Where the Wild Things Are is ten sentences long, but they're some sentences. They – along with Maurice Sendak's magical illustrations, of course – are at once angry, heartwarming, troubling and reassuring. They get at something profound that kids feel, and that I still do from time to time, frankly: a desire to rage, to leave the world behind, backstopped by an even deeper need for home – a warm dinner – a hug.
These feelings aren't trivial, especially in kids. The authors who understood them best were Sendak and Roald Dahl. Dahl wrote for an older audience; he abhorred sentimentality, his wounds and his anger were usually laid pretty bare, and his stories weren't always appropriate for the single-digit-ers. But Sendak's Wild Things is a book that grows up with you. It's cathartic and comforting at any age. Those are, as I say, ten pretty remarkable sentences.
Then there are the pictures, which are strange enough to be subtly disquieting, but which have a warmth and softness that make it pretty clear everything's going to be okay. And I'm not talking just about the wild things themselves, which (deservingly) tend to get all the attention, but the fact, for example, that Max's idea of mischief is terrorizing his family's terrier with a fork while wearing a wolf costume. The previous page shows him wielding a hammer twice the size of his head to construct a blanket fort, off one edge of which we see he's suspended a pathetic-looking teddy bear from a clothes-hanger. Why? Who knows. But if you're going to be sent to your room, it should probably be for something fun.
And the remarkable thing about Max's getaway in the land of the wild things is that it's a fit of pique – a momentary act of rebellion in his imagination. And that actually says a lot about him. Kids who express their anger that way are in pretty good shape going forward, I think. And the fact that he's lured back home by the promise of his cozy bedroom and a warm dinner (that will be there after all) speaks well of him too. I want to hang out with this Max kid. He seems awesome.
Look, obviously Spike Jonze's anxiously awaited live-action (to the extent that means anything anymore) adaptation isn't going to be able to reproduce all of these indelible aspects of Sendak's 40-page picture book. But the more I see and hear about the film, the more I think that it can capture some of them. It's kind of telling that admirers of the book seem to be filled with excitement about the adaptation rather than the normal dread. And it's hard to blame them. Spike Jonze, after all, is the master of wistful strangeness. (That his collaborator on the script was Dave "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" Eggers makes sense too.) Those trailers set to Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" are just about perfect; they give a sense of play, and reassure us that Jonze hasn't gone and done something stupid like make an action film.
What's more, Sendak himself is reportedly delighted with the film, as this lovely New York Times profile of the now-curmudgeonly octogenarian informs us. (He was recently joined by the cast and crew of the film for a birthday benefit in Manhattan, a lovely gesture.) There have been mutterings about studio unhappiness but those, if true, are only more reassuring. I'm not sure that a Where the Wild Things Are that delights a studio would be a movie worth watching. But one that gets filtered through Jonze's singular imagination while meeting with the approval of Sendak himself certainly could be.
Let the wild rumpus start, and all that.