Children’s literature as primal therapy

Where The Wild Things Are is the perfect kids’ story for our child-centred, adult-doubting, wisdom-lite times.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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When it comes to Where The Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze’s live-action version of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story, I don’t know which camp is worse: the thirtysomething purists furious that Jonze has dared to ‘mess around’ with their favourite childhood book (‘THIS MOVIE HAS RUINED MY CHILDHOOD’ wails one blogger), or the thirtysomething kidults who are, like, uber-delighted that Jonze has ‘brought our childhoods’ to the big screen.

Probably the first camp is the most annoying: the purists, the kind of people who last year accused Steven Spielberg of ‘raping my childhood’ by daring to bring back Indiana Jones (1). This ‘Hands off Sendak’ brigade – who accuse Jonze of ‘destroying a perfect book’; of turning a scary kids’ story into a ‘piece of therapy’; of making the wild things into ‘dysfunctional, neurotic humans with their own seemingly random ishoos’ (2) – are missing the point: all of these things are present in Sendak’s original story, and Jonze has simply drawn them out and updated them for our super-Oprahised age of child-centredness and primal emotions.

It is true that Jonze, with the blessing of Sendak, has altered and added to and watered down the book version of Where The Wild Things Are, and it is striking which parts of the book he has chosen to change and tame. Sendak’s book, first published in 1963, is enormously popular – so popular that we even had it in the distinctly unbookish, unintellectual, toy-strewn, mud-stained house that I grew up in. In just nine sentences it tells the story of Max, a brash and unsympathetic character, who roams around his home ‘making mischief’ in a wolf costume. As a punishment, his mother (who is never seen, only heard) sends him to bed without any supper. With his imagination, or possibly in a dream, Max sees his bedroom turn into a wild forest with a sea and he sets sail for the land of the Wild Things.

He calms the Wild Things (who are kind of upright cows and goats, half-beast, half-cattle; very strange) by ‘staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once’. ‘BE STILL!’ he tells them. He’s then made into the king of the Wild Things, after which he orders the freaky creatures to partake in a ‘wild rumpus’. He gets homesick, sails back to his bedroom, and, in a happy climax, finds his supper waiting for him in his bedroom. ‘And it was still hot’, says the final line of the book, indicating both that Max’s travels were in fact a very brief flight of fancy and, more importantly, that his mother still loves him.

It was always going to be a tough job to turn this simple story into a feature film, and where the purists have a point is in their discomfort with what Jonze has added and taken away. He and Dave Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay) have added all sorts of rational explanations for Max’s mischief-making. Where the book is a story of boyish rage – inexplicable, feel-like-you-want-to-slap-him misbehaviour – the film makes Max (played by Max Records) into a lonely child who, excuse me while I yawn, is simply crying out for some love and attention. It adds an older sister who ignores Max because she’s too busy chatting on the phone, and it makes Max’s mum into a divorcee who canoodles with her boyfriend on the couch while Max runs riot.

No! By rationalising Max’s mischief, the film makes him too sympathetic; it removes the boyishness, the unpredictability, the very wildness of his behaviour, instead presenting him as a damaged creature who simply needs some loving. Or Ritalin. It’s a bit like being told, with the blessing of William Shakespeare himself, that Hamlet was suffering from Schizotypal Personality Disorder. The literary exploration of the mystery of human emotions suffers when it is forced to bend its knee at the contemporary altar of medicalisation.

Jonze and Eggers have also, it’s true, made the Wild Things unwild. They have given them names like Carol, Alexander and KW (perhaps they thought they would be accused of anti-Semitism if they used the names Sendak gave the beasts for the 1980 opera version of Where The Wild Things Are: Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile and Bernard). And the beasts, like Max, are not so much wild and angry as damaged. They smash things up because they have been spurned in love, feel inadequate, or have some other bottled-up issues. Unbelievably, their wildness becomes a form of primal therapy, the opening of the ‘anger valve’ in a controlled environment, like when Jerry Springer provides an emotional boxing ring for poor, depressed white people. Jonze’s film confirms that wildness, essentially anger, is considered the most dangerous emotion these days: it must be carefully expressed, released, and done away with. And sure enough the Wild Things end up as Mild Things, blubbing their eyes out when Max sails home.

Yet the fact is that the germ for all this psychobabble is in Sendak’s book itself. Sendak’s story was an important turning point in children’s literature, replacing children’s engagement with the external world and its sometimes scary forces with a child’s attempt to calm his inner demons. It is explicitly Freudian (and Sendak says he intended it as such): a raging child is isolated in his room; he conjures up all sorts of demons from his mind; he indulges these demons (having a ‘wild rumpus’) and then calms them (‘BE STILL!’), before returning to the real world. We know that these demons spring from Max’s imagination rather than being real, because in one of the first illustrations of Max’s bedroom there is a child’s drawing of one of the Wild Things pinned to the wall with the words ‘By Max’. It is the story of a boy, with no visible adult guidance or authority, mastering his inner rage.

The book was very controversial when it was first published in 1963 – not only because of the scary-looking Wild Things (some libraries refused to stock it on this basis), but also because the story seems to unfold in a childish vacuum sealed off from adult authority. Where most kids’ stories, from Hansel and Gretel to the Narnia tales, had explored children’s engagement with some real, physical, external world, wherein they learned about fear and loneliness and morality, Where The Wild Things Are takes place in a child’s mind. There are no adult voices (except the stern ‘go to bed’) and there is no obvious moral improvement. There’s just a boy learning, by himself, how to control himself. The wild thing is Max; ‘where the wild things are’ is in boys’ minds and urges.

There has been a great deal of academic analysis of the meaning and import of Sendak’s book. It shows the dangers of ‘detached parenting’, argue some, where children are left to explore things alone; others say Sendak’s book is a product of the way that ‘the dislocation of the 1960s confused the baby-boomers about the best way to [parent]’ (3). Certainly the book speaks to some kind of crisis of adult authority, where child-centred rage-management replaces externally imposed ideas about how to behave and what to think. This, I think, explains the continuing popularity of Sendak’s book – it’s the perfect story for a world in which, sadly, childish self-expression is increasingly seen as being just as valuable, if not more so, than grown-up wisdom, and in which primal self-exploration has taken the place of any shared, passed-on morality. Jonze and Eggers have been truer to Sendak than the childish purists of my generation realise.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Watch the trailer for Where The Wild Things Are below:

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(1) See the Facebook page Stephen [sic] Spielberg and George Lucas raped me (of my childhood)

(2) ‘Less is more’, Deborah Ross, Spectator, 12 December 2009

(3) Nightmarish power of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Sunday Times, 22 November 2009

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