Maurice Sendak’s 1967 offering, Where the Wild Things Are is nothing short of a phenomenon. It had, according to the eminently trustworthy Wikipedia, sold more than 19 million copies by 2008. Doubtless after Spike Jonzes 2009 big budget movie adaptation sales must have continued to grow. Jonzes is not the first adaptation. In 1980 Sendak provided the libretto for an opera, and there are countless other adaptations and re-imaginings to get your teeth in to, quite literally in the case of the best bento box ever.
The story, in case you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last forty years, concerns a little boy named Max. Max dons a onsie with monster feet (a habit I cannot recommend highly enough) and indulges in a little naughtiness, building a fort from household objects and teasing the family mutt. Mother calls him a WILD THING! and Max gets cross. He is sent to bed without any supper.
In his bedroom, Max continues his tantrum, and the walls of the room fade away to reveal a forest until ‘his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all round’. In his world Max takes a boat and sails to where the Wild Things are. The Wild Things roar, gnash their teeth and show their claws until Max commands them to ‘BE STILL!’. The Wild Things are frightened of Max at first, but soon he is made their king. They dance a ‘wild rumpus’, but Max is lonely and wants to go home. He smells his Mother’s cooking calling him, and sets back off across the ocean and back into his bedroom, where his still hot supper is waiting for him.
There are Freudian (where the Wild Things represent the id, Mother the ego and the absent father the super-ego, unable to keep Max in check) and colonialist (where Max’s empowerment is achieved through domination of the Wild Things) analyses of Where the Wild Things Are, but for most it is the story of a childs anger, a tantrum which is wild and unruly, but which can be calmed with the application of familial love. It is a classic fantasy/return narrative, but one which takes place within a child’s mind.
The illustrations indulge in the common post-modern technique of growing out of the story space, so as Max imagines himself further out of his bedroom and into the home of the Wild Things they gradually begin to take over the page. This suits the narrative perfectly – anger can be all-consuming and the gradual over-taking of the pictures into the ‘safe’ white space of the paper is a perfect illustration of this.
It’s easy to dislike the ‘…and it was all a dream’ device, and variations thereof, in any text, but in Where the Wild Things Are it’s ideal. In his anger, Max retreats into his head and overcomes his monsters, and, when it is safe to do so, he returns. The message that parental love is enduring and without reservation is strong, too. That Max’s supper is waiting for him is a reminder that his mother may get cross with him, but she will always love him.