I was eight years old when a friend’s mother inadvertently terrified me by reading me a cartoon adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the local library. I can still vividly recall the image I found most disturbing: the monster was shaking his bride with such forceful anger that he shivered her into her constituent body parts. Unrealistic though the image may have been, it gave me nightmares for years afterwards. I didn’t get much from the book about the dangers of experimental science or the quest to perfect humanity, but I did conclude that I never wanted to come into contact with images of organs in jars ever again.
So when reports emerged last year that young audiences were terrified by early test showings of Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are (opening today), I was swept back to the memories of my own childhood fears. The woman who read me that book clearly thought I was up to it. So, too, Jonze has argued that Where the Wild Things Are’s intense, sometimes violent, action sequences and turbulent emotions are a true representation of the turmoil of childhood—no more disturbing than what children are dealing with anyway. And it’s certainly true that many movies for kids are gentler and more optimistic than the tough realities children actually face.
Of course, as we all learned this week, even the most seemingly improbable of fictional Hollywood scenarios can sometimes be borne out by real life. This summer, Americans swarmed to Up, Pixar’s movie about a boy accidentally swept away from his family on a house carried off by hot-air balloons. And just yesterday, we panicked when it appeared that a real young boy had accidentally been swept into the air on a homemade aircraft. So everyday life, too, is full of frightening possibilities. But do we have to show children terrifying images on screen to prove that we respect them outside the theater?
Wild Things is in fact just one of three potentially unnerving movies based on classic children’s books arriving in theaters this fall. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which opened on September 18, conjures a surreal world (based on a picture book by Judi and Ron Barrett) where food rains dangerously from the sky. And Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s forthcoming update of a Roald Dahl novella, tells the story of three villainous farmers who set out to kill a fox and his family. All three movies feature beautiful and disturbing images, and raise difficult questions for children about what it means to be a good and successful person.
Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze, and scriptwriter Dave Eggers have all been almost truculent in defense of their movie’s unabashed scariness. Jonze told the Telegraph that "Wild Things has feelings that you recognize as being true to childhood. I think kids respond to things that don't condescend to them.” And when Newsweek asked Sendak what he would tell parents who are concerned that the movie might be too frightening for children, he responded, “I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate….If they can't handle it, go home.” Their argument seemed to be that in terror lies integrity.
And there’s no question that Where the Wild Things Are is often quite frightening. This is a world where ten-foot-tall monsters rip each other’s arms off in fits of pique, even if the injured party replaces his missing limb with a stick and carries on, and where a child has to crawl into a monster’s mouth to escape the wrath of his best friend, even if his friend is motivated by sadness rather than hatred. Characters threaten to eat their own feet and each other, build forts designed to cut intruders’ brains out, bite their mothers, and use rocks to knock their friends over or make them fall out of the sky. But it’s also a movie that children might find unsettling as much for the knotty questions the characters face, as for any of its special effects
“I just bit [my mother], that’s all…and I don’t like frozen corn,” Max tells the Wild Things when he meets them, explaining why he ran away from home. “They act like I’m a bad person.”
“Well, are you?” asks KW, the Wild Thing voiced by Lauren Ambrose who becomes Max’s proxy big sister.
“I don’t know,” he responds.
Later, when Max’s efforts to unify the Wild Things have fallen apart, splintered by dirt fights that have gone too far, a fort that didn’t work the way it was supposed to, and the Wild Things’ fears that Max likes some of them better than others, Max is forced to confess to his closest friend Carol, the Wild Thing brought to life with surprising tenderness by James Gandolfini, that he is not actually a king.
“So, what are you?” Carol asks him.
“I’m Max,” he says.
“Well, that’s not very much, is it?” Carol flings back at him. But at the end of the movie, as Max sails back to his human family, Carol races across the Wild Things’ world to try to say goodbye to him. And as the water opens up between them, they howl at each other in recognition, in love, and in mourning for the self Max is leaving behind. It’s a tremendously complicated, rich moment, one that requires no special effects or exaggerated fights to magnify or translate the emotions on naked display.