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This novel has a curious origin, being more or less an adaptation of Spike Jonze’s film of Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are. It begins with a boy, Max, chasing his dog down the stairs, and ends with a bowl of soup, a slice of cake, and a glass of milk—but the pages in between cover some radically different territory.
In Eggers’ telling, Max is a robust, self-reliant boy who acts out at home and at school for reasons he struggles to understand. His mother is a frazzled divorcée trying to juggle work, parenting, and adult relationships, who implores Max, “I really need you to help keep this house together.” Max’s big sister, Claire, is a teenager who would rather hang out with her tobacco-chewing friends. After a sequence of particularly epic mischief, Max runs off into the night, where he finds a boat. He sails “in and out of days and nights” to a land where some large, destructive beasts are willing to recognize him as their king. But Max, as it turns out, is not a particularly good king.
There are many pleasant surprises in the novel. The wild things have names (such as Carol, Judith, and Ira), they speak (in kind of an arch Eggers-ese), and their world, while presented as real, is dreamlike: lava flows just inches under the surface, and when one wild thing loses an arm, sand pours out. It can be funny, too: Max’s negotiations with his subjects sometimes resemble old Monty Python sketches in their surrealism.
But does The Wild Things succeed as its own work of art? No. The biggest problem, perhaps, is that it doesn’t feel like an organically grown story. Whether due to the book’s unique origins, or Eggers’ execution, or even the fact that it’s based on a story that boasts near-universal recognition, we don’t feel the story unfolding so much as we look for the pegs that it’s hung on. The drama, unfortunately, comes less from Max’s adventures than from our interest in seeing how Eggers has managed the adaptation.
And where Sendak’s book contains multitudes in a dozen sentences, Eggers uses nearly 300 pages to tease out a number of ideas, and his book still feels too long. The first chapter draws a cartoonish portrait of a grown-up world obsessed by safety. A fort-building exercise with the wild things, with its references to mysterious “chatter” that has “reached us here, even inside these high walls,” suggests national fears of terrorism. And while the confusing behavior of the wild things more effectively suggests a child’s view of adults, we lose the real resonance of the work that inspired it all, which eloquently explores anger and imagination without an adult in sight.
But this leads us to another problem: though billed as an “all-ages novel,” The Wild Things feels too grown-up for most children and too childlike for most grown-ups. Age-appropriateness is a hotly debated issue, and it’s true that many age designations are meaningless: bright young readers will always seek out challenging material, and older readers will always want comfort food. But trying to write something that works for everyone is as futile an exercise as designing a wolf suit that fits both a six-foot-tall father and his three-foot-tall son.
With young-adult books read widely by adults, and some recent and forthcoming children’s movies that are arguably more for adults (Where the Wild Things Are, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), there seems to be a trend of grown-ups reclaiming imaginative territory lost to age and responsibility. Maybe it was simply started by the crossover success of the Harry Potter franchise, or maybe it’s fear of “chatter” that causes it—and economic uncertainty and global warming, too.
But if there’s anything that makes a boy want to put on his wolf suit and howl at the moon, it’s the unfairness of grown-ups taking all the best stuff for themselves.
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