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Book Review: The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

Arts & Culture | April 7, 2010

How can an abstract picture book of a dozen or so sentences be fleshed out into a 90-minute feature film, let alone a 300-page novel? And who would ever have the nerve to do so with such a beloved book as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are? Somehow Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers thought they could do just that. As the DVD release of Jonze’s feature film nears, the jury is still out on whether or not the Jonze’s movie did the original picture book justice (movie buffs laud its inventiveness, mothers complain it was too dark, hipsters love its soundtrack, everyone else shrugs).

The Wild Things is Eggers’ novelization of the movie that Jonze envisioned. As Eggers puts it, “The children’s book Max, is, after all, a version of Maurice, and the movie Max is a version of Spike. The Max of this book [The Wild Things], then, is some combination of Maurice’s Max, Spike’s Max, and the Max of my own boyhood.” He refers to, of course, the Max that many have only known between the pages of a strange and surreal picture book of sparse words and fewer explanations. Taking this treasured wolf-boy character, meshing it with his personal interpretation, and aligning it with the feature film? Quite the undertaking.

I must admit, I have never seen the movie; I also decided against seeing it before reviewing the book, hoping to read The Wild Things on its own terms and away from its collaborator. Though I believe Eggers is a phenomenal force in current literature, from his work with McSweeney’s to his amazing short stories, I approached his Wild Things with caution. Unfortunately, I fear that this adaptation proves indulgent and, at worst, unnecessary.

The book starts wonderfully, with Eggers providing insight into Max’s home life: an apathetically cool teenage older sister, a weathered divorcee mother, and his mother’s bland boyfriend. Through these various characters and Max’s own antics, we come to learn of Max’s vague anxieties about his changing household and infinite sense of imagination and possibility―which is typically expressed while Max is in his beloved wolf costume. In this sense, Eggers artfully reconstructs Max’s pre-adolescent world; I was able to not only believe that Max would retaliate against his sister by pouring gallons of water into her bedroom but also thought that, at that age, I might have too.

However, once Max runs away from home (after a particularly wolf-inspired antic), I found with Eggers’ portrayal of the all-too-well-known Wild Things and their island disagreeable. For instance, the Wild Things that inhabit the island are each given a name and a specific personality. Eggers’ painting of each Wild Things’ personas, from Judith’s mocking pessimism to Katherine’s monk-like serenity, was fantastic—but their names! Why so Anglo? As I was introduced to each of them, I was disappointed by how un-Wild they were. I was only slightly satisfied by The Bull; I could believe that a creature named such would truly be a Wild Thing. But Carol? How… suburban. I imagine a bespectacled dentist, not a leader of odd, ferocious creatures.

Nomenclature aside, I felt as though the mystique and surreal aspect of the Wild Things and their island was largely ignored by Eggers. Instead, he chooses to focus on the relationships between the Wild Things and Max, as well as Max’s personal struggles and ruminations. Thus, as Max becomes king and starts to live on the island, we are introduced to the daily habits of the Wild Things as well as their universal anxiety of, as Thing Ira calls it, “the void.” I could understand this allusion to Max’s struggles with growing up and so forth, but I just couldn’t buy it. I wanted the Wild Things to be just that—wild. It didn’t sit with me that such Things could clamor and squeal upon hearing indeterminate buzzings underground. Max’s difficulty with controlling and placating the Wild Things was good enough, as was their constant temptation to eat their king Max, but Eggers goes a bit far with fleshing out the Wild Things. Perhaps my loyalty to my childhood interpretation of Sendak’s version biased me, but I wanted to know more about the island itself and less about whether or not Carol and Katherine were ever an item.

Eggers does provide genius glimpses into the setting of the wild rumpus: “hills that pulsated like gelatin, rivers that changed direction in midstream, small trees whose trunks, almost translucent, swallowed the sunlight and spun it into something pink and glassine.” It is in these moments that Eggers shines; his population of miniature cats and pink raccoons on the island is in perfect alignment with Sendak’s original imaginative and utterly surreal pictures. It is this island I want to explore further, but Eggers never says more than a few sentences about it. Instead, the story drags in the endless turmoil of the Max-Wild Things and Wild Thing-Wild Thing relationships. Though certainly necessary to the story as a whole, Eggers lets himself go with his over-descriptive exploration of the island’s interpersonal struggles. Though the island itself retains its mystical quality so loved in the original picture book, Eggers’ portrayal of the Wild Things with Max is too much; I was left without any sense of the unsettling magic of the original Wild Things.

Though Eggers’ striking philosophical style emerges at times, The Wild Things seems to mostly be a leftover character development exercise from the movie’s screenplay. His portrayal of Max’s struggle between childhood and adolescence is magically done, but the story becomes loses its sparkle upon the introduction of the Wild Things and their island. Though a noble effort, it seems as though the average reader is better left watching the movie.