Why 'Wild Things' Isn't Too Scary for Kids

Movies, especially unusual movies, tend to take on lives of their own. Spike Jonze is learning this the hard way. Last month the innovative director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation  met a man on a subway platform in New York City. Both were about the same age—Jonze is 39—and both were waiting for the F train. Jonze and the man hit it off. After a few minutes, however, the conversation slowed to a halt, as conversations with strangers typically do. Jonze and the man stood in silence for a moment. And then, unprompted, the man offered a bit of information about himself. "You know what movie I can't wait to see?" he asked. "Where the Wild Things Are."

Jonze was stunned. For the past five years, Wild Things had been his life: writing the screenplay with author Dave Eggers in San Francisco; brainstorming with the picture book's author, Maurice Sendak, in Connecticut; filming on the cliffs of southern Australia; clashing with studio executives in Los Angeles. "I was looking at him, trying to see—is he just messing with me now?" Jonze told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive Wild Things roundtable. "Does he know that I made this?" Warily, Jonze asked the man why Wild Things appealed to him. "I used to skate a lot," the man said, and "the director's a skateboarder, and I like his stuff." He'd seen the trailer, too, and could just tell the movie would be "amazing." But the real allure, the man admitted, was that "I know it's controversial ... I think something really crazy happens at the end." By now, Jonze was pretty sure the man had no idea who he was. "I finally say, 'I'm Spike, I'm the director,' " Jonze recalled, "and he just looked at me for a minute and he got really sincere and he's like, 'Oh, so why is it controversial?' "

That, as it turns out, is a good question. Much of the early buzz about Where the Wild Things Are has centered on its troubled backstory—the battles between the studio and Jonze, the revising of a beloved book, the interminable delays. Fans feared that Jonze's vision would be compromised; Warner Bros. worried that the movie would be too weird to make any money. The good news is that the final product, which arrives in theaters Friday, is not the mess that many industry insiders expected. In fact, it's bolder, deeper, and much, much more interesting than any $80 million Hollywood production has a right to be, which is why so many 20- and 30-somethings have been blogging and tweeting about it for months.

But this artfulness has, rather predictably, sparked some controversy of its own. The standard line now is that by letting Jonze make Wild Things largely his way—as a movie "about childhood" rather than "for children"—the studio has abandoned (or frightened off) the audience that Sendak's story was originally supposed to reach: actual kids. In the film, Max is in near-constant danger. Older boys collapse his handmade igloo with him inside; a monster almost knocks him off a cliff in the midst of a rumpus; claws, dirt clods, and falling trees barely miss his head; and the neurotic, melancholy Wild Things—which are very real-looking nine-foot-tall puppets—go from wanting to hug him to wanting eat him without much warning. What's more, there's little plot to hook distractible young minds—just a moody, inchoate ramble across an alien landscape. It's not, in other words, what "happens at the end" that's causing controversy. It's the idea that kids won't (or shouldn't) watch such an intense, free-form movie long enough to find out.

But what if that intensity, that asymmetry, is exactly why kids should see Wild Things? What if the very thing that makes the movie "controversial" is also what makes it necessary, now more than ever?

The greatest children's stories are about what happens when we become untethered from authority, whether by disobedience, disaster, or disregard, and the twinned feelings of freedom and fear we experience as we grapple with an autonomy we're not quite ready for. They are, in that sense, rehearsals for adulthood. Much like Wild Things' Max, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents in the forest and forced to fend for themselves. The children of The Cat in the Hat  are left in the care of a massive anthropomorphic feline. Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden, James of James and the Giant Peach, and Harry Potter are all orphans; Astrid Lindgren's unruly Pippi Longstocking might as well be. "That always seemed to be the most critical test that a child was confronted with—loss of parents, loss of direction, loss of love," Sendak told NEWSWEEK. "Can you live without a mother and a father?" Fiction and fantasy let children indulge their primal desire to grow up—to be rid of rules and face a dangerous and exhilarating world alone—from the safety of their own bedrooms.

In an Age of Obedience (like ours), these escape hatches become especially important (hence the popularity of the relatively sophisticated Potter and Phillip Pullman series). As Michael Chabon noted recently in The New York Review of Books, "jolly internment centers" like Chuck E. Cheese and the Discovery Zone have largely supplanted alleys and woodlands as areas for exploration, and children liberated enough to roller-skate or ride their bikes now "go forth armored as for battle," their parents typically standing nearby. For the most part, the stories we tell (and sell) our children increasingly reflect this reality, with the prevailing heroes of grade-school fiction, like Dora the Explorer, having evolved since the days of Grimm, Sendak, and The Black Stallion  into bright, upstanding, well-rounded, conveniently multicultural role models breezing through a world that's rarely less than black-and-white—Organization Kids rather than the wild children. Chabon captures the loss well in his piece. "The Wilderness of Childhood is gone," he writes. "The days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized." The less room we leave in real life for rebellion and abandon, the more kids need stories to make space for those very things.

Fortunately, Wild Things isn't the only new film designed to clash with a culture that wants to coddle children rather than challenge them. In the coming months, two grown-ups at least as ambitious as Jonze will also release big-screen adaptations of legendary kids' books. Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-motion animated version of the 1970 Roald Dahl classic, opens on Nov. 25, and Tim Burton's lavish, live-action Alice in Wonderland follows early next year. In each case, the marriage of source material and filmmaker is fitting: three books that are canonical because they so memorably capture the conflicted experience of breaking with authority, each adapted by an unorthodox director whose earlier work—much of which addressed themes of innocence, family, noncomformity, and nostalgia in an adult context—has well prepared him to preserve onscreen the sharper edges of his chosen children's story. In Anderson's hands, Mr. Fox becomes a tale about renouncing the trappings of maturity (new house, boring job) and embracing one's inner nature, in this case as a "wild animal" who satisfies his anarchic longings by terrorizing a trio of farmers and stealing chickens and cider he never actually consumes. Burton's Alice, set 10 years after the original books, follows the eponymous heroine as she flees an unwanted marriage proposal and returns to Wonderland, where the harsh logic of her impending adulthood no longer seems to apply. Neither film will be as atavistic as Wild Things; both code their tussles with authority as a kind of articulate mischievousness rather than a series of temper tantrums. But along with Henry Selick's Coraline and Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist, the Burton, Anderson, and Jonze adaptations are part of a modest but encouraging revival of children's stories that revel in danger, disobedience, and disorientation—that inhabit the Wilderness of Childhood.

This is not to say that Jonze's film, or the like-minded movies to come, aren't meant (even primarily) for grown-ups. With a marketing plan that encourages nostalgic hipsters to download Karen O's edgy soundtrack and buy Wild Things throw pillows at Urban Outfitters, Warner Bros. is clearly catering to a generation of adults who can afford, as NEWSWEEK's Louisa Thomas has pointed out, to prolong their own adolescence ad infinitum: who either fixate on childish things—an upcoming comic-book movie, the latest Harry Potter book—or gravitate toward more "mature" entertainments that celebrate their own infantilism (see: Apatow, Judd). Nor is it to say that every kid will like, or get, or even be able to tolerate Where the Wild Things Are. They won't.

But some will, and they deserve the opportunity to be provoked. "[Max] doesn't know what's to come next," Sendak said. "I mean, that's gotta be scary for a kid, but it's also gotta be what a kid likes most. It's that enticement of what might or might not happen." In fact, the occasional dose of disorientation, of wrestling with things that are difficult to understand, may even be healthy. According to a new paper in the journal Psychological Science, experiences that confound expectations, from nonsense verse to thorny narratives, often "prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss—in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large." It could be that movies that replicate the confusion of being 9 years old, like Wild Things, with its manic monsters and rocky relationships, leave their youngest fans better equipped in some small way to navigate that tricky age. At any rate, Eggers was probably right when he told NEWSWEEK that "we underestimate children's interest and taste in things that have a more subtle palette and face the truth head-on." A critic for the Cleveland Press put it best in his 1963 review of Sendak's masterpiece, which was widely considered "controversial" at the time. "Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book," he wrote. "Parents are very easily scared."

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