We knew that a movie based on Where the Wild Things Are would add stuff to Maurice Sendak's 48-page illustrated children's story. That could be a good thing if the right filmmaker gave us more Wild Things than our childhood imaginations ever experienced. The film's director and co-writer, Spike Jonze, may have done just that.
The film includes the book's key images of Max (Max Records) in a wolf suit, sailing to the land of the Wild Things, commanding them to be still, becoming their king and having a wild rumpus. That's five minute of screen time down, 85 more to go.
We spoke to the cast and filmmakers last weekend in Beverly Hills, Calif., where they discussed the new additions to Where the Wild Things Are. Here's a guide to Jonze's "improvements" to the beloved book. Spoilers follow! The film opens Oct. 16.
1. We meet mom. In Sendak's story, Max's mother is just an outside voice who sends him to bed without supper. In the movie, Catherine Keener plays Max's mom. She proves to be a loving, supportive single parent, comforting her son when he's upset. She blows up at him only after an exasperated night of Max's acting out in front of her date. That makes this Wild Things a story for parents, too. "When Max has that moment and bites her and everything, she cannot handle it, because she's at her wit's end," Keener said. "That, to me, is very real. As a parent, I don't always know, I don't have the time to sit here and teach you a lesson through this in the most politically correct, gentle way. I just react."
2. Max's wolf suit gets pimped out. Max still wears his wolf suit in the movie, but with a few modifications. Max now has finger holes and wears sneakers with his iconic costume. Costume designer Casey Storm explained how those alterations show more history to Max and his playtime costume. "Instead of having claws on the edge of the hands, he kind of grew out of the suit," Storm said in a separate interview. "It's a suit he's had for a long time, so he's cut the fingers off and he's cut the feet off, so you do see his tennis shoes. Also, for the purpose of practicality, to have him be able to be tactile and touch things and do things, it was good that you could have his fingers come out of his suit."
3. Wild Things step on heads to make a point. King Max leads the Wild Things in a dirt clod war, one of the new set pieces for the movie. After throwing hunks of dirt fails to get results, some of the Wild Things step on their brethren's heads, and that's not cool. It's just like how kids don't understand why their parents tell them to keep their elbows off the table. "You don't exactly know, what does stepping on the head mean?" Jonze said. "That means something in this society, but you understand the emotion behind it. I guess the idea was the same [as] a kid who's observing the world is observing all these weird adults and all the things we care about or don't care about or get upset about. They don't understand exactly the specifics about it, but they understand the feeling behind it. I think that sort of was the guiding force in creating the world of the Wild Things."
4. King Max has a political platform. In the book, Max became king, led the rumpus and went home. In the movie, he comes up with a plan as king. Max determines to build a fort for the six Wild Things, where there will be no sadness. The fort will melt any intruders' brains before they can hurt the inhabitants. This leads to another social lesson in children's terms. The fort still ends up making people/Wild Things feel bad and becomes socially oppressive itself.
5. The land is bigger, but it still looks like Sendak art. In the movie, Max finds the wild things in their village of huts. The huts are a new addition to Sendak's concept of the forest, as are sojourns to the desert and the fort that Max builds. They all look like Sendak could have drawn them, though, because production designer K.K. Barrett used a cross-hatch style when he built sets to mimic Sendak's drawing style. "That was intentional," Barrett said. "We kind of came up with a system of a forest that was burnt where you could see infinite depth. It didn't obscure the [Wild Things], and it looked like the lines that he would draw, like his tree trunks. Then with the shading, the stick work in the huts and the fort. We wanted everything on the island to be more primal, more feral. We went back to what animals would build, should they build."
6. The Wild Things have names. The anonymous Wild Things of Sendak's book get names, at least the ones that made the cut for the movie. Carol (voice of James Gandolfini) is that iconic one in the front of Sendak's drawings with two horns. The long-haired one is KW (Lauren Ambrose). The one with the snout of a goat is Alexander (Paul Dano). The birdlike one is Douglas (Chris Cooper), the one with three horns is Judith (Catherine O'Hara), and Ira (Forest Whitaker) has the bulbous nose. Gone are the ocean creature and warthog things.
7. Bye-bye, bedroom forest. The one change even Sendak vocally opposed was that the forest no longer grows out of Max's room. In the film, Max runs away through the forest and finds the boat that sails him to the land of the Wild Things. Jonze thought having Max run away and discover the land of the Wild Things would make the whole adventure more real than if it had just magically sprung from his room. "I love that part of the book," Jones said. "As we started writing, it just didn't seem to make sense anymore to what we'd written up to that point. It doesn't make sense to have that kind of fantastical thing suddenly happen. It doesn't feel true. What feels true is running away, after that fight."