I see from trailer glimpses on television that they’re making a feature film of Maurice Sendak’s superb book Where The Wild Things Are.
I first came across this work of genius – I don’t use that word lightly – a generation ago when I was teaching five to six year olds. In that classroom there were bulging bookshelves and as you can imagine there were lots of story times – virtually on the hour every hour.
One day a little boy brought me Where The Wild Things Are so I could read it to him and his friend. The book was new to me. I turned the pages and admired the subtle and wonderful colours, the restrained, powerful language. But then I looked with concern at the alarming figures – The Wild Things – that dominate the book. They are great gargoyles with legs – each with its own alarming identity.
‘Go on! Read it!’ says the little boy, his eyes shining. ‘You’ll like it! You’ll like Max!’
It is Max’s story. He stands there defiantly on the page wearing what looks like a white Babygro (called a wolf suit) complete with hood and horns and the smug half-smiling face of a revolutionary. My five year old boys recognise him as one of themselves. We see Max raging around in his wolf suit harassing the dog with a fork and hear his mother tell him he’s a wild thing and send him to bed without his supper.
His round face tells us of his outrage at this indignity. He will not be cowed. Then in his bedroom a forest grows around his bed with an ocean lapping at its edge. (See the book to see how wonderfully Sendak evokes this…) Max, our hero, ventures into this forest and rows a boat across the ocean to the land where the Wild Things are. And here they all are! Sendak treats us to a full double spread of the monstrous wild things.
The boys beside me watch my reaction and laugh and chortle, their fingers on the wild things. When I look closer I see why. These creatures are indeed grotesque and superficially terrible and Max is very small beside them. However they are also great, gallumphing, jolly creatures and before long Max – still with the smug-hero look on his face – is their king, complete with crown over the ears of his wolf suit.
He has a fine time lording over their games but becomes tired and a bit hungry and makes for home. When he gets home the forest in his bedroom dissolves and his supper is there on the table and it is still hot.
I have to tell you I replaced that book several times in that classroom. The successive copies became worn out with sheer loving use. These small children did not need me to read it to them as it tells its own story on their terms. Some learned to read through it. One doesn’t need to be a psychiatrist or a developmentalist to note that it fit their stage in life like a key in a lock. Burgeoning power, frustrating impotence, powerful imagination, unknown worlds to conquer, the need to be loved, the need have some control – all these are bundled together in this beautiful book for the child internalise without interfering adult explanation or intervention.
As I said, it’s a work of genius.
Now this work of genius has been transformed into a film just in time for Christmas. But, I see from TV trailers this this Max is an older adventurer. He swashes and buckles rather than sits there on the page with his smug-revolutionary baby face. The Wild Things here seem cartoonesque, over- characterised. There is music, dialogue. And worst of all there is no bedroom-forest! Apparently Maurice Sendak objected to this but he had to agree to disagree and the forest was out!
The book, in short, has been de-magicked. Whereas the book is a thing that reflects and respects a small child’s inner world and can be absorbed by a child in his own time and space, the film is yet another example of adult colonisation of a piece of children’s magic for more complex un-childlike ends.
Some would say film is another kind of art and will bring more people to read Sendak’s wonderful book. I say the perpetrators should be sent to bed without their supper…