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—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.
We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”
And Max said, “No!”
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.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?
"So you're going," Douglas said ...
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. 
And Max said: NO.