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Molly Magid Hoagland

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Wild Thing

Posted: 10/28/09 05:49 PM ET

They've gone and made a movie of Where the Wild Things Are.

It is quirky and heartfelt and has made wolf-suited Max a hero for hipster grownups and über-cool kids, who see him as one of their own. But Max's truest soul mates are little kids like our 4-year-old boy, kids whose only power over their parents is still just a rollicking tantrum. Each day he lives the wild ambivalence of early childhood, the impassioned breaking away and coming back that pervades Maurice Sendak's mysterious book and the film. Our son has paged through Wild Things endlessly but he's much too young to see the movie. Watching all that heartache and fight up on a big screen in a dark theater, enacted by a real kid and giant monsters would envelop our tender, mischievous boy in primal terror.

In dreary parent-speak, one could say the whole adventure in the Wild Things book -- ocean-crossing, teeth-gnashing, rumpusing -- happens during a time-out. The unseen mother finally sends Max to his room after he has pounded nails into the wall, chased the dog with a fork, and screamed at her. If Sendak hadn't written it, our son might have coined the "I'll eat you up!" that gets Max in trouble. He quotes it to me triumphantly, with a final tonal flourish -- "DONGG!!" -- the sound of Max's door slamming. (In the film Max is not confined but runs away; his escape is real and dangerous.) Our boy is learning all the rules people are supposed to follow and flirts with breaking them. He tattles on infractions committed by his big brother and friends but then jerks my chain with defiance at home. (When I'm in the right mood, that chutzpah charms me.)

Our angel-faced boy is drawn to the bad and the mean in books and movies. Someone bashed in the head or tied up; someone hauled off to jail; someone stung in the eyes by a hive of bees; a hideous ghoul scaring a baby. Sendak's books are full of those wicked, threatening urges, and his monsters are huger than any grownup, as my little son longs to be -- that's why he is mesmerized by Sendak. He loves those jovial triplet bakers of In the Night Kitchen; with their cudgel-like spoons they stir, cook and nearly smother the boy Mickey. (He triumphs, flying high over them to plunge naked into a bottle of milk.)

In Pierre, the kid's behavior is so impossible his parents leave him home alone, where he lets himself be eaten alive by a lion. (A great moment in the Wild Things film echoes this "I'll-eat-you-up" scene from Pierre.) The parents return, beat the lion with a chair, and the boy eventually is coughed up. That lion-head-beating is so gleefully inspiring to my son I have hidden Pierre for months -- like an anti-Sendak book-banner -- to protect his big brother and the dog.

Our boy's rule-smashing kid-energy -- slamming, stomping, tapping, drumming, pulling the dog's tail -- is new to me. Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the Wild Things screenplay with director Spike Jonze, recalls as a child being "a piece of chocolate away from...a maniacal beast." Not me; I was an only child leery of kids' anarchy. I courted adults and loved school. I didn't harbor wildness to unleash and be tamed -- brattiness at times, but not wildness. The children's books I loved were cozy and unambiguous. Back then I didn't much like what Sendak was getting at with those animal-human hybrids; the fluid border between real and imaginary; the isolation of his child-heroes. (In Sendak, people hardly talk; they barely look at each other.)

Our son can be stormy, but he is also shy, confiding and very sweet. (He holds my cheeks in both hands with almost motherly tenderness.) He is still learning and re-learning the incredible truth that we'll still love him no matter how wild he might act, and no matter how mad we might get. Perhaps it's even harder for him to believe that he will also still love us and have us no matter how mad he gets. (In the heat of the moment that's hard to fathom at any age.)

After a recent bedtime racket of fury, his small head silently found its way to my shoulder while I read the story. That snuggle of reconciliation, the bone-deep hug, the penetrating parent-child gaze -- those things are missing from Sendak's uncanny world, exuberant though it is. The Wild Things movie does portray them, with subtle emotion. (In the end, despite its flaws, it is a more hopeful work than the original.) Sendak's books, for all their primal undercurrents, do not explore the intense surges of love that also course through family life. That love has its own kind of mystery and a deep, resolving power.