Friday, January 28, 2011

Where the Wild Things Aren't

Adapting a book to film almost always seems to emphasize the shortcomings of the latter, usually because the adapter wasn't the equal of the writer. When it was announced that Spike Jonez was to direct a film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's book, Where the Wild Things Are, I was saddened. Who could possibly make a film of such a beautiful book, that is deeper than most books a hundred times its length? Despite my initial reaction I looked forward to seeing the film, simply because the book has stayed with me since my boyhood. (It was published in 1963.)

As I feared, Jonez has not done well by Sendak. He never impressed me as a filmmaker. His two well-received films, Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation, with scripts by Charlie Kaufman, were well-received but were, as I have commented elsewhere, clever in ways that demonstrated the difference between cleverness and intelligence.

Aside from the costumes of Max and the appearance of the "wild things," Jonez betrayed the Sendak book fundamentally. He didn't so much translate the book into the different medium as he made the common mistake of trying to open it up into a far too recognizable and uninteresting world - which is not where I found Sendak's book. For instance, instead of Max being punished by being sent to his room (where his fantasy originates), Jonez has him run away from home and climb aboard a boat in a pond. And in the book, Max returns to his room when his fantasy is over to find his supper waiting for him. Jonez had to create an unmoving reunion scene between Max and his mother.

Childhood is the most mysterious and wonderful of places - both immeasurably infinite and yet somehow intimate. The atmosphere of my own childhood imagination, which is the only frame of reference I can draw from, was always occluded and quiet, inviting and evocative. Sendak's wild things are imposing enough to threaten everything with destruction but sweet enough to embrace them all. I found them adorable when I was a boy, and looking at Sendak's illustrations again after the many intervening years makes me love them all over again.

In the film, the wild things look the same as the ones on the page, until they move. Then they look like actors in creature suits - muppets with slightly more animated faces. I doubt that Jonez had the budget (or the skill) to try something more technically complicated, like CGI. His ideas are simple, but too neat, too much of a "solution" to the problem of realizing the reality of the wild things. CGI presents its own problems when it comes to interaction with live actors - too often they don't seem to be living on the same plane. But certainly Jonez could've used it more effectively than his over sized muppets. Some excellent actors lend their voices to the wild things - James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, and Forest Whitaker. Credit is even given to the "suit performers" inside the muppets. It took two of them to operate the characters K.W. and Bernard the Bull.

That leaves us with the live action scenes, with the live action actors. Catherine Keener plays the mother of Max, and a more thankless job could not have been asked of such a superb actress. I suppose something more had to be made of Max's home scenes to convince adults that this wasn't a movie for kids. It would've been a far better film if Jonez had tried to make a movie for kids. Adults make the mistake of thinking that something designed for children will be boring to them, since they assume it will be silly or naive. This is one of the biggest problems with works produced expressly for children in the first place. While trying valiantly to avoid being condescending, they insult a child's intelligence by being too simple. Nobody seems to remember what they were like as children, which is the only way we can truly understand them.

Only a true artist, like Sendak himself, could capture the perspective of a child. In one of his incomparable letters, Rilke describes a child's perspective on the world:

"And so it is that most people have no idea how beautiful the world is and how much magnificence is revealed in the tiniest things, in some flower, in a stone, in tree bark, or in a birch leaf. The grown-ups, going about their business and worries, and tormenting themselves with all kinds of details, gradually lose the perspective for these riches that children, when they are attentive and good, soon notice and love with their whole heart. And yet the greatest beauty would be achieved if everyone remained in this regard always like attentive and good children, simple and pious in sensitivities, and if people did not lose the capacity for taking pleasure as intensely in a birch leaf or a peacock’s feather or the wing of a hooded crow as in a mighty mountain or a splendid palace. What is small is not small in itself, just as that which is great is not—great. A great and eternal beauty passes through the whole world, and it is distributed fairly over that which is small and that which is large; for in such important and essential matters, no injustice is to be found on earth." (Letter to Helmut Westhof, translated by S.H.)

Instead of trying to drag Sendak's book to Movieland, Jonez should've done something like Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, which uses old-fashioned stop-motion animation to create an utterly new world, where Roald Dahl's book could live and breathe.

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