Over 40 years ago Maurice Sendak gave children and grownups a tale about a boy, family and fantasy that seems like it will last forever. With courageous creativity Spike Jonze has taken Sendak's book and produced a visually astounding and psychologically turbulent film that warrants recognition in its own right.
The book story, known by heart by so many around the world, is about Max and his night with the wild things. The film has Max living with his self-absorbed teenage sister and divorced mother who is struggling to maintain a job, home and family, and have some romance in her lonely life. He is a boy "out of control" as his mother declares after countless episodes where he provokes trouble and then suffers its consequences. He is a boy like so many children today whose distress runs deep and reflects the agonies of our age: families on the edge, latch key children and communities that lack a sustaining center for their members. Max suffers the demons of loneliness, unbridled anger, sadness, and helplessness; these are the wild things of his emotions that he soon discovers follow him wherever he goes. What else could we expect from children (and adults and big furry and feathered creatures) when they are ignored, hurt and frightened? But he also has determination and hubris, a boy who builds forts and igloos and sails the seas of his fantasy to try to find a world where troubles can be mastered, even by little boys.
So Max runs away from the pain of his family, the brave captain of a sailboat that transports him under starry skies and across stormy waters until he happens upon an island inhabited by the wild things. There he discovers the same demons he fled but now embodied in these huge and expressive creatures whom he finds busy destroying their homes and each other and who greet Max with hostility and threats. But he stands up to them, and when they ask him if he can take away the loneliness he assures them he can, as well as sadness, for he has great powers. They declare him their king, and Max dons his crown with pride. He is no longer a mere boy but the ruler of the land of the wild things: let the rumpus begin!
Some movie reviewers I have read seem to regret how the film departs from the book and dedicates much of its time to portraying the individual and collective troubles of the wild things. They bicker, they fight, they pout, they complain, they yearn yet do little to satisfy their yearnings. They are all so human. They echo the existence Max has fled. He is the commander of this parallel universe and wearing the mantle of king he is called upon, as he promises, to fix it. I think this is where the film becomes a work of art of its own -- no longer Sendak but Jonze and his collaborators taking us on what is a contemporary journey through the human condition.
What makes the film so memorable was that Max's time as king was so revealing and instructive about us all. Max had no magic powers, no means of creating a happy thereafter. He was a modern king who confronted the complexity of troubled individuals and dysfunctional families. He tried to bring his kingdom happiness yet could only deliver a touch of relief, evanescent as it would be, only to be overtaken by the demons surfacing again as they do in ordinary life. But that made Max, and the film, all the more real, amidst its sumptuous imaginary setting. Yet, at the end of the film, everyone is just a little bit transformed. As a boy Max could see how his mother loved him and sacrificed for him; his mother could drink again from the loving forbearance she would need to sustain herself and thus be able to fall into restful sleep; and the wild things, well they were poised to try to wrestle with their demons and maybe trade kindness for meanness, and community for chaos. For the wonder of our lives is not about the ideal; it is about trying, forgiving, loving and bit by bit gaining perspective on who we are, and how we need to be. When a child and the wild things show us that, then we have been on a journey well worth taking.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate.
Lloyd I Sederer, MD
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