Monday, 22 November 2010

Where The Wild Things Are

Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are is one of my holy books. I’m not alone in that, of course: it’s a widely adored picture book. But I can make a boast true of few Sendakophiles: I have rewritten Where The Wild Things Are, as a novel called New Model Army, very far removed from the original in terms of its manifest content, very much closer (perhaps too obviously so) in terms of its latent symbols and mood.

I haven’t seen the Spike Jonze movie version, although I probably will, at some point. But I have now read David Eggers novelisation. It’s not a bad novel, exactly (though neither is it a very good one), but it gets the original very wrong, I think; and more pressingly it gets the process of adapting the original wrong. What I mean by this latter observation is that it puts all its energy into the surface details of the picture book, and seems weirdly blind to the deeper currents of the text ... it maintains and elaborates, sometimes at pitifully diluted length, the manifest content of Sendak’s original, and misrepresents and distorts the latent elements. Since it’s the latent elements that give the book its extraordinary potency, this is little short of disastrous.

Of course, maybe I am saying nothing here. It could be that I’m talking not about Maurice Sendak’s original book, only the hybrid of it twined bindweedily around the stem of my imagination. Eggers is under no obligation to write a novel about my imagination, after all. And lots of the specifics of the novelisation are cannily worked out: Max is the son of a bitter single mother, and has an older sister who doesn’t want to play with him any more. The forest grows not in his room, but exists actually outside his house (he’s warned against entering). He runs away, into this forest, takes the boat from there, and ends up where the wild things are. The book calls them ‘infant-like, almost cute, and at the same time pathetic, tragic’, which isn’t how they strike me. But let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that. Anyway, the wild things themselves have a strange selection of names—strange, that is, for wild things (I suppose that’s Eggers’ point): Carol, a male, is the main figure, but there’s also Douglas and Catherine. There’s a lot of ‘I’ll eat you!’ running about. Max burns their forest down. They build a fort. Towards the end, to escape the wrath of Carol, Katherine does eat Max, and the lad is later cut from her stomach. Then he goes home.

Where The Wild Things Are is a boy’s book: it’s a book about the joys of playing rough, of consciously misbehaving, and being a beast. But much more potently than that, it’s a pure narrative distillation of Fort-Da. The boy’s mother stops his fun, and he casts her, metaphorically, over the side of his cot, via the brilliant expedient of generating a whole new imaginative world that doesn’t contain her. But of course the logic of Fort-Da is that he must, symbolically, spool the mother back in to him—or in this case draw in the real world of his room again.

Sendak’s original has so many beautiful and eloquent moments, and is so potently economical, I could spend many thousands of words talking about it. But I’ll limit myself to noting only a couple of things, because they strike me as illustrative of the way in which Eggers retread wholly misses the forcefulness of the source text. In Sendak, it’s the case that the land of the wild things is more immediate and vivid than reality -- look at the way he portrays Max’s initial mischief in tiny boxes of illustration surrounded by several inches of white margin, and the way the size of the picture grows along with the forest in his bedroom, until it fills the entire page. (That the final image of Max in his room, with the meal waiting for him still hot, also fills the page suggests to me that he has been somehow enriched by his sojourn in the Wild Things’ land). Watch what Sendak does with the moon in his illustrations. There’s nothing so nuanced in the expository blubber of Eggers’ prose.

But more fatally, Eggers wholly fluffs, or misses, the two crucial beats of the story. The first immediately follows the three-page Wild Rumpus (Eggers includes the Rumpus, although shifts its tenor from sheer jouissance to fright and chase). Then:
“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all the wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being kind of where the wild things are.
I never cry at books (I almost never cry at anything at all: my upper lip being so stiff) but there’s something in the piercing directness of that articulation, about Max wanting to be where someone loved him best of all, that makes my eyes hot with incipient tears. There’s nothing equivalent in Eggers novel; which is to say, the moment of loneliness is smeared and diluted and spread over the whole section.

Then there’s my favourite moment of all the original book. My 2-year-old’s fond of this bit too: I think it speaks (to him) of the awesome power he has recently discovered, and which he utilizes a great deal. The power of saying ‘no!’
But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go—
We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”
And Max said, “No!”
So he gets back in the boat and sails home. Look at the picture: Max is smiling. He’s happy. He understands that wildthingishness is not violence, or malevolence, or fear, or existential dread, or anything of the things Eggers talks about. It’s a purer joy. We’ll eat you up—we love you so! is so perfect a line: it captures both the extraordinarily edible quality of little kids, the way our (parental) love for them almost spills over into wanting to devour them, they’re so delicious. And it also captures the childish perspective too: where apprehending the world is most completely and immediately done orally, where eating is the most immediate sensual pleasure. Egger has nothing so brilliant in his account.
When he awoke he saw all of the beasts, all but Carol, before him. They had untied his boat and had prepared it to sail. Max rose from Katherines lap and stood, still feeling light-headed.

"So you're going," Douglas said ...

Max nodded.

Douglas extended his left hand. Max shook it.

"You were the best thinker we ever had," Douglas said.

Max tried to smile.

"I'm sorry for all this," Ira said quietly. "I blame myself."

Max hugged him. "Don't."

Judith and Max exchanged glances. She made a face that said Oops, sorry! then emitted a high nervous laugh. "I never know what to say in these situations," she said. [273]
To be clear: Eggers reads this superb, intense, poetic moment, almost the climax of Sendak's book, in terms of downbeat social awkwardness and embarrassment. Has he ever met a child? Has he ever been a child?

And Max said: NO.


Abigail Nussbaum said...

I've seen (and been underwhelmed by) the film but haven't read Eggers's book. The Sendak is, of course, an old favorite, though it's been years since I read it. There are ways in which the film captures childhood very well, particularly in the first half in which Max plays with total abandon, to the exasperation of his mother and sister. But the interlude with the Wild Things is about the loss of childhood and a sense of tragedy and heartbreak at that loss that, as you say, seems entirely un-childlike. It's how an adult, even a young one, would feel once they've irrevocably passed out of childhood, not the reaction of a child still capable of running off to the king of the Wild Things.

Adam Roberts said...

Would you recommend the film, then? Rach took our daughter Lily to it (which is why I didn't get to see it) and spoke quite highly of it. Though she said some of the chase stuff scared Lily.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I certainly wouldn't recommend it to children - while I wouldn't necessarily expect it to scare them, it is likely to bore them. There are things I liked about the film - the early segments in the real world, the design of the Wild Things, the music - but on the whole I wasn't terribly impressed.

Paul said...

todd said...

i found the film to be a story about 2 monsters going through a divorce and all their friends determing what side they should be on. i was greatly saddened by the film over all.

DC said...

Not sure what the first comment etiquette is around here. Have been reading the blog for a few months now and very much enjoying it - hope you don't mind if I leap in willy nilly.

So, for variation if nothing else: I rather liked the film (I take it that D. Egger's novel is a gussied up book-of-the-film first and a cover version of the picture book second - in any event I plan to elide novel and film for these purposes). Mind you, Sendak's book was not something I grew up with, so there was never any question of raining on my cherished pumpkin patch.

It transposes the story onto a 9 year old child - the Max of the book must be younger, right? What 9 year old wears a wolf costume? - and I think captures something of both the giddiness and the fractiousness of the way children of that age play together. I remember alliances shifting day to day, underpinned by absolute notions of who was supposed to be best friend's with whom. It is also, I guess, about a child trying to understand why a family might be fractured. I can quite see that this would jar against what seems to be a more primal, or fundamental, reading, Adam, but I don't think it's quite as necessarily invalid in itself as you suggest.

Tangentially, the other reason I liked the film as much as I did was in reaction to the self-involved aestheticism of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox (aimed at parents who buy their children toys in the Tate Modern gift shop it seemed to me at the time).

I suspect both of these opinions could be in need of review.

Meanwhile I'd like to read the post that's primarily about Sendak, without any intereference from old Eggers - that sounds great.

Oof - too long for a comment? Sorry! Thanks for your time!

Adam Roberts said...

DC: you're very welcome! Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

I'll take your word on the film; and, yes, surely Max in the Sendak is younger than 9. It's interesting to me to contemplate what my reaction to this novel might have been if I'd not grown up with the Sendak, actually. Certainly all the things you mention 'the giddiness and the fractiousness of the way children of that age play together ... a child trying to understand why a family might be fractured' sounds really fascinating topics, fictively speaking.

springer said...

I don't entirely begrudge the adaptation, but I wish Eggers and Jonze had found a new name for their joint project. The novel and film are certainly inspired by Sendak's book, but as you say, they've either missed the point of it, or more charitably, have chosen to read it in a different way.

Geoff Ryman's Was does something like this, I think. I'm a great admirer of that novel, but even I'd take issue with it if he'd called it The Wizard of Oz.

Wally said...

I was thinking of this review the other day. I probably read Where the Wild Things Are at some point, years ago, but I have no memory of doing so; since Feliks was born I've read it many, many times, and have fallen (not unexpectedly) completely in love with it, and with Sendak. Feliks loves to 'read' it aloud -- he's memorized the sounds, many of the words, and even our intonations. He's about 2-1/2 now.

The other day he got to the first 'terrible eyes' page and dug into it with theatrical abandon. ROOOAAAARRRRED!! TERRRRRRIBLE CLAAAAAWWWS!! I was so proud!

Then he turned the page and looked solemn, and lowered his voice to a whisper, and said very quietly to himself: 'Til Max said, Be still.'

The rest of the book he was silent, just turning the pages and taking in the pictures. He was very focused and intense; he almost looked puzzled. When he reached the end he flipped back a few pages and said again, 'Roared their terrrrrible roars, and gnashed their terrrrrible teeeeeth...' Then he closed the book, whispered something to himself, set it aside, and started to play with a piece of ribbon.

I want to carry that memory with me my whole life, but I know I won't.