I went to a movie the other day. I had high hopes for it, and was certainly prepared to have a good time.
I didn't have a good time, though.
I got punched in the gut. Where The Wild Things Are put a whammy on me.
It got released on my birthday, and I thought we might take the kids to it after dinner. I checked parent previews and got the idea it wouldn't be appropriate - I asked a friend and she said this:
Where the Wild Things Are is a dark and disturbing movie. I wished I hadn't seen it...the movie should carry a warning label: for people with happy carefree perfect childhoods only...I am still disturbed, four days later.
I was interested. And I thought, I pretty much had a happy carefree childhood, I should be golden.
Because I am a human...because I was a child, and have come full-circle to parenthood, Wild Things was a sucker punch.
The Maurice Sendak book, which of course everyone has read, is a terse and symbolic story of a child's defiance, punishment, and capitulation. During his punishment (sent to his room), a jungle grows up around him and he sets sail across an ocean, in a private boat. He arrives at a strange land full of strange creatures: Wild Things. They threaten to eat him, but he tames them with magic, and they crown him king.
There are several pages, in the middle of the book, with no words on them. Max's adventure is barely narrated at all - and his emotions are only named in one tiny line - "Max was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all." Aside from that line, the reader is left to infer what she will about what's going on in Max's head.
The movie is, on the surface, significantly different from the book. (Which - okay, the book has, what, 8 pages? and the movie takes nearly two hours, so you'd expect some fleshing-out.) In reality, though, it is not different at all. Every event, every extra character, every change made by the writers, seems perfectly natural to the original text.
Max's journey to the place where the wild things are is, like in the book, a turning inward. The place where the wild things are is a manifestation of his internal landscape as, in fact, the wild things themselves are manifestations of Max, his family members, his habits, his fears, his longings. Their characters are not static - they keep shifting as power dynamics change, as Max's will first unites, then divides them. The wild things are often children - they submit to his kingship, relieved to have an authority figure again.
This theme surfaces again and again throughout the movie, as characters admit their need for "a king". They need guidance, they want someone to look after them and make everything all right. (It's significant that Max, in his real life, doesn't live with his father - the reason is never made clear. We don't know whether the father is dead, or just gone.)
For a while Max becomes that authority they need (while at the same time, one of the wild things has become Max's father figure), but soon the wild things discover, as Max once did, that nobody has enough power to make everything all right.
Parents and children, and the hurt they inflict on one another, is a huge theme in this movie. There is one scene that cut me right to the bone. Judith, a wild thing who has always been more or less skeptical about this upstart king, has a jeering match with Max. No words are said, but she and Max just mock and roar more and more loudly at each other, him imitating her with a look of contempt on his face. She is in a trench, looking up at him (the only way he would be taller than she is), and after she screams at him for the last time she cries out, before he has a chance to answer her, "YOU CAN'T DO THAT BACK TO ME!"
He stops, taken aback.
"YOU CAN'T BE UPSET!" she yells. "We can be upset but you can't get upset! You're the king! If we say 'I'll eat you up', you have to say [gently] 'oh no! what'll I do! don't eat me!'"
Max stares at her. You can see the realisation of what he's done - the same thing that has been done to him - on his face. Then he turns around and walks away.
It is gut-wrenching.
I am a parent who has anger problems. Thank God I am not a hitter, but sometimes things escalate. I push, they push back, and then - well, I am ashamed to say that I, too, have imitated my daughter's words or voice, which she has used to me out of hurt and impotent anger. I have turned it around on her and have wounded her, deliberately, by using my position of power to subdue her, demean her.
It seemed harmless at the time. It seemed like a way to show her how it made me feel when she said that - how it felt to have someone talk to you that way. But what she needed from me...what she always needs from me...is for me to be the parent, the adult, the mother - the one in control. It's a paradox, because she's trying to hurt me...but she doesn't want to succeed.
When I saw Max and Judith behaving like parent and child, I sobbed. I felt such a conviction of guilt for the few - thankfully - times in our lives when I have done this to my own child. I had heard those exact words from her. "You can't get upset! You shouldn't imitate me!" And once, heartbreakingly, "I'm just a child Mummy!" Watching this movie, I remembered what I had forgotten. I knew it as a child, knew it right at the core of my soul. I remembered that fear I felt when I pushed her, hoping against hope that she would react with love and not anger. That she would reach out instead of lashing out.
It's not too much to say that Where the Wild Things Are changed my life. It absolutely wounded me. It reached out of the screen, tore me out of my Now, and shoved me back into my Then. It reminded me what it was like to be powerless, to trust out of necessity. It reminded me what it was like to burn with rage and helplessness, to lash out in pain, needing to smash and destroy. And it reminded me what it was like to want, so badly, to be treated with gentleness, to be treasured above all else - even just to be given the gift of my mother's gaze. Without anger, without distraction.
If you had told me a week ago that a movie could make me feel this way, could double me over in pain, make me run home to my children, make me change the way I am with them, I'd have laughed out loud. A movie, though, is just a vehicle for a voice. The message can be a teeny little folded up thing that flies inside you disguised as laughter, disguised as fantasy, imagination, nonsense.....and then when you've lowered your defenses, taken it in and given it a place to Be, it unfolds itself. You look at it differently. It's a part of you. You understand what you've really been seeing.
That moment of comprehension can be devastating.
I don't know whether you, in particular, should go see it, or not. I will say that it's the best movie I've seen in probably a decade. I'll also say that I'm buying the soundtrack, and I'm buying the DVD, and then the special edition DVD, and then the ten-year anniversary director's cut DVD box set, and then....you get the idea.
A lot of people don't like this movie. It's painful - no doubt about it. And a lot of people probably don't understand this movie - you should have heard some of the people in the theatre. They were mystified, and slightly resentful. "That wasn't in the book!" But, for my part, I came away changed - and for the better. As I said to my sister, "Run, don't walk."
Photo from IMdb, used totally without the permission of WarnerBros.