Art · Books · Movies · Spirituality · Third Culture Kids · Trauma

Wild Things Make My Heart Sing

My copy of Where The Wild Things are, circa 1984.

This is the copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are I’ve had since I was 4 years old. It has gone all over the world with me, a fact that Max would surely love. I even still have my Wild Thing stuffed animal, and yes, occasionally (usually around October) I will  snuggle with Angus for comfort. Like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, Where The Wild Things Are is one of the fundamental tenets of my imagination. Pure magic.

Alf, Angus and Me

Last night I finally saw the new film version of Where The Wild Things Are on DVD; sadly it never came to the cinemas in Prague. The moment it started I knew I would love it, but it wasn’t an easy film to watch. What kept running through my mind was a line from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when Clementine says, “I don’t think grown ups understand how lonely it is for kids.” I kept thinking about how scary it can be for children, coupled with the sense of separation from those who are older.

I don’t have children so it may be contentious to say this, but I feel that once you have kids you start to forget how to relate with them. Life becomes about more practical matters, food, shelter, education, saving for their future, a job on top of all those parental responsibilities, add into the mix the worry for your child’s safety. All these things can be a barrier to actually relating with and understanding the reality of your child’s experience. I see this all the time at school. I remember it from my childhood. I’m sure this is “normal”, but it is also very difficult. Throw into my mix two parents from totally different cultures and the fact that we lived in places not having to do with either.

I never lived anywhere where I could run away from home like Max did. No nearby family, no real friends nearby, nowhere to go. So I escaped into stories and movies. I found refuge in my journals.

As I watched Where The Wild Things Are, all of those feelings from my childhood came rushing back. The terror, the magic, the unlikely friendships, the fun, the freedom, the rules, the worries, the watching, the judging of the grown-ups around me. I never had any say in any of the places to which we moved when I was a child. How many times I’d had to say goodbye to people I loved by the time I was Max’s age was too many. Like Max, I never lacked for anything, yet I always felt estranged. I always helped take care of my sisters, I was the responsible and dutiful daughter, my main acting out as an adolescent was buzzing off all my hair before I graduated and wearing black for months. My parents were much stricter with me than my sisters, I think because they needed my help and didn’t think they needed my permission to expect things from me.

Though my childhood of travel on the surface seems very glamourous, my experience of it was the total opposite.

Watching Where The Wild Things Are reminded me of a time we were in Australia visiting my uncle, I must have been about 5 years old. It was Christmas, my mum took me to a shopping centre. The centre had these amazing window displays, totally mobile, full of dioramas, stories coming to life. Pure magic. I wanted to spend more time looking at them, but my mom had to do shopping so I couldn’t. When her back was turned I just went. I remember standing in front of those displays, entranced, wanting to live inside those worlds, easily one of my best memories from my childhood. My mom, of course, was hysterical inside looking for me, and when a security guard found me outside, in a rapture, she was happy to see me for about two seconds, then the yelling (and probably spanking) started. A short-lived perfect moment. Then again, aren’t all perfect moments short-lived? At the end of Where The Wild Things Are‘s credits I smiled when I saw they actually filmed the movie in Australia.

If you’ve forgotten about your childhood, for whatever reason, Where The Wild Things Are can remind you. It’s painful and beautiful and harrowing and hateful and magical, but worth it. I can’t say if this is a movie for children or not. I saw equally scary films as a child, like Return To Oz, The Last Unicorn, The Witches, etc., and I coped just fine. But Where The Wild Things Are is indeed stressful since it is such a departure from the book. There were many moments where I was uncomfortably frightened for Max, wondering if everything would work out okay.

The world can be a very lonely and scary place, for everyone, and this film reminded me of how children look at the world. Their fearlessness in the face of terror and loneliness. Their ability to adapt, survive, come out ever stronger.

If you loved this book as a child seeing the Wild Things come to life is magnificently touching. Hearing them speak, seeing their personalities awaken, their beautiful faces laughing and frowning. That alone makes this film worthwhile. The cast is perfect, each and every one. I loved seeing my “Angus” Wild thing with the voice of Lauren Ambrose, one of my favorite actresses since her work in Six Feet Under. The soundtrack featuring Karen O’s whippoorwill voice brings to mind Eddie Vedder’s visceral Into The Wild score, but with more whimsy and terror thrown in. Spike Jonze as director is brilliant, capturing all of these complex elements and weaving them into a perfect balance.

Where The Wild Things Are, like the book, is a masterpiece. Unlike the book, it evokes not just the playful side of childhood, but also explores the darker and more painful side with an honest eye for detail and beauty. Since seeing it I somehow feel more me, more connected with my childhood self than I’ve felt in years, with all the joy and sadness that entails. Where The Wild Things Are is the true embodiment of art: it makes me feel whole.

What are your thoughts on Where The Wild Things Are?

6 thoughts on “Wild Things Make My Heart Sing

  1. I think there’s some truth in this: “once you have kids you start to forget how to relate with them”, and it does have to do with the practical matters of stuff. Though I don’t think it’s always a rule that you forget how to relate, it’s just start to care about other people. And exhaustion can zap what was left of your ability to relate. When you’re a kid, other people can seem on the outside looking in on you. It can feel controlling and scary or wonderful when adults are around. When you’re the mother and your kids are not like others, or your kid whops their little sister (or better yet, someone else’s kid) in public, it can feel very much like those people invade. The more you care about what other people think about how you parent, the more you lose the ability to relate to kids.

    1. @Rose That is an amazing point: “The more you care about what other people think about how you parent, the more you lose the ability to relate to kids.” I absolutely agree. Parenting must be a really bizarre process, so much stuff going on, then this little person who is totally dependent on you, all these societal expectations in the mix. What a mad thing. I’m in my second year of working with children and I have to say even I am becoming desensitised to their experience. Maybe it’s a natural process of being around children? Is that how they learn how to be grown-ups? That said, I have been craving watching this film again for a few weeks now, and I wonder if it will help me recapture that feeling and as a result relate more with the kids at work again.

  2. What a well written critique of the movie…..and your reflections on childhood. I hope that there are some good memories.

    I always loved the book….I also escaped in books as a kid….which led me to chose a different life….and a lot was bad, but lots was OK.

  3. 🙂

    My son is gold. He’s so well-behaved and even-tempered. The most challenging time was definitely the toddler years. He’s very much his own person now, and he’s an amazing person for sure. 🙂

  4. Kindred spirits indeed! Hannah definitely has an eye for that. 🙂

    I have a nine year old son, and it’s definitely true that once you’re a parent, your focus turns to practicalities. That said, I’ve managed to stay firmly planted in my imagination, and I think that’s rubbed off on my son, in a very good way.

    You write: “So I escaped into stories and movies. I found refuge in my journals.” Meeeee too! So much so. That’s still where I find my solitude and comfort and inspiration.

    I’m a Taurus who was supposed to be Gemini. I was born early, the day before Mount St. Helens erupted.

    My favourite artists right now are Fever Ray and Soap&Skin.

    Favourite TV show is *Six Feet Under*. When I was four years old I’d make my mom rent Michael Jackson’s *Thriller* video and I’d watch it over and over. I tend towards a darker aesthetic. The shadows must be respected.

    And *Where the Wild Things Are* is awesome. 🙂

    1. Kindreder and kindreder! I was obsessed with “Thriller” as a child and also would watch it over and over, trying to learn the dances. And journals! Yes! I am so happy that after a dozen years I finally have all of my journals from age 4 or 5 here with me now and I’ve recently started taking them out and looking at them.

      Wow! A nine-year-old son! He must be a handful. There are a few eight-year-old boys I care for at school and they remind me so much of Max, especially Max in the film. Pushing buttons, pushing boundaries – I bet he keeps you busy!

      Me, I’m an Aries, but 90% of my Astro chart is water signs, so the fire and water make me a little nutty at times. The day before Mount St. Helens erupted! Wow. I always think of the film “The Vanishing”, they show the devastation at the beginning of the film and the image always stuck in my head. You must’ve known the world would be a different place after the eruption and you wanted to be here now! 🙂

      “The shadows must be respected.” YES! This is why I loved “Where The Wild Things Are” so much, and also why so many mothers complained when they saw it. Life and childhood cannot always be Disneyfied, reality must be respected as well.

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