Where The Wild Things Are - Spike Jonze interview
Plagued by creative and corporate problems and criticised for being too scary for kids, the long-awaited film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are finally sees its UK release this month. Miles Fielder talks to director Spike Jonze about the often tricky process of adapting a beloved children’s book
It has taken a long time to unleash Maurice Sendak’s furry, horned, fanged and big-footed Wild Things on the big screen. A film adaptation of Sendak’s brilliant and beloved children’s picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, which was first published way back in 1963, has been in the Hollywood dream-works for years. Originally envisioned as an animated film, Sendak balked at the idea of his story about a naughty young boy named Max’s dream-like voyage to an island populated with hell-raising monsters being ‘Disney-fied’ – which is to say transformed from a thrillingly scary flight of fantasy into a saccharine kids’ movie – and so over the years he turned down numerous requests for the rights to do so. But now, almost 50 years after their first appearance, Spike Jonze, the director of those Charlie Kaufman-scripted mind-bending fantasies Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, has finally let loose Sendak’s creatures in a live-action film.
‘My mom read the book to me when I must have been about four or five,’ Jonze recalls. ‘I don’t remember exactly where we were, but I vividly remember the pictures and her voice reading me those words. There’s something about Maurice’s work that you just fall into – you are in that world that he creates and you become Max. I always loved that book.’
Where the Wild Things Are the movie arrives with the endorsement of Sendak, who was involved with the film right from the start, but the production has suffered more than its fair share of bumps in the night. For a start, after Sendak asked Jonze to take a shot at adapting his book (the pair met during another and abortive film project in the late-1990s) it took Jonze five years to think of a way to make something out of and do justice to Sendak’s beautifully illustrated but slim nine-sentence, twenty-page book. Once Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (author of the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and publisher of ultra-cool literary journal McSweeney’s) had hit upon a workable concept, they encountered terminal creative difference with the suits at Universal Pictures and Jonze had to take the project over the road to Warner Bros. Cameras eventually rolled in 2005 and Jonze duly turned in the finished film in 2007. But Warners were decidedly unhappy: they felt the film was less family-friendly than they had expected and wanted to re-shoot all $75 million worth of it. The studio eventually capitulated and reached a compromise with Jonze, giving him more time and money to make some changes, and the film, initially scheduled for release in May last year, is finally seeing the light of day this month.
However, Warners are not marketing Where the Wild Things Are as a family movie and it arrives with a kiddie-cautionary PG certificate. The studio’s evident view that Jonze’s take on Sendak’s book may still be a bit much for young audiences is being echoed by concerned parents in America, who are worried about their wee ones reading the book let alone seeing the film. News that Where the Wild Things Are is being deemed too scary for kids provoked the plain-speaking octogenarian Sendak to say to Newsweek magazine, ‘I would tell them [the parents] to go to hell. And if children can’t handle the story, they should go home. Or wet your pants.’ Critical reactions to the film have been mixed (Rolling Stone pronounced it ‘defiantly untamed’, while The Village Voice faint praised it with ‘well-behaved’), but there’s no denying the long-awaited arrival of the big screen Wild Things has provoked something of, as Max might shout, a rumpus.
Jonze thinks the book and film are and should be scary. Sendak was inspired by his childhood memories of encounters with overbearing relatives, whom he cast as the book’s monsters, and Jonze found the key to the film was to interpret the tale as a story about children’s emotions, which, he says, should naturally be scary. ‘I’d often asked myself, “Who are the Wild Things?”’ Jonze says. ‘Finally, it just hit me that the Wild Things could be wild emotions. And as a kid, to me, wild emotions were really scary – my own wild emotions, the emotions of the people around me. Just because you are a kid doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t as complicated and as deep as an adult’s. As a kid maybe you don’t have the experience to fully understand it, but I think the feelings are just as deep – of love, hope, disappointment, fear and anxiety. You don’t understand them and they are big and uncontrollable.’
Accordingly, Jonze wanted his Wild Things to literally be big and uncontrollable. To that end he eschewed animation and instead made a live action film using giant puppets built at the Jim Henson Workshop, home of The Muppets but also originator of more nightmarish children’s fantasies such as The Dark Crystal. The super heavy, ten-feet-tall shaggy suits were worn and operated by body-builder-fit puppeteers and Jonze shot their and Max’s antics on location in the great Australian outdoors. The Wild Things’ booming voices were recorded by a cast of actors known for their distinctive delivery – James Gandolfini and Forest Whittaker among them – and subsequently synched to the puppets using CG animated facial expressions.
‘I had always wanted to do the film live action,’ Jonze says. ‘I wanted to build the Wild Things and shoot them for real. I wanted it so that Max can touch them, lean on them, shove them, hug them. I wanted them to be there so that you can feel their breath, their size and their weight. I thought it would be more exciting and fun. Not only fun, but I felt all of that would make it more dangerous, more visceral and more immediate.’
If the reaction of Warner Bros and concerned parents in America is anything to go by, Jonze has achieved his aim. But we’ve been here before with public outcry about the tone and content of children’s films, of course. Just last month, questions were raised about the suitability for children of Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr Fox. And other recent precedents include the Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and his and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Going back a bit further, there was an almighty media-saturated outcry about Jurassic Park, which, parents were claiming, was terrifying their children. As it turned out, Spielberg’s dinosaur thriller was delighting the kids and scaring the bejesus out of the adults. In the end, it all comes down to whether or not you think it’s good for kids to be terrorised a little bit, or, as Sendak clearly thinks, not to mollycoddle them.
‘We were trying to make a movie that represents what it can feel like at times when you’re nine years old,’ Jonze says. ‘We were just thinking about what it’s like at that age. There’s fun, there’s safety, there’s love, and then there’s also times when there’s loneliness and longing. A long time ago Maurice said to me, “You have to make your version of this movie and make it personal to you. All I ask is that you don’t condescend to children. Don’t pander. Make it honest and make it personal.” His attitude was, “I don’t want to make a movie just to make a movie. I don’t want to just make some crap to fill the multiplexes for a month.”’
Where the Wild Things Are is on general release from Fri 11 Dec.
Some of the most memorable children’s films are also the scariest. Paul Dale recaps on a few of the creepy classics that are guaranteed to give kids nightmares
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Adapted for cinema by Roald Dahl from Ian Fleming’s book, this musical fantasy about a crazy inventor and his flying car starring Dick Van Dyke features the scariest antagonist ever committed to film. The Childcatcher, played by former ballet dancer Sir Robert Helpmann, fuelled a generation of child nightmares. Rocky Horror Picture Show creator Richard O’Brien and dancer Wayne Sleep later reprised the role for stage to terrify a new generation of little darlings.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
This elegant, old-fashioned Disney production about supernatural happenings in the English countryside featured the mighty Bette Davis in one of her most haunting (and haunted) later roles. Pulled from cinemas after its original release because the studio disliked the director’s other worldly and strange ending, and re-released with a revised ending in 1981, the resultant media brouhaha made the film a cult hit with the kids. Both versions of the film were briefly available on a special issue DVD released by Anchor Bay in 2002 which is now permanently out of print.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Adapted from the hit book by author Daniel Handler, Lemony Snicket … follows the orphaned Baudelaire children as they are shuttled from one oblivious relative to another, avoiding the attempts of distant cousin ‘Count’ Olaf (Jim Carrey in one of his finest, hammy turns) to murder them for their family fortune. With no real happy ending, this is a stark lesson in the dark reality of the chaotic universe.
The Corpse Bride (2005)
Tim Burton’s masterful stop-frame animation relocates 19th century Russian Jewish folktale of undead bride and spectral beings to Victorian Britain with unsettling results. Throw in a couple of surreal songs about decay by screenwriter John August and the kids didn’t know whether to laugh or scream.
The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
A surprisingly good fantasy film adaptation of the bestselling book series in which twins Jared and Simon (both played by male child star of the moment Freddy Highmore) face down goblins and demons in their new rural home following their parents’ divorce. Legendary US filmmaker John Sayles polished up a pedestrian script to make it more like The Amityville Horror for children.