social implications, and the mental conditions of the characters. Some of the critics even made political connections, such as when Sarah Silver compared the Max’s leadership over the tribe to the leadership of Obama, “novice leader makes outlandish promises to turn the forest into a utopia.”
Adapting a picture book into a feature length film is quite an undertaking. How do you take a story as well loved as Where the Wild Things Are and make it long enough to be a movie? The book has under 400 words, so creating story of substance while staying true to the original story is an obvious challenge. For me, the most important element in deciding whether a film has been adapting successfully is the emotional reaction that is created. Do I get the same feeling when I watch the movie as I did when I read the book? In the case of Where the Wild Things Are I would say that I did feel many of the same emotions. In the book, we can feel Max’s anger, a feeling we also get from the movie. There is also an element of fear in the book, specifically in relation to the wild things. The movie is also scary in parts, eliciting the same feelings as in the book.
While emotional connections are what speak to me, there are also other important rules that a film adaptation must following, including a respect for the original plot. When filmmakers change the plot of the story, they are creating a new story rather than depicting the story in the book. While some changes are necessary to translate a book into film, the plot should remain as close as possible to the original story. This respect for the plot is also a respect for readers of the book. Readers go into a film expecting to see an interpretation of the story they love. By changing the plot, a filmmaker abandons those fans and their expectations.
Translating the text of such a short story into a feature length film is obviously difficult. Film makers must take the essence of the story and extrapolate that into full dialogue for the movie. I think this is done effectively when the filmmaker does two things. First, I think the film maker should include words and phrases from the original text as much as possible. In Where the Wild Things Are, the “wild rumpus” is a unique saying that is identifiable with the book. Including this in the movie creates a solid connection with the text in the book. The second thing that film makers can do to with the text is to pay attention to the soul of the characters. By making connections with who the characters are, film makers can create more convincing language for their characters.
Obligations of Film
While film is a separate media than books, it is important for film makers to be respectful of the text on which their films are based. It is important that the story follows the same general plot, uses some of the same language as the original text, and elicits the same or similar emotional reactions. These three things are what viewers connect with and will determine who well the film is accepted. One way in which I think the film was especially successful was in its choice of music. I felt that the music chosen was effective in eliciting the emotions felt by Max and the wild things. The screams and frenetic pace left me feeling on edge, exactly the emotion you would be feeling if you were angry and upset.
Edith, good work on thinking through the picturebook and film versions of Where the Wild Things, and what unique aspects of book-to-filmmaking that might need to be considered when the book in a picture book.
I'm Edie - wife, mom, teacher, instructional designer, home renovator,
and lover of nature, travel, technology, and vintage campers!