Friday, 3 June 2011

Where The Wild Things Are

"Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared."

Maurice Sendak published his children’s book Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 and the book quickly became a classic. The book tells the story of Max, the little boy who misbehaves, is sent to bed without supper and makes a magical journey from his room to the island where the Wild Things live, before eventually returning home to discover that his supper is, in fact, waiting for him … still warm.

Forty-eight pages, mostly wonderful pictures - the written story contains only twelve sentences in all – and a tale which has captivated millions of three to seven year olds since it was first published. My daughters were fascinated by the story when they were small and my grandson, the four-year-old representative of a new generation, loves it too.

One of Sendak’s great strengths is that he deals with themes which are very real for small children; in this case, the consequences of misbehaviour and the fears which arise when you are alone and those you love (and who love you) aren’t available for comfort and security – the monsters who lurk in the dark. His treatment of these subjects means that the story is immediately accessible to small children – he is describing their actual world and, by naming and pictorially describing things openly, giving them mechanisms to help them cope with them.

Many of Sendak’s books, including Where the Wild Things Are, have been criticised for dealing with themes which are not suitable for small children. In the Night Kitchen (1970), which features a little boy prancing around naked, is still challenged and even banned in a number of public libraries in the United States. The critics, in my view, simply miss the point; children live full lives in our societies, are confronted with all sorts of things we might not wish them to be confronted with and, by refusing to discuss issues with them and give them channels to help them approach difficult themes and develop healthy strategies for dealing with them, we are not doing them any favours. On the other hand, to be completely fair, Sendak has generally reacted very sensitively to criticism and has, in some cases, exaggerated the extent and amount of opposition his books have in fact encountered – his comments on Bruno Bettelheim, regarding Where the Wild Things Are are one example of this. 

It was of course inevitable that the idea of filming such a popular classic should quickly come up. In the early eighties, Disney did some serious work on the idea but in the end it came to nothing and Sendak’s classic was spared the kiss of kitch which would have inevitably accompanied the project – though, to be fair, the Disney tendency to over-sweeten the pudding has never bothered children. Instead Universal Studios, in cooperation with Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, gave the project to director Spike Jonze, who, in close cooperation with Sendak, finished the film for release two years ago.

A week or so ago, my grandson was visiting me for a couple of days and we stopped by at our local electrical market. Looking over the DVDs on sale, I spotted Where the Wild Things Are and he agreed enthusiastically to my suggestion that we buy it.

That evening we watched the film. It received the ultimate accolade from Ryan who, when it was over, promptly announced that he wanted to watch it again. And, thinking about it, I realised that I did too; though my reasons were probably very different to his.

I was fascinated by the community of monsters, the Wild Things, their personalities and interaction with each other. Jonze and Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), who wrote the screenplay together, have produced characters which work for both children and adults because they are so real, so normal and, at the same time never lose that dangerous violent unpredictability which makes them what they ultimately are – scary monsters. Thinking about this, it struck me that this is the way the world of adults must often appear to small children; big people, who are incredibly powerful and are always doing completely unpredictable, sometimes scary things and why, therefore, those adults whom you love and who love you and whose love is consistent and sure are so important and necessary in your life – even when they’re angry at you.

For an adult, of course, the attraction is somewhat different. Carol, Douglas, Judith, Ira, Alexander, Bernard and K.W. are a group of insecure, neurotic, very human monsters with complex personalities, problems, visions, relationships and group dynamics and issues which, I suspect, are familiar to most of us. The arrival of Max on their island acts as a catalyst to bring a lot of things into the open, maybe clarify some things somewhat before his departure leaves them with some problems clearer, some, perhaps, on the way to resolution, others basically as they were. Just like real life.

But personally, the behaviour and interaction of the Wild Things made me think of a particular period of my life and some of what I experienced then. Thirteen years ago, for all sorts of complex reasons I won’t go into here, I had a pretty comprehensive nervous breakdown. Part of the long process of recovery I went through involved spending a number of months in full-time residential therapy. It was therapy with a strong emphasis on group work and it meant that, in a relatively short time, you got to know a number of other people very well indeed, discovering things about them (as they discovered things about you) that even those closest to them had never known.

We were a motley crew; suffering from all sorts of problems like borderline syndromes, through bi-polar disorders, addiction issues and depression, to people whose life-stories and personality structures had landed them in individual psychological cul-de-sacs – or various mixtures of such problems. In many cases of what we call “mental illness,” the label isn’t so important anyway; as a therapist once remarked to me, “in our area the therapy often comes first, the diagnosis comes at the end.”

Many people, particularly those going through crises, have difficulties with group therapy. You think that you have such massive troubles of your own, that the last you want to do is to waste your time listening to the problems of others or, even worse perhaps, laying out your own horrible private stories in front of others. But if you’re able to open yourself up to it, you start to realise that this isn’t what it’s really about at all. Firstly, listening to the others telling their stories, you realise that while all stories are unique they are all very similar. You start to understand how others got into the mess they’re in, to see possible solutions and strategies for them … and then you start to realise that some of these solutions and strategies might just be applicable to you as well. Secondly, experiencing the interaction in the group – an interaction which goes on after the “official” sessions with the therapist are over, in many ways dominating your whole life during the therapy period – you start to see the way people act and react to each other (in many cases continuing the problematic patterns they have described in their stories) and, if you’re lucky, start to observe and reflect on your own behaviour (and patterns) within the overall group dynamic.

It helped me at any rate, though it didn’t work for everyone. There were some participants whose disorders could really only be handled with medication – though many of them also found the insights into their own situations which emerged through the discussions and interaction immensely helpful. There were others who just weren’t capable of climbing out of their own boxes and so basically continued to bang their heads against the same, largely self-constructed walls. And, just as I was coming to the end of my stay there, there was one participant … at this stage friend would be a better word to use … who finally succumbed to the limited, closed logic-loop of his subjective suffering and took his own life.

It’s a long time ago now and my life has moved on since then, generally in much more positive directions. But I still retain some friendships – one a very deep one – which were made in that strange, difficult, intense time. And one very basic realisation; that if you find yourself getting into a situation regarding important personal situations in life where you can only see two alternatives, black or white, all or nothing, then it’s high time you called “stop” and looked at things again. For, though decisions always have to be made and it is usually better to decide yourself rather than have decisions made for you, there are nearly always far more alternatives available to you than you can see at first glance.

And so, watching the clumsy, complicated relationships between the Wild Things last weekend, the things half-spoken, the issues not resolved, their behavioural patterns being repeated even when they were obviously dysfunctional, my thoughts returned to that group I was part of, all those years ago. The “monsters” in the film are thrown together by the fact that they find themselves together on a distant island; we were thrown together by our shared inability to carry on the way we had been going. When Max sails back home, leaving them behind on their island, we know that things will go on much the way they have been before he arrived. But we also know that they will go on, because – in their own neurotic, wounded, dysfunctional ways – the Wild Things do understand and care for each other. It’s not certain of course; Carol may go into another uncontrolled rage and kill one of the others, possibly Judith after she has provoked him once too often, or Douglas or Alexander because they are simply unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe K.W., who understands him very well, will be able to avert disaster (once again).

Nothing is certain or perfect anyway, and it can be dangerous to lose oneself in the pursuit of total solutions. The suicide of my friend Jens had a lot to do with that kind of fallacy. Often the way forward is to accept that there are many partial solutions for seemingly intractable problems, that ever more alternatives start to become available once you get yourself (re)started on the adventure of life. That you sometimes just have to hope and put a bit of trust in yourself and others. The way, in the end, that Max can go back to his mother because, deeper than anything else, he knows that she loves him.

And that she would never really send him hungry to bed …


Many thanks to Pagan Sphinx, who gave me the link to Slate Magazine which provided the real impetus for this post. J

Pictures retrieved from:


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