Where the Wild Things Are: Spike Jonze's Take on a Popular Literary Source

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"Where the Wild Things Are," directed by Spike Jonze, is the feature film   of the popular Maurice Sendak children's book of the same name. The film is being released October 16, 2009 by Warner Bros.

Affection for the Book

The film began with Jonze's abiding affection and respect for the book, written and illustrated by Sendak, another strong believer in not talking down to young people. Published in 1963, it earned a Caldecott Medal and went on to touch millions of readers worldwide, perpetually ranked by Publishers Weekly as one of the 10 all-time best-selling books for children since the 1970s.

Its enduring appeal, notes Jonze, is in how it "taps into genuine feelings that kids have and takes them seriously without pandering. Kids are given so much material that's not honest, so when they find a story like this it really gets their attention. I remember myself, at that age, being so eager to hear that other kids were going through the same things I was and having similar thoughts."

Max Records, now twelve, made his film debut as Max in "Where the Wild Things Are" and agrees. "The book reflects what it's actually like to be a kid. It's a book that could not only be respected by kids but it really gets to the heart of everything you feel growing up and even beyond that."

It was that idea of "beyond" that led Jonze to realize what he could contribute to the story. Adapting the slim volume into a feature film gave him the opportunity to take the adventure further, to delve deeper into Max's world, the unknown terrain of the island and the impetus that brings him there. He could examine more fully the Wild Things themselves, those volatile and endlessly expressive creatures which are "the wild emotions inside of Max and inside all of us."

From that point, the possibilities were limitless.

Collaborating on the Screenplay

Jonze selected acclaimed novelist and fellow Wild Things fan Dave Eggers to collaborate with him on the screenplay, though Eggers had never written for film. This did not surprise Vincent Landay, Jonze's longtime collaborator and a producer on "Where the Wild Things Are," who offers, "Spike's instinct about Dave was based on knowing him as a person and knowing he had the right sensibility and the right take on what he wanted out of these characters. Spike likes to put people into situations where they might not have been in before because you often end up with a fresher result."

Before long, the two met with Sendak in his Connecticut home to go over their plans for the movie. Unquestionably, they wanted to keep it true to the author's values and intention; otherwise they would not attempt it. Of their initial discussions, Eggers remembers, "We wanted to make a movie that didn't look down at a kid but got inside him. Most kids in movies are 'de-fanged.' They have no wildness. What we figured out pretty quickly was that we all clearly remembered what it was like to be a boy, to be a little wild and get into trouble. We understood who Max was. We didn't need to focus-group it or ask a child psychologist about what a child thinks or believes; we knew it in our guts."

What ensued was an old-fashioned brainstorming process of two first-time screenplay writers locked in a room, hammering out ideas and dialogue together, acting out characters and melding their very different methods. "Dave is a very disciplined writer. If he gets stuck, he puts in a placeholder and keeps going whereas, for me, if it doesn't feel right I will stay in that place until I find what works. I don't want to let it go," Jonze admits, to which Eggers adds, "Spike's method is the definition of organic. I often saw myself as the facilitator, helping to put his ideas on paper and fill it out."?

"First and foremost I was concerned with who Max was and what was going on in his life," says Jonze. "I wanted to make a movie that takes kids seriously but Maurice said, 'Make sure you don't just take the heavy side of the kid seriously; take his imagination seriously, his sense of joy.' We never set any rules about whether it would be for kids or adults. We just went where it took us."

Sendak Stays Involved

Serving as a producer on the film, Sendak was fully involved from those early conversations and throughout production. He says, "Spike immediately had his own point of view. I trusted him. I knew he had a vivid sense of what the book was about in his head, which was the same with me when I wrote it.?

"He's given me a renewal of respect for young people," the author continues, saying that so few people he encounters have Jonze's "bite," nor his interest "in history, or the world they came from. They just want to be what they want to be, without the luxury of learning about it. Spike is like a throwback, in that he reminds me of the young people I remember from the 1960s; kind of crazy but in the most wonderful, adventurous way. For me, the 60s was an exuberant and splendid time."

It was an inspired creative match, attests producer John Carls, who has worked with Sendak for 17 years, since the two formed Wild Things Productions in 1992. "He and Spike are very similar as artists. They're both bold and innovative thinkers, constantly challenging the status quo; they're both hard-working perfectionists who pour everything into their work; and they're both in touch with their childlike selves, which gives them a perspective that connects authentically with children."

Ultimately, the film was a combination of their stories and recollections. Says Jonze, "Maurice based the book on themes and feelings from his life, his childhood. I was picking up the baton."

"Spike is an incredibly gifted young man and courageous," says Sendak. "He didn't do an homage to the book; he did something that belongs to him, which makes him a real filmmaker and a real artist. I love the movie. It's original. It has an entire emotional, spiritual, visual life which is as valid as the book. He's turned it into his 'Wild Things' without giving up mine, in a brilliant, modern, fantastical way which takes nothing from my book but enhances and enriches it. They are two very different works of art and I like them both."