by D.W. Lundberg

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Adapting books into film can be a tricky business. Especially when that book is a much-loved children's classic. Especially when that children's classic is less than 50 (written) pages long.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat In The Hat, The Polar Express - all books we've loved since childhood, turned into Hollywood features of wildly varying quality. A big reason these adaptations fail artistically is because of the padding: Since movies these days run at least seventy to eighty minutes (any shorter and they'd qualify as a "short"), filmmakers are forced to figure out how to bloat these books to feature length. And in doing so, they usually stray from the tone of the original story - what made the book such an enduring classic to begin with.

That's how The Grinch goes from an uplifting Christmas fable about a despicable creature (the Grinch) who tries to ruin the season for innocent townsfolk (the Whos), to a messy downer of a movie about a despicable creature who tries to ruin the season for equally despicable townsfolk. (Are we supposed to be rooting for Jim Carrey's vengeful Grinch to stick it to those nasty, conniving Whos?)

That's how The Cat In The Hat gets turned from a delightful fantasy about two kids' (mis)adventures during one cold, cold, wet day into a morally reprehensible "family film" with fart and sex jokes, starring Mike Myers as Austin Powers in a cat suit.

Those are the worst examples (for which Dr. Seuss' estate should sue.) The movie version of The Polar Express, on the other hand, at least captures the book's pristine holiday textures. It's still relentlessly padded, most notably during an extended traveling shot, about eighteen minutes in, which follows a golden ticket from outside the train to the mouths of wolves to hungry eagles then back onto the train again. (Yeah, I get it, performance capture animation is the wave of the future. Impressive, yes. Now back to the story, people.)

The latest case for this: Where The Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze, which surfaced on DVD/Blu-Ray last week. Maurice Sendak's book, published in 1963, ingrains itself into your head the moment your parents read it to you as a child. We identify with young Max, the "hero" of the story, because we've been in his shoes before - banished to his room for throwing a temper tantrum ("I'LL EAT YOU UP!"). While Max waits for his mother to simmer down, he imagines himself whisked away to a land of giant creatures (Wild Things) and becomes their king. Sendak's illustrations, meanwhile, slowly begin to creep across Max's bed, his walls, and eventually the entire book itself, until Max realizes he's had enough and returns "home," where he finds his supper waiting for him ("and it was still hot").

Where The Wild Things Are the movie is padded out to a whopping hour and forty minutes, which means that Jonze and his screenwriter, Dave Eggers, have given Max (nine-year-old Max Records) an extensive backstory that explains his tantrums. His sister (Pepita Emmerichs) ignores him. His mother (Catherine Keener) is too busy to pay him much attention. (His father is inexplicably absent, no doubt the symptom of a bitter divorce.) That's just the opening stuff. Then it's off to the island of the Wild Things, and the movie goes off the rails.

Jonze's Wild Things can best be summed up by a moment early in the film, before Max embarks on his journey to the island. As he and his mother spend a quiet moment alone, she asks him to tell her a story, and the yarn he spins for her goes like this:

   "There were some buildings. There were these
   really tall buildings, and they could walk.
   Then there were some vampires. And one of the
   vampires bit the tallest building, and his
   fangs broke off. Then all his other teeth
   fell out. Then he started crying. And then,
   all the other vampires said, 'Why are you
   crying? Weren't those just your baby teeth?'
   And he said, 'No. Those were my grown up
   teeth.' And the vampires knew he couldn't be
   a vampire anymore, so they left him. The

The rest of the movie unfolds with that same kind of child's logic - which is to say, not much logic at all. Max meets the Wild Things (who've been given names like Carol, Judith, Ira and R.W., all so we can tell them apart), they try to eat him, he becomes their leader, they build a giant fort, they have a dirt clod war. Feel free to interpret this however you want - each Wild Thing is an extension of Max's personality, Max learns how to play guardian to lesser creatures, whatever. It's that kind of movie. You either find yourself wrapped up in its magic or you don't.

It's not that Jonze corrupts Sendak's original vision - in fact, I'd say the plot of the movie follows the same basic trajectory as the book, with a few additions. And the Wild Things themselves are wonderfully expressive creations - a seamless blend of CGI and animatronic puppet suits (courtesy Jim Hensen's Creature Shop).

Tell me, though: Why does everyone in Max's imagination act as if they're clinically depressed? It's like a walking pity party out there. Everyone... talks... just like... (deep sigh)... just like... this, low and hushed (even the dialogue feels padded), and they move just as sluggishly. Is this how little Max views the world? Is he unable to find joy even in his simplest fantasies? Whatever the reason, the characters seem straight-jacketed by the weight of their angst, and it sucks the fun right out of the movie. Maybe they should have called it Where The Mopey Things Are.

Still, it could have been worse. Max's friends might have taught him to sing rap songs, I don't know. Or the entire island of Wild Things could have been voiced by Mike Myers. Love it or hate it, this is clearly Jonze's vision, simple and uncompromised, and quite unlike the typical generic studio fare that's been dictated by focus groups.

Which is a tricky business in itself: The movie's a blank canvas on which you're free to paint whatever feelings you like. That may have been true of the book, as well, but at least it was fun on the page. And without all the padding to boot.


  1. My favorite childhood book of all time! I was SOOOO excited when I saw the trailor because they made the characters look JUST LIKE THE BOOK!! BUT I was SORELY disappointed in the movie!! IT WAS SO DARK, DEPRESSING, MESSED UP! They made Max MESSED UP! Instead of a little kid having a little kid tantrum that we've all had and seen, they make him out to be so DISTURBED!!

    To say the least, I HATED THE LIBERTY THEY TOOK!! I know they were forced to make it longer but it just didn't work, for me, this time!

    I agree with you that they should keep these childrens books to a 20 minute short! I think, "Where the Wild Things Are" would have been AWESOME if they had. It LOOKED amazing, but failed miserably in plot!

  2. I couldn't even finish this movie. I was still bored even after I stopped watching it. Everyone I know that has seen it, didn't like it. And I like Spike Jonze. Maybe he should stick to directing Charlie Kauffman's scripts. They seem to make a good team.

  3. Now I'm glad I haven't seen Where the Wild Things Are yet. Don't think I want to anymore, still I probly will see it solely for the fact that you can't tell me what to do Darin! I've always been glad that I haven't seen The Cat In The Hat, and still refuse to watch it. I loved your description of Mike Meyers as Austin Powers in a cat suit! Got a good laugh from that! I think even the Austin Powers movies would have been better with out Austin Powers--Dr. Evil ROCKS tho! Thanks again for the insight-keep writing!

  4. Max's friends might have taught the kid how to sing rap songs... hahahahaha

    Haven't seen it, probably never will. Jase and the kids did... and all came home saying that it was a weird movie. Even at 5 years old, Addie says that movie was sad. So yeah. It must be depressing!