Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Wildly Conflicted: Ruminations on an Adaptation

Several months ago, I heard that someone creating a film version of one of the greatest books of all time: Where the Wild Things Are. My immediate reaction was sheer horror. How could they do this? Why would Maurice Sendak (the author of this and numerous other amazing tales) allow such an endeavor? Would he be involved in the scripting or character and set design? Who would direct this travesty?



Okay, deep breath. Why did I have such a visceral reaction? I didn’t respond this way—well, I was troubled, but not horrified—to the adaptations of The Cat in the Hat or Horton Hears a Who. (Full disclosure: I’ve not seen either of those, and I won’t. I am the opposite of interested.) Why indeed? Well, the power of Where the Wild Things Are resides in its simplicity—it’s made up of maybe a hundred and fifty words (many of them repeated, particularly at the end, where the words that bring him home are the reverse of the words that open up his new world), drawn over maybe forty pages. The images are clean yet lush. They start simple, almost incomplete, and on single pages, with words opposite; then they grow to take up entire spreads, with the words nearly incidental. And the entire thing is a dream. The power of childhood, the simplicity of childhood, the ability of imagination to free us from negative emotions, a child’s need for home, for comfort, for love, for supper—all in a hundred and fifty words and forty pages. What movie could possibly do what this does? I mean, first of all, any writer would have to expand it, and I (still) don’t see how that could do anything but kill it. Just. Kill. It. Combine that with Hollywood’s history of successful adaptations—a very short history indeed—and maybe the reasons for my horror become clear.

Well. Last week my wife and I went to see the movie 9. One of the trailers was for… yep, you guessed it… Where the Wild Things Are. I was entranced. Really. It’s… beautiful. And funny. And cute. The kid playing Max, a newbie I think, is… well, at least three years too old, but his lines are great.

Wild Thing Judith: “You have a home and family?”

Max: “I had one of those once.”

Wild Thing Judith: “But you ate ‘em all?”

Max: “No! I have no plans to eat anybody.”

It’s so damned cute you almost want to spit. But then… The sets—oh, my, the sets. Sumptuous. The humor—all there, particularly in the ram wild thing (who’s on, I think, a single page in the book). The wild things? They are not CGI, not animated. They are puppets, outsize, lovingly rendered, warm-spooky-unsettling-comforting puppets (with voices by an amazing array of unlikely actors, who must be doing it because they too love the book, perhaps as much as I). The costume—Max’s costume—is perfect, down to its floppy ears and sensuous velvet; I just want to touch it. Maybe becoming a dad has made me a sucker, but this stuff just hits me. Right. There. (The heart. You have to imagine the hand gesture.) So far, so good; right? Well, maybe not.

The crux of my problem is this: books are not movies; movies are not books. The experiences are wildly (er, widely) different. Where the Wild Things Are lives in my imagination. It is there, never to be lost. When my first child was born, it was one of the first books I turned to. I could not wait. And now, we can all recite the book without even looking at the pages. While the movie looks perfect, down to the last feather, down to the last gnashed tooth and terrible claw, I can’t help but feel that a movie version is a loss. A loss to readers and to children of all ages. When I shared these feelings with Carla, she said, “Well, I’m glad our children know the book already.” And that’s it, right there. No matter how faithful the adaptation, no matter how wonderful the movie, it will subsume the book. Even for me, I fear to watch it because it could eclipse my memory of the source. And it will interfere—for generations of children to come, the movie will be there; for some, it might be their first experience of the story, and they may come to see the book as some incomplete version of the film. While this is a triumph of the imagination (for the filmmakers), it’s the death of imagination (for readers).



To see the trailer, go to

Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze, opens nationwide October 16, 2009.

[book cover image ©HarperCollins; movie poster image ©Warner Bros. Pictures]

26 comments:

Reid said...

I completely agree with this post, I think that the movie looks decent graphics-wise, but no adaptation from a book as big as this one has worked besides Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings. I know from experience that kids who have not yet read the book, but see the movie, will not want to read the book…and that’s a shame. I think that this movie is going to be a big success in the box office, but I also think people who read the book first will be disappointed, because as you said in your post, the book was so short, the director will have to stretch it, thus killing it.

sen10r said...

I know that as I child I read this book at least once. I guessed I enjoyed it, but I have no fond memories of it. My guess is that I didn't read it until I was older. Those "wild things" are scary. So watching this movie would not be able to have the impact you worry about for me. I think that if you hold the book so close with such fond memories of it then you won't lose them if you watch it. Watching the movie will probably just be a let down. You'd watch it and then think, oh, the book was better. I'll admit that there will be plenty of kids miss out on the book because they will only watch the movie. That seems to happen with a lot of stories these days. Movie makers want to make money off their movies and they know they will initially if it's based on a hit book, its a guaranteed audience.

BD550 said...

I agree with your statement that the movie is not the book. The book will almost always be better then the movie. Also a children’s book is really so a parent can spend some time telling their kids a story and a movie would almost completely take that away. Though this does look like a fairly good movie I personally think a child should hear the book first.

tyler said...

You make a very interesting point. I completely agree with the line "books aren't movies and movies aren't books." I find this statement very true and feel these two should not intertwine each other. It takes all the experiences away from actually sitting down and reading the book when you can simply wait to see the movie. I found myself in a similar position when the Harry Potter books were being produced into films. I felt like it was pointless to sit there and read five-hundred plus pages when i can just wait to see the film, which contain visuals. If i were to go back today and read those books, it wouldn't be the same. My sense of creativity and my ability to imagine the scene will have taken a hit, as i have already seen the movie. Thus, i would never get the same out of reading those books. This goes for every book turned into a movie. I completely agree with your thoughts.

bigred said...

Well I personally don't ever remember reading the book. But a lot of people have told me about just today. It sounds to me like it is a great children’s book. But the movie seam a little far fetched from the book even know I've not read the book, just going by what I have heard and from when I watched the trailer. So what exactly is the book about?

myke said...

I do agree with the blog post that books are not movies! But when a movie comes out about a book you can judge it by the cover. Most movies that I have seen about a book are not very good in my opinion I think. In the ads I think maybe some little kids might get scarred of the characters in the movie.

Ariella said...

I understand what you are saying, and now that I think about it, movies do ruin books, sometimes. I always love to see a movie made from a book. I feel as though it gives you a picture of what is going on. However, that seems to be exactly why you don't like when they make movies from books.
I see where you are coming from about the future generations. I know that for me, once a watch a movie, sometimes it is hard for me to read the book. However, I also enjoy reading the books, when I do, because the movie doesn't always have everything the book does. Although Where the Wild Things Are is short, I believe that the people who make the movie will not use everything in the movie. Therefore, a child will read it and see all the connections.

mo4421 said...

I agree with everything that was said during this passage. The movie, I think, will ruin the simplicity of the story. Growing up, one of my favorite parts of reading this book, was filling in the blanks that were missing from the story. The book was very simple and didn't have a lot of detail. Now that there is a movie, the blanks are gone. People won't read the book anymore, but watch the movie. I believe that the greatest children's book will not be as popular now that movies and technology has interfered. Although I believe this, I am actually excited to go watch the movie. =(

Riva05 said...

I have to agree with you on that kids will soon slow down on reading and lose interest on them as well because most of the books we have read as younger kids are being turned into movies, if they are really good and popular. That is why this book is becoming a movie is because how popular it became thought out the years but parents still should read to there kids even though the books they read to them are movies now, it still will make the kids want to read more then watch the movie. Thats how most parents share time with there kids is by reading to them every night before they good to bed, i know this because my parents use to do it for me and now i would rather read a book them watch the movie to it.

ramathorn said...

now that you mention it i do believe i have seen the book, but i think making a movie out of it just ruined it (the plot).

Michael Moodie said...

I myself have never i read the book or watched the movie, so i really can not comment on what i thought about the book, but i really enjoyed the blog, for me to stay interested in something i am reading, most of the time i have had to of watched it or read. You kept it interesting comical for me as the reader.

Daniel said...

As a reader, I feel that the words on the page, the imagination between the covers will always hold more sway. There are some wonderful movie adaptations of books; unfortunately, there are far too many terrible adaptations. A movie exists in a finite slice of time. It has life only when it is being shown. A book, on the other hand, is forever. For a book such as Where the Wild Things Are, the images on the pages can be savored. What's on the page? What detail can we see? What can we imagine? MY experiences, MY beliefs infuse my interaction with that book. When I see the movie, I am seeing the book through the eyes of someone else, and THAT is the biggest problem I have with putting this book on film. What subtleties are we going to lose? What pleasures can we share with our children as we read with them? What a pleasure it is to watch a child make a book his or her own! What an incalculable loss if, in general, movies were to supplant books, but even more so in the case of Where the Wild Things Are.

Kassie said...

I do remember reading this book.It was a fun book and because i have younger siblings i heard it being read to them too.I think sometimes its good to make a book into a movie because it gives readers the chance to compare the book with the movie.Any book you read that is made into a movie is never exactly the same.The directors have to add things to make the movie more interesting.The point of making a movie is to make money and entertain people.Making books into movies some people might argue would make them not use their imagination.It could be called a lazy approach to reading a book.A short cut to a longer road.I am personally excited to see the movie and see what exciting new things could be mixed in.

sen10r said...

As many others have said, some little kids will only watch the movie and never read the book. It's sad that they will miss out on it. I know I am guilty of only watching the movies instead of reading books. It seems that because the book is so short that are still plenty of people who will read it; unlike the longer books. Even though a movie is someone else's interpretation of the film you should still be able to have your own picture of it. It just means you get to see another kind. It is another version.

mo4421 said...

So, I guess the majority of the people reading this blog agree that the book will always be better than the movie. But then you have to think that most of the people going out to watch this movie aren't going to be 17 and 18 year old kids that grew up reading this book. The majority of these people going to watch this are going to be children that have never read the book. It looks like a great movie and I believe that the people that haven't read this book will enjoy it very much. Isn't that what making a movie is all about? Opening doors to people that may never have the chance to read this book and having them enjoy what they are watching? Even though the book may be better than the movie, the story line is going to be the same either way, and in my opinion it's a great and creative story line!

myke said...

agree with Tyler and with sentence book's are not movies movies are not books. I also agree instead of reading the book you can go watch it for me I get more out of something when I watch it. I also agree with Reid he says kids who see the movie first dot read the book I agree because I know kids that have done thin even though I would not want to read the book they are not the same!

bigred said...

Once again I have not read the book, but I think Kassie movies are a lot better than books. Because I don’t like reading, I don’t even think I have finished 3 book in my life so far. So if the lazy approach to reading a book is watching the movie to it then so be it. I don’t think a movie can ruin a book I think it makes it better in is own but very different ways. You’re right though a movie and a book will not be the same. That’s a good thing because different is good. But when you compare book to movies I think after a wile you will find witch you like better.

Reid said...

It appears that the feeling that turning this movie will ruin the experience of the book is unanimous. I never before thought of how the movie was taking away from parents reading this book to their kids, and the experience from that. On the other hand, after reading these I started to think that maybe it's not so bad that it's being adapted, because it will allow people who grew up with the book to somewhat relive the experience. Having said that, I definitely agree that there is no way the movie can be all that the book once was, and may continue to be. It will have to be up to the parents which one their kids will discover first. Increasingly in our society now, books are falling to the wayside behind movies. It is a simple fact that more kids watch movies than read books, and so the book version just doesn't stand a chance.

brandon said...

I agree with the post, the book is always better because you are interacting with your kids, vs a movie you just sit there beside them and watch it to so your not actually interacting with them. So you actually can't say that you interact with your child/children if you watch movies all the time and not read with or to them.

BD550 said...

In response to what Ariella said though movies do give a picture for a person to focus on such as what characters look like what scenes look like it takes away from your imagination. When I read a book I sort of imagine what the characters might look like but when I watch the movie those characters will forever look like the actors that played them in my minds eye. Those images that I held are forever lost to me.

Joshua said...

I believe that the movie in my point of view is not that different from the book. I watched the movie and to me it wasn't that interested.tthe movie was plain and boring to sit through. I love when they take books and make them into movies; I think it's easier to understand and you save time in just watching the movie instead of reading the books. I for one don't care what they do with the book and movie. It's not the first time Hollywood ruined a great children's novel and made it into a movie and it wont be the last.
Many people would disagree with me, but it's my opinion and I think it makes sense to me.

Michael Moodie said...

I havn't read the book, I dont think, but some of the kid have posted that they think if you have read the book and liked it then you should not watch the movie because it may totally ruin the book for you, I personally do not feel that should be the case, I think if you read the book and you liked it then there shouldnt be any problem with you watching the movie, if you dont like it then dont watch it again, you shouldnt let that totally change your opinion on it, there are plenty of book's out there that have films made about them, and the books are better in alot of peoples opinions. So yeah i think if you liked the book then you shoud at least give the movie a shot.

Riva05 said...

I agree with Reid when he talked about that their goanna have to stretch the movie out because the book was short .I also agree with BD550, I think its wrong that Movie makers only really write movies about Best Selling Books because then kids wont want to read books anymore there want to see the movie instead and that’s really sad because books are more fun they give you more details unlike the movie and it gives kids time to spend with there parents. I can see that a lot of people are goanna Jude the movie from the book but all people do that with books that become movies but in my case with the Harry Potters I like the movie better then the books because I cant get into the books for some reason.

Kassie said...

i disagree with what Reid stated.For me when i see a movie and its a good one i like to go out and find and read the book to see the differences between the book and the movie.I think its fun to compare and contrast the two.

Shyne said...

Wow, I feel like after reading most of these, my head my just about to explode. I have heard the term (or ones similar to it) 'no fond memories of the book' way to many times in this process. How could this happen? It is absurd. And while it may not kill your memory of it, I know for a fact that it did not kill mine, it could most certainly kill the affection for the book of one that is NOT almost eighteen and has not read it a hundred, billion times. The point of the book is not only family quality time, but a learning experience. It is simply worded and somewhat repetitive to make it easier for younger children to read and understand as they develop. I personally think that books becoming movies, should be cut off completely. Even if only as an excuse to force scriptwriters to gain some depth of originality! Oh no, you might actually have to put some effort into your job. Boo. Hoo. Suck it up! And, having seen the movie, I was relatively disgusted. Everything and anything that was added to 'stretch' it into a movie, was violence! If I had children, chances are I would read them the book a good two to three years before I would ever let them see the movie.

Today'sTheDayForHomerJ said...

I, sadly, can say that I saw the film adaptation of one of my most favorite books of all time. Let me just say, that descriptor does NOT apply nor translate to the film. The costumes and scenery were tight, if not beautiful. But, that was it. Stay away!