Where the Wild Things Are – Adaptation and Representation

The New York Times Magazine has a wonderful article on Spike Jonez’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. For fans of the book, the thought that the studio was afraid the adaptation was “too weird and scary” is nothing but good news, and it sounds like Sendak is behind both Jonze and the adaptation all the way. Jonez figures his conflict with the studio with a metaphor that is familiar but somehow surprising, as one would expect from the quirky director:

Considering Jonze’s own propensity toward mischief, it was tempting to see his fight with the studio (which, by the time I sat down with him, was more than a year old) as an embodiment of the eternal struggle between freedom-seeking child and authoritarian parent. Jonze chose a different family metaphor. “It’s like the studio was expecting a boy, and I gave birth to a girl,” he told me. “And now they’re learning to love and accept their daughter.”

For folks interested in problems of representation in depictions of children, Jonez and his collaborators offer some intersting insights into their method and vision for creating the imaginary life of a 9-year old boy:

“It’s in the visual language of, like, some sort of fantasy film, and it is a fantasy film to some degree,” he acknowledged, “but the tone of it is its own tone. We wanted it all to feel true to a 9-year-old and not have some big movie speech where a 9-year-old is suddenly reciting the wisdom of the sage.” He hadn’t set out to make a children’s movie, he said, so much as to accurately depict childhood. “Everything we did, all the decisions that we made, were to try to capture the feeling of what it is to be 9.” 

“Harold and the Purple Crayon” tells the story of a boy who lives in a world of his own imagining; whatever he draws becomes his reality. It was in many ways the perfect vehicle for Jonze. “Spike is Harold,” Vince Landay, Jonze’s longtime producer, told me. “He’s an imaginative kid who for one reason or another has been allowed to fully explore his imagination.”

In spite of their 42-year age difference, the two men [Jonze & Sendak] hit it off. “They’re both still very much connected to that child self,” [John B.] Carls told me. “There’s a valve in all of us that shuts itself off between childhood and adolescence and adulthood. With Maurice, there’s a leaky valve. Spike is the same way. He sees the world as a big playground.”

He found himself contemplating the wild things anew. “What would they look like?” he wondered. “What would they talk like?” He decided they should talk like people, not like monsters. They were “complex emotional beings,” he told me, with wild emotions roiling inside them. Then he began to think of the wild things as actually being wild emotions, embodying all the intense things children — and grown-ups — sometimes feel. “I felt that I could write infinitely about that, because that’s so much of what we are.”

There’s something encouraging about Jonez’s concern for authenticity in his representation of Max’s inner life, but it’s precisely that – authenticity – which is the problem in representing children. I suspect that fantasy may be a better vehicle than adult-centered “realism” for bridging this representational divide but, as with Jonez’s conception of the wild things, even fantasy needs to slip into metaphor to represent these complex and alien little beings that become us.

George Lakoff has argued that metaphor is the basic unit of human cognition – that we need metaphors in order to think about our world, draw relational conclusions, and process information – so perhaps it’s no surprise that we default to metaphor when attempting to represent children, animals, and other Others. But we have to recognize that metaphor (and its quibbling cousin, simile) imposes a distance between the thing represented and the final representation – because it requires a relational interpretation be inscribed onto the thing being represented (“I understand this because I perceive it relation to this other, largley unrelated, thing”).

That Jonez and his collaborator Dave Eggers perceive the story as allegorical (allegory is, after all, a symbolic mode that relies on sustained systems of metaphor to shape a text’s worldview) may actually be helpful in bringing the story to the screen. It may be that a film-maker like Jonez who is preoccupied with the impossibilities of communication and perception, and the slippery nature of adaptation itself (consider his previous films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) may be just the guy to bring this precious, important book to the screen and guide another generation of readers back to the text.  We’ll see on October 16.

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