Posted by: Nathan | October 21, 2009

Psychology at the Center of Where the Wild Things Are

The wife and I changed things up a bit last weekend and actually went to the cinema! That is unbelievable already, but we went even further and saw a movie that had just come out, viz. Where the Wild Things Are. J loves the book by Maurice Sendak (I like it, too), and Paste had it as their cover story for last month’s issue. In other words, we were interested. I was more than a little skeptical of a feature-length movie made from a children’s book consisting of only a few sentences; however, the film is quite enjoyable and its emotional power comes from psychology.

There were several things that I was leery of going into the movie. First, I hoped that the producers and director wouldn’t stray too far from the original book, and they did not. The only departure that bothered me was that instead of going upstairs to bed and imagining the forest growing up around him and then getting on the boat to the island, Max runs away from home and gets on his imaginary bark. I loved the idea of creating a new world in a familiar place. Still, this is a small complaint. Of course there are other departures such as the wild things having names and pretty much everything that happens on the island, but I knew there would need to be much added content. I think the movie captures the spirit of the book fairly well.

Another concern I had going in was that the monsters would disappoint me. Would they look right? Would they be silly? Annoying? What would they sound like? In this facet, the film did not disappoint at all; I loved the wild things as they are rendered. They have adult human voices and do not sound goofy, which is important. Max’s imaginary world is real to him. The look of the monsters is incredible–they look just like the book. I was able to sympathize with them and care about them, but they remain scary and dangerous too.

My largest worry was that once Max got on the island, the action would be boring and/or absurd. It isn’t (mostly). The plot on the island with Max and the wild things is quite good–powerful at times. Max meets these enormous creatures who scare him. He eventually befriends them and is crowned their king via some fast-talking. He quickly realizes that his job as king is to make all of the wild things happy; they have feuds and rivalries among them. Max promises peace and happiness, and things go along swimmingly for a while. But soon he finds out that he cannot please them all; he is a just a kid.

Max’s relationship with the wild things is the most interesting aspect of the movie because one can see a part of Max in each monster. The wild things are projections of different parts of Max’s psyche. KW resembles Max’s sister who has friends besides Max but still loves him. Alexander is the smallest monster, and the others never listen to what he says, just as Max feels he is ignored in real life. Interestingly, Max, too, ignores Alexander for most of the film. Douglas is the more rational side of Max–the Horatio to Carol’s Hamlet. Carol, Max’s best friend (and my favorite monster from the book), is almost a second Max; he feels deeply and loves his friends, but when he loses control of his emotions, he is out of control and dangerous. The other monsters seem like parents or naysayers at times.

The emotional power of the movie comes from watching Max try to make these monsters–these pieces of himself–get along. He loves them all (excepting the Bull, maybe), and it hurts him that he is powerless to heal the rifts among the monsters. Wild Things forces the viewer to see things through the eyes of a child. Max wants so badly to avoid the things that hurt him and others, but he is incapable of control. It reminded me strongly of the times when I was upset as a child and wanted to make things “right”–right as I saw it, of course; but that is not life. We long for understanding and acceptance, yet when we find it we don’t know how to sustain that joy. We hurt each other. In that way, Max’s struggle in this movie and in the book is everyone’s struggle.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. As in the book, Max realizes this pretend world he’s created is too much for him to govern; he sails home where his mother is waiting for him with a warm dinner. He finds peace in his mother’s love. No, he cannot control himself or life, but at least he knows someone loves him.

The movie is well made and enjoyable to watch. I would not take my children to it were I a parent. There are parts that would be scary for kids, and the psychology of the movie is its strength; I do not know if kids would understand it. Then again, children love the book, which features so many similar themes. Maybe I’m underestimating what a child is capable of understanding. In any case, it is a movie worth seeing, though I don’t think watching at home on DVD would subtract too much from the experience. ★★★★ (of five)


  1. Great review, Nathan! My wife and I want to go see this at some point.

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