A Wild Trajectory

from rumpus to realism

by by Josh Kopin

After a night of mischief, a boy named Max yells at his mother, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” and is sent to bed without supper. Within the walls of his bedroom, Max reaches an island whose monstrous inhabitants appoint him king. He leads them in a wild rumpus and then sends the creatures to sleep without dinner. Lonely for someone who loves him best of all, Max follows the smell of food back home to a still-warm supper and his awaiting mother. In less than a dozen sentences, Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are follows the archetypal hero’s journey; having traveled to a new world, Max conquers mon sters and returns a champion. American mythologist Joseph Campbell hailed Max’s triumph over the wild things as “one of the greatest moments in literature.” The picture book that generations of readers recall as a favorite has sold 19 million copies worldwide.

Undoubtedly, older readers of the classic helped spark the anticipation behind this year’s $100 million film adaptation, co-written by best-selling author Dave Eggers and Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze. But to draw an audience back to a plot 46 years old, certain key factors had to change with the times.

Controversial therapy
Ever since the book’s publication in 1963, critics have proposed that Max’s journey represents a trip through the subconscious where he learns to reign over his inner demons. In this month’s issue of The Psychologist, psychoanalyst Richard Gottlieb describes the original wild things as the “transparent representations of Max’s enraged intention to ‘eat up’ his mother.” These Freudian dimensions of the text motivated much of the controversy the book first faced. As children’s literary expert Leonard Marcus has written, Sendak deviated from prior children’s literature in abandoning the convention of a submissively obedient protagonist and illustrating anger as a natural component of the child psyche. Sendak, for his part, claims he never intended Max’s story to be shocking. He told the Los Angeles Times last week that he did not set out with the intention of “emancipating children.” Still, the radical transgression of a child who did not submit to societal expectations but instead retreated to his own psychological space alarmed many parents, teachers, and librarians in the 1960s.

Sendak’s story did not contextualize Max’s behavior or emotions within any broader external pressures. The young boy’s life is, in fact, depicted as remarkably safe and stable. Even in his fantasy, the wild things never harm him or anyone else. Their threats are comfortingly repetitive; they “roar their terrible roars” and “gnash their terrible teeth” at the beginning and the end of Max’s reign. Max’s anger, presented as the natural and unprovoked manifestation of youthful impishness, provides the sole thrust of the story arc.

Wild Things not only served as an early literary portrayal of the intense emotional realities of childhood, it also offered a coping mechanism for natural but unacceptable impulses. At the end of the book, the smell of home cooking lights the path homeward, indicating that Max has resolved his conflict. Rather than stifling his rage, Max has explored it and then vanquished it. After this catharsis, he voluntarily returns to his mother and the meal she provides. For this reason, children’s literary theorist Maria Tatar calls Wild Things an example of “bibliotherapy,” a “therapeutic model that embraces fantasy as a way of working through the complex
primal emotions of childhood.” 

Despite the controversy, Wild Things went on to win the Caldecott Medal in 1964 and the book has entered the canon of children’s literature. It is remembered not for its subversive edge but for the universally appealing journey it portrays. Parents continue to read it to their children for its eventual resolution and safety. President Obama mentioned Wild Things as a favorite book when he read it to a rapt crowd of youngsters at last spring’s White House Easter Egg Roll.

Inside all of us...fear
In an interview with New York Magazine, Dave Eggers explained, “We had to make it seem like he was a real kid in danger with something real at stake.” In the book there is no underlying melancholy, but making the film Max “real” to Sendak’s grown-up readers meant filling his world with sadness: teeth fall out, monsters lose limbs, and nothing ever grows back. Max’s mother, preoccupied with her own problems, cannot always protect Max from the threats he faces locally and universally; his sister’s reckless friends destroy the protective snow fort he has built, and, as he learns in
school, the sun’s imminent death will destroy the world. After a particularly painful day he lets out his anger by not only threatening his mother (“I’LL EAT YOU UP”) but biting her—hard. When he runs away to the land of wild things, Max comes into contact with his own mortality at the hands of those he trusts. He finds his fantasy world confusing, terrifying, and sad in ways he cannot understand, much less fix. Motivated by defeat rather than empowerment, he returns to a mother equally powerless against the world’s horrors.

In a 2008 Los Angeles Times essay, film critic Sheri Linden identified a Hollywood trend. She refers to psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis’s notion of a “margin of terror” into which society—for survival’s sake—will not venture. Filmmakers, she contends, once kept safely to the edges of that zone of pain and grief, addressing it only obliquely. Referencing The Dark Knight, WALL-E, and Iron Man in particular, Linden writes, “mainstream filmmakers are not always playing by that rule anymore; not only are they not looking away from the margin of terror, they’re sometimes setting up camp there. Even cartoon characters and those based on comic books are gazing straight into the abyss.” In Sendak’s picture book, when the space of loneliness is gestured at, the smell of warm food presents a solution and carries Max safely back home. In updating the story with a layer of realism, Eggers and Jonze make sadness pervasive and permanent. Max, huddled in a fragile igloo or sleeping at the bottom of a heap of heavy monsters, is always in the realm of terror.

Growing pains
When New York boutique Opening Ceremony first offered their $610 adult-sized wolf suit, as The Wall Street Journal noted, they sold out within an hour. Also for sale at Opening Ceremony: a $185 leather headband with horns and a $460 t-shirt dress made of fake fur and nominally inspired by the wild thing Ira. In one photo on the store’s website, a sullen Ira stares into the distance near a model wearing the fuzzy dress paired with exceptionally impractical shoes. This line is part of a resurgence of Wild Things merchandise specifically inspired by the movie. 

According to rumors, toddlers at test screenings were carried out from the theater in bewildered tears. The film has clearly strayed from the “therapeutic model” and cathartic promise Sendak began offering youngsters in the '60s. But these toddlers have grown and so has the plot. The film’s lack of hope, rather than alienating the viewer, encourages participation in the cultural phenomenon that is Warner Brothers’s Wild Things. The official blog for the movie,, features a fort-building contest and photographs of costumed fans of all ages at premieres across the country. As the trend towards darkness continues, thrusting us closer to the center of “the abyss,” we can use the merchandise and instruments of hype to ground us. But, the question remains: can a crafty adult-sized pillow-fort adequately maintain security in an uncertain world?

JOSH KOPIN B’11 and REBEKAH BERGMAN B'11 are huddled in their award winning pillow fort, wearing very expensive wolf-suits.