When I picked this book up, I was pretty wary of it, once I realized what it was – an adult novelization of the children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. For one thing, why was the novelization of a beloved children’s book shelved in the adult section? And for another thing, I LOVE the original. How much would the author mess with it? I never finished watching the movie, although what I saw was alright – not great but alright. Knowing that this was based on the screenplay I kind of knew what to expect.
I read some reviews to prepare myself, and saw other fans of the original ranting about it, giving it single star ratings, and berating Eggers for adding so much to one of their favorite childhood stories. But honestly, the original Where the Wild Things Are is all of three hundred and thirty-eight words long – shorter than this blog post. I really don’t see how Eggers could avoid adding to it.
But maybe going into it armed with the complaints of disappointed fans helped in the end. I liked it. Max in many ways is every child that has ever lived. The way he thinks, how seriously he takes life, his impulsiveness, unintentional destructiveness, and regret afterwards are all things I remember from being small myself, and have seen in other children countless times. From his snowball fight, to his terror over learning in a science class that the sun will die, Max embodies so much of childhood. He was very similar to Calvin from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes. I loved him up until the night that ended with him fleeing to the island of The Wild Things.
Max of the original “made mischief of one kind and another” and ends by telling his mother “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” for which he is “sent to bed without eating anything.” I consider this a positive message. Max roughhouses, mouths off, and is disciplined. Max of this new story roughhouses, disobeys his mother, runs from her, yells at her, and then when she catches him, bites her. Does he get grounded? Disciplined in any way? No. Instead he panics and runs off into the night before she can do anything. This change really bothered me, not because it is a change from the original, but as a perfect example of what’s wrong with modern parenting – lack of discipline. Children no longer face consequences for their disobedience and bad behavior.
When Max runs away, he finds a boat and sails away until he comes to the island of The Wild Things. Each of The Wild Things have a name and a personality of their own, and pretty quickly you realize each one embodies a different aspect of Max’s personality – his loneliness, his insecurity, his destructiveness, etc. I felt like the creatures were really close to the spirit of the original. They were each unique and interesting in their own right. At times, it was terrifying to see a child’s recklessness in a huge, powerful being. It reminded me of what my uncle has always said: if that child throwing a tantrum there was six-foot tall and two hundred pounds, he would kill you. The Wild Things perfectly demonstrate that.
The beginning of the island sequence as Max begins to get to know them and assumes kingship, was really fun to read…at first. My enjoyment went downhill rapidly. At first he enjoys spending time with creatures even wilder than he is, but over and over things go horribly wrong, people end up hurt, and Max is back in his pattern of destruction. He blames himself, says wherever he goes he ruins things, and wants to go back home. So he does. And when he does his mother has left dinner in the kitchen for him and fallen asleep on the couch where she was waiting.
See any problems with this?
Not only is there NO discipline, he’s rewarded for his behavior. That was really hard for me to take. But there was something that bothered me even more than that – bothered me so much I kept rereading the last fifty pages over and over, praying I had missed something.
Max starts out the book impulsive and accidentally destructive. He constantly acts before he thinks, not realizing the consequences of his actions. He never sees beyond the present moment. Things that seem like a good idea “at the time,” continually come back to bite him. And he hates it. He wants so badly to be good, but he keeps messing up. He knows he’s destructive, calls himself that, wants to be better, but can’t be. And then on the island it keeps happening that way again. He is confronted openly with his thoughtlessness and the price he must pay for it.
But he never has a moment of redemption. He leaves the island with the same mindset he came with. “I’m destructive. I want to be better. But everything always goes wrong when I’m around. I want to be better. Why can’t I be better?” He never has a moment of hope or of realization that he can change and break the pattern. And that was very sad to me. It’s just another example of the hopelessness of the secular worldview. It left the book feel pretty unresolved, and that is a pet peeve of mine. I need an ending. And I spent hours rereading, searching for my ending, my resolution. It just wasn’t there.
All the same, I liked Max when I was supposed to, felt bad for him when I was supposed to, and hated him when he was at his most selfish (which I think I was supposed to). The book was well-written, and while the broken-family setting feels pretty cliché to me, it didn’t bother me too much in this one. It will never be a setting I particularly like, but I’ll ignore it if I like the story. The creatures became my friends for the course of the book, and I was sorry when Max had to leave them. Overall, even with my problems with it, it’s still one I would reread.
I think I figured out why it’s shelved in the adult section. It’s written with a very nostalgic feel, like an old man remembering his childhood. And when Max is on the island, it is quite violent. Not gory, but violent. The monsters rock-fight, roll boulders on each other, and threaten to eat each other and Max, among other things. It’s violent enough that it could be disturbing to some children. Other than that though, there was only one curse word in the entire book, and I would consider it appropriate YA fiction, as well as adult.
If you go into it with an open mind, knowing it’s different than the picture book, but still in the spirit of it, and are willing to look past the lack of punishment for Max’s disobedience, it’s worth a read, simply because it’s well-written, has good characters, and is just a fun, if occasionally dark adventure.
My favorite passage of the book is towards the end:
Max ran his fastest until he was a few houses away, when he slowed down to a jog, the a walk. Why did he slow down? It confused Max, too. Perhaps it was the very weight of being home again. He’d been gone so long. Years, it seemed. And now he was back, and he was different. Would his mother recognize him? Would Claire? In some ways he felt too big for this house. But he also felt newly able to fit within it.