For nearly half a century now, a small boy in a white wolf suit has led the charge for the uses of enchantment and the therapeutic value of the wild rumpus. "How many people have a child who goes out and does so well by them?" Maurice Sendak asked with deep parental pride on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Max's 1963 debut in Where the Wild Things Are.
Since then, Max has become even more successful. He stars in Spike Jonze's film Where the Wild Things Are and appears in Dave Eggers's The Wild Things, a novel based on the screenplay adapted from Sendak's illustrated story.
Max has become one of the thousand faces of the hero, crossing over from the literary domain into mythical space to become our Everychild. He has emerged from the pages of Sendak's picture book to appear in an opera, a play, an animated short, museum exhibits, advertisements, toy stores and so on.
To be sure, over the years, he has been commercialized. Opening Ceremony, a specialty clothing store in New York, sold out all 90 of its $610 (U.S.) adult-size wolf suits in the first hour they went on sale. Still, Max has not lost his place in our hearts. In fact, he now belongs in the pantheon of heroes who connect us, viscerally, with the propulsive energy and boundless emotional reserves of childhood.
How do you make a feature-length film, let alone a novel, out of the 18 illustrations and 300-odd words in Sendak's book? To begin with, Jonze's film has added a few years to Max's age, turning him from what appears to be a boy of 4 or 5 in the throes of a temper tantrum into an older child who is by turns vulnerable and aggressive, captivating us with his wide-eyed wonder and managing to remain likeable even on wild-eyed rampages. "Everything we did, all the decisions we made, were to try to capture the feeling of what it is to be 9," Jonze insisted.
Blowing up the tantrum of Sendak's Max in this way raises the stakes, telling us as much about the "void" (as the book calls it) and existential crisis as about childish anger and frustration. It also drops the tactful reserve of the picture book in its effort to get inside the mind of a child.
If Jonze was able to take advantage of the expressive intensity of child actor Max Records's face (no one will easily forget the boy's brush with death and his grief-stricken expression when his teenaged sister, Claire, drives off with her friends in cavalier fashion), Dave Eggers has an advantage working in a genre that famously can do what we are rarely able to do in films and can never do in real life: read minds.
We learn about the effects of Claire's callous behaviour ("Max no longer had a sister"), his mother's anger (it "crushes the light inside him") and a painfully candid science lesson ("Max had a sick feeling in his stomach"). And we discover exactly why Max proposes war to the Wild Things: "There really was nothing, he thought, as good as a war." We follow his train of thought when he discovers that, much as he loves the thrill of battle and the contest between Good Guys and Bad Guys, the prospect of actual bodily injury and death makes him "very afraid."
Max may inspire love and the desire to build things, but, in the end, his more enduring legacy for the Wild Things is anarchy, destruction and the inability to make things right. He leaves the island in a state of emotional overload, filling the void with a "wild, plaintive song of sorrow and abandon and anger and love," sung in unison with the beasts until Max is gone, "forever."
Once back at his house, Max feels himself "newly able to fit within it," and he stands over his sleeping mother, "happy to watch her rest." This is no longer Maurice Sendak's Max, nor Spike Jonze's Max, but rather Dave Eggers's Max, overcome with joy at envisioning a mother sleeping peacefully, an especially poignant touch for those who recall from his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius the sleepless nights of Eggers's mother, her body racked by terminal cancer.
Eggers makes Max his own through deft touches beginning with the tribute to his mother and ending with a cameo homage to Maurice Sendak. In a nod to the German Expressionist painter, Sendak appears as Mr. Beckmann, a sympathetic man of "eighty or a hundred" who takes endless walks with his "perfectly bred and well cared for" German shepherd Achilles, and who has never forgotten "one moment of his childhood."
Eggers brings Max to life with his trademark kinetic narrative energy. Wild Things begins with its own rumpus: Max chases his dog through the hallway and down the stairs, running and wrestling through the house, lunging for the dog and barrelling into the front door.
As the author of a book called You Shall Know Our Velocity, Eggers is obsessed with movement, embracing it in part because he understands at a very deep level the heroic dimension to momentum: how it functions as a bulwark against motionlessness, stasis, paralysis and death. And yet he is also our cultural champion of reading and writing, the very activities that create sweet serenity even as they enable wild rumpuses in a beloved second home that Eggers once declared to be the world of books.
Maria Tatar chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University. She is the author of Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood and The Annotated Brothers Grimm.