wild things and kings

I’m putting this entire post behind a jump, because I hate having things spoiled. However, I wanted to write about seeing Where the Wild Things Are last night, so click on through if you’ve seen it or if you don’t mind being spoiled.

I have been looking forward to WTWTA for MONTHS because of the stunningly gorgeous trailer and because of the combination of Spike Jonze (director) and Dave Eggers (screenwriter and author of one of my favorite books, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius).

In some ways, maybe my expectations were TOO high, but they were luckily tempered by reading a friend’s Facebook status right before we left to see it.  She called the movie “disturbing and disappointing.” So, going in, I knew that I should probably not expect a happy romp (aka “wild rumpus”) in the woods with the Wild Things.

And the movie was definitely not happy.  In fact, I’d say it was almost devoid of hope at all.

Max is a young boy whose parents are divorced, whose sister is growing up and away from him, whose mother is beginning to date other men, who feels out of control and unable to understand the relationships the women in his life are forming with other people, particularly men.  All of this comes to a head one night, when he sees his mother kiss another man, and in a rage, stands on the kitchen counter, demanding his mother “FEED ME, WOMAN!”  She chases him off the counter and around the house, and in a scuffle he bites her on the shoulder, causing her to drop him on the ground with tears in her eyes. He runs out the door and down the street, into the woods, where he finds a small sailboat that takes him to the island of the Wild Things.

As he approaches the Wild Things, who seem to be destroying very large birds’ nests, he sees Carol (probably the Wild Thing you think of when you think of this book), who seems to be angry and destructive and on the outs with the others, just like Max himself.  Max steps in and “helps” in this destruction and at first, the other Wild Things threaten to eat him (it turns out Carol was destroying the Wild Things’ houses, and Max was helping!), before a quick-thinking Max declares that he is their King, and he has powers to take away all loneliness and shield them from sadness, and that he will help them make a place where only the things they want to happen can happen.  He is crowned and given a scepter, and the Wild Rumpus starts.  The next day they start building a fort where only the things they want to happen will happen, and where anyone who enters who isn’t wanted will have their brains removed.

Here I have to point out that my overall impression was that the Wild Things “suck at life.”  They are negative and selfish, squabbling with each other and shooting each other down.  They were jealous of each other’s friendships and skeptical of each other’s motives.  They were even violent with each other, as one truly horrifying scene (again, if you’re reading up to this point, you’re spoiled already, but seriously, SPOILER) has Carol rip off another Wild Thing, Douglas’s arm, which is later replaced by a twig, a truly disturbing visual that for me, referenced Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, particularly the Julie Taymore film version, in which a young woman is raped and her arms are cut off and replaced with tree branches.

In particular, Carol is at odds with the other Wild Things because of the way he has been acting out as a result of jealousy of his best friend, another Wild Thing named KW, who has been spending a lot of time away from the group with her mysterious new friends known as Bob and Terry.  The Bob and Terry aspect was truly weird. Bob and Terry turn out to be owls. Owls that KW summons by throwing rocks at them and knocking them out of the sky.  And she claims that Bob and Terry are very wise and nonjudgmental (just like an older sister might say of her older pot-smoking friends, or a mom might say of her new boyfriend), but Max and Carol can’t understand a word they say.  In some ways, I get that Jonze is trying to show just how bizarre and unintelligible adult relationships are to kids, but the owl thing was just truly weird, even in a world full of Wild Things and giant bird nest forts and enormous roving dogs in deserts.

Ultimately, the Wild Things are hopeless, and Max is just a little boy, not a king.  Or as one of the characters says, he’s just a little boy, pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king.  He can’t take away their loneliness or sadness, because he can’t take away his own.  He can’t help them navigate changing relationships, because he can’t do this himself.  He says to KW, “I wish you had a mother,” and he means it, suddenly realizing that the time has come to return to his mother, whom he realizes he has hurt deeply and not just with his bite.  However, not all the characters take Max’s “unmasking” so well, and Carol, paralleling what Max had said to his own mother, says he’s going to “eat him up,” chasing him through the woods in a very scary scene.  As Max leaves the Wild Things, Douglas minus one arm, the Fort half destroyed, without saying an actual goodbye to Carol, I had little hope that anything would change for the Wild Things, that anything could heal their deep dysfunction.

So while Max returns home to his mother like a true prodigal into her open arms and is rewarded with a feast, not of a fatted calf but a slice of chocolate cake and a tall glass of milk, the film felt very unresolved to me.  What about the Wild Things?  Perhaps the point is that when we have on our “wolf suits” of anger and are lashing out at the ones we love, there is no hope, there is no healing.  However, as a spiritual person, and a practicing Christian, the Wild Things’ and Max’s desire for a King who could shield them from sadness and loneliness had a very biblical resonance for me.

I saw a Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good–tears gone, crying gone, pain gone–all the first order of things gone…Look! I’m making everything new.” -Revelation 21:3-5

This New Jerusalem is the fort where only the things we want to happen can happen (though thankfully, no one’s brains are removed and all are welcome). This God is the King who can shield us from sadness and loneliness, who can wipe every tear from our eyes. With this King, we don’t even have to worry about death, even the death of the sun, something that figures into the film in a way I think is symbolic of a first realization that we and everything around us will die.

I know I can’t expect EVERYTHING from a secular film, and so I am happy just to see the real need for this kind of King and this kind of “fort” depicted in a film in such a heartbreaking way.  However, the film leaves the viewer without any hope for something better for the Wild Things, who don’t have a parent’s loving arms to run to, and as a result, to me, felt incomplete.

Still, if you somehow read this entire post and HAVEN’T seen this film yet, I definitely do recommend it.  It is beautiful, it is heartbreaking, and it is still very true to me to what it feels like to be a child whose whole world is changing.  As a child of divorce, I could particularly relate to Max’s confusion and anger.  It’s just not a “happy” film in the sense of what we’re used to in films about childhood, and I’d say it’s definitely not a film for younger kids– the people who have said that it’s a film for the kid inside adults rather than a film for kids are right.

Updated because I spelled Carol’s name wrong the first time around.

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7 thoughts on “wild things and kings

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful review. I have a question for you: How much did your nostalgia for the book impact your impressions of the movie? I keep hearing other reviewers refer to the book as “beloved,” but I don’t remember much about it. I know I read it, but the story didn’t really resonate with me back then. (Possibly because I was a goody-two-shoes kid who would’ve never run away from home, ha!) So anyway, I’ve been wondering whether the film would stand on its own. Does the movie manage to make the characters interesting/lovable without fond memories of the book to color them?

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    • Kivrin– I sort of purposefully did not revisit the book before seeing the movie, because I just wanted to experience the film. For the most part, what I loved from the book was the images, and the film definitely achieved the look and feel of the Wild Things and their world, I think. I remembered little of the story beyond the bare outline: boy fights with mom who sends him to bed without supper, runs away to the Wild Things, wild rumpus, and…somehow he ends up back home. So I think the fact that I really didn’t remember much of the story might have made it possible for me to just experience the film as a film. Though I guess I wanted the Wild Things to be more “fun” and instead, as they describe themselves, they are “downers.”

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  2. This was a really well-written review, and highlighted a lot of impressions I had about the film after seeing it. I do agree that the violence amongst the wild things is very disturbing, especially Carrol’s ripping off Douglas’s arm and throwing rocks at the owls. I also agree that this film is very disheartening, for me especially because the wild things are never satisfied: they allow themselves to feel hope, then hope turns to disappointment because nothing’s perfect, and then disappointment turns to anger. It really touched on me the significance of how you can’t expect the world you live in to be perfect and everyone to respond the way you want. But (I think) the world of the wild things was a world conceived by Max’s imagination, which was really a projection/simulation of his real world. He was looking for security and couldn’t find it in his real world, so he relied on his imagination, which was superficial because it was a means of escape, and therefore unfulfilling (and even then he realized he couldn’t escape from his problems, because every world has its own problems). I also think the message Max and the film conveyed is that anger is a destructive, cyclical pattern, and if there is any hope to be found in this film, it has to do with becoming more self-aware and empathetic rather than reactive. Instead of reacting to one’s environment, to situations you feel you have no power in, be more appreciative, empathetic and communicative in more nurturing ways. I think the Wild Things, as a figment of imagination, were left behind on the island because Max left them behind; he didn’t need it for security anymore because he realized his home with his family was what he needed.

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    • I think the point about them being imaginary is a good one, Kendall, and the “imaginaryness” of the Wild Things was perhaps more apparent in the book, where their world literally grows in Max’s bedroom, than in the film, where he runs away from his house and into the woods. The point about leaving behind this imaginary world full of reactive creatures is also a good one. It also occurs to me that each of the Wild Things is sort of an embodiment of anger or insecurity or jealousy, and in some ways those one sided emotions do have to be either dealt with or left behind– you can’t keep “hanging out” with those sorts of feelings and expect things to improve.

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  3. omg… Dr. Boling lent me his copy of Julie Taymore’s Titus… the part you referenced is honestly THE most disturbing scene out of any film I’ve ever seen. Although I can’t give it the title of overall most disturbing film because that would definitely go to A Clockwork Orange.

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  4. Just read a comment on Jezebel that pretty much summed up what I think a lot of the film is about: “This movie illustrates a very important crisis that occurs for what I assumed was every child. One day, you realize that your parents are people. You realize the unrealistic expectations you’ve placed on them, and that you’ve regarded them as god-like creatures with limitless power and authority.

    All at once, Max realizes that his mother and sister are living the same silently dramatic inner struggles that he is, and that their lives are not, in fact, dedicated to his comfort.”

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