Spike Jonze’s cinematic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic Where The Wild Things Are is only a few days away from hitting screens and the advanced word is surprisingly good.
While many adaptations of children’s books merely take advantage of the marketing possibilities of recognizable stories and characters, this film actually examines some of the themes and ideas found in the original text, making it one of the few films to accurately capture these aspects of children’s literature.
“Good children’s literature has at its heart something that is essential and true to childhood experience,” says Dr. Deirdre Baker who teaches the subject at the University of Toronto. “It conveys much more between the lines than it does on the surface or in the plot.”
Film adaptations rarely feature this aspect of the source material. Very little is left open to interpretation and subtext is usually replaced by crude gags and pop culture references (as in the glossy adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ beloved The Cat In The Hat and The Grinch).
Why is this the case? Baker suggests that “watching a film is being taken for a ride while reading text is playing out your own ride.” Perhaps the passive experience of watching a movie makes it difficult for filmmakers to convey the subtleties of the original text to their audience. The other key factor is the commercial angle that Hollywood filmmakers are forced to take on the material.
As Dr. Heather Evans — a children’s literature professor at Queen’s University — observes, “Films for children are produced and marketed by adults, and are designed to appeal to an adult’s perception of a child’s tastes or needs.” It’s an important point since children’s films are often created to sell stuffed toys and Happy Meals.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to create an intelligent movie based on children’s literature: It’s just difficult given the differences between the two mediums. A film like The Princess Bride was able to capture all the nuances of the original book, while still playing as a movie (perhaps because the screenplay was written by the novel’s author William Goldman).
Impressive adaptations like this certainly can be made, they just require filmmakers who respect both the source material and the intelligence of their young audience.
This combination is sadly rare, but fortunately it looks as if Jonze managed to achieve it with Where The Wild Things Are by making the material his own. Author Maurice Sendak specifically chose the director of Being John Malkovich to bring his work to the screen, and it seems as though his faith has been richly rewarded.