Everyone does or should know about Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a seminal children’s book that has brought joy to (dare I say?) millions of childrens and adults alike—perhaps even more by adults than by children. It’s a simple story of a naughty young boy who flees to his imagination and back again, but of course much ink has been expended to justify it, parse it, explain it, and praise it, and it’s been built into more of a cultural phenomenon than a book.
Since it was already an opera and a cartoon, it was only a matter of time before it became a movie1 in 2009. Everyone knew that Spike Jonze (he of Adaption fame, as well as other Charlie Kaufman scripts) directed it, but what I didn’t know until well after the initial spate of movie trailers is that Dave Eggers—the writer2, publisher, and philanthropist—had done the screenplay. And it wasn’t until even later that I realized he also did a novelization, which brings us to The Wild Things.
It is perhaps telling that the title is not Where the Wild Things Are: the novel but is rather a whole different idea which lay at right angles to the original work. There is, after all, only so much you can expand a children’s book without resorting to invention. Eggers fleshes out the character and story of Max: in the original book, he’s simply a naughty boy in a wolf costume; in the novel, he’s the second of two children of an overworked divorced mother, and his older sister has recently passed the point in age where she suddenly wants nothing to do with her stupid little brother. This part is more or less a transcription of the sense of alienation we’ve all felt at some point as children; I remember vividly my desire to be thought of as cool by my older sister’s friend, when only a few years prior she had been playing directly with my brother and I.
Eggers has gotten very good at this transcription of real life. The book for which is mostly known (AHBWOSG) is mostly biographically, but the rhetorical style is so excessive that it feels more like creative fiction. In this new spate of books—What is the What; Zeitoun—Eggers seems to have found his niche dramatizing the interesting lives of others. Even The Wild Things fits into this trend, I think, because writing it seems more like dramatizing a person than creating a new fiction; Max is already the offspring of Sendak, and he’s grown up with a generation of readers. Now Eggers is telling more of Max’s story, just like Abdulrahman Zeitoun or Valentino Achak Deng.
It is not long—though after some context-building which may at first disorient fans of the original—before Max, resplendent in his wolf costume, is sailing across an imaginary sea and comes across a fantastic island, populated by the Wild Things, a various assortment of strange-looking beasts. When he comes across them, they are the process of destroying their own houses; Max, who loves a good round of destruction, joins in with fire, teaching the Things how to raze the structures to the ground. It is not until afterward that the beasts go from being impressed by his skill at destruction to perturbation that they have destroyed their houses. If you’re unfamiliar with The Wild Things, you may now begin to see their chimerical nature. Despite being homeless, the beasts—who have mostly normal names like Ira and Karen, and who speak in perfect English—decide against eating Max outright and instead elect him the king of the island.
I need not summarize itinerary of games, fights, and arguments which ensue prior to Max’s returning home. I will point out that while Sendak modeled the physical appearance of the Wild Things after his extended family, it becomes clear that when Eggers creates personalities for the Wild Things, he creates them as facets of Max’s own personality or that of his family. Rather than simply “rumpus” and finally send the Things to bed without supper, Max engages in a tricky series of political maneuverings, attempting to keep the Things happy, despite the fact that they don’t seem to get along with one another or even necessarily with him. Carol, the male leader, is the most charismatic and most dangerous of the things, at the crests of his relationship with Max are rivaled only by the potentially deadly troughs. The most willing to resort to destruction for fun, Carol is also surprisingly creative, but easily frustrated. His nemesis is Karen—whom I read as a proxy for Max’s mother—who is somewhat aloof and deliberate, but very kind. The other beasts lie somewhere in between, with the exception of Alexander, who dislikes and distrusts Max from start to finish. The apparent metaphor here is that these disparate Wild Things, taken as caricatures of Max’s psychological forces, make Max himself both joyfully creatives and willfully destructive. Though Max likes the beasts, he is constantly afraid of them because of their arbitrary nature, and some of them see his aloofness as proof that he isn’t such a great person. After all, one says, if you really care about Carol you’d let him eat you if he wanted to.
It’s not much of a secret what Eggers is doing: I wouldn’t go so far as to call it allegorical, as I don’t think he had a precise mapping in mind when he assigned these characteristics, but I like to think I have the right idea. Sendak himself said the book was about a child learning about anger, after all: Max’s own family members find it hard to trust him due to his arbitrary nature (the line between “joyful boy” and “wild thing” is fine indeed); this experience, surely, is a psychological table-turning for Max, who must now learn to live with himself qua a motley collection of dangerous beasts.
One danger of taking a fanciful work like Where the Wild Things Are and making it a novel like this is having to pay more attention to practical considerations. Eggers’ Max spends a lot more time worrying about his physical safety, or his growing hunger, or his strategy for winning the Things’ trust and beneficence. Eggers deals with such things skillfully, however, by acknowledging and then largely eliding them. Max (who spends perhaps or a week, maybe more, on this imaginary island) gets very hungry indeed, but while a typical character would be bound by this limitation, Eggers simply has Max recognize his hunger for human food and then fail to suffer any ill effects from the lack of it. In other words, the more realistic (if you can call it that) tone of the novel should not and ultimately does not interfere with the fantasy itself, and Eggers is a smart enough guy and sufficiently talented writer to appreciate this.
Liking Where the Wild Things Are will not automatically endear the move to you; similarly, The Wild Things will not be an instant hit with all fans of the original, since they really are two very different modes of storytelling. Eggers realizes this (see his Afterword) but hopes/expects that the novel will stand on its own merit. I will confess that I did not like The Wild Things as much as I like What is the What—possibly, Eggers was overly cautious when writing the former—but I maintain that it is still a strong work, and worth your time as a reader.