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Literature / Where the Wild Things Are

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"Let the wild rumpus start!"

Where the Wild Things Are is a children's book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Originally panned by critics upon release in 1963, it has since become a beloved classic, winning the 1964 Caldecott Medal, selling over 19 million copies worldwide as of 2009, and becoming the fourth-most checked-out book of all time at the New York Public Library. It remains Sendak's most widely-known book.

The story focuses on Max, an angry little boy in a wolf costume who can't control his emotions and is sent to his room. There, he is (depending on your interpretation) either transported to or imagines a world populated by semi-feral monsters, and is crowned their king because of his wild emotions. At first happy, he eventually grows tired of acting like a wild animal and goes back home.

The book has been adapted into other media, namely several animated shorts in the 1970s and 1980s, a 1980 opera composed by Oliver Knussen, and a live-action film adaptation in 2009 directed by Spike Jonze with a soundtrack by Karen O.

In the Spike Jonze film, Max is an angry little boy in a wolf costume who is very intelligent and resents that his sister feels too old to spend time with him and that his mother's life is too busy to give him the attention he desires. This causes a conflict that ends with him running away to an island populated by semi-feral monsters who crown him king out of a need for someone to take care of them and their emotional needs. Unlike in the book, the monsters all have their individual characteristics and personalities that are each in some way a reflection of Max's personality. Most of the following tropes will deal with the film version (see Adaptation Expansion).

The operatic adaptation of the book featured direct input from Sendak, with him writing the libretto and designing the sets and costumes. In the opera, Max is traditionally a Cross-Cast Role played by a soprano, while the titular Wild Things are played by dancers in costumes with their voices being provided in the pit. While the libretto is mostly in English, the sounds of the Wild Things are mostly phonetic gibberish.

Where the Wild Tropes Are:

  • Mix-and-Match Critters: All of the monsters.
  • Non Sequitur Environment: The book begins with Max being sent to his room, while in the film Max runs away to the woods, but inexplicably transform into a jungle - in which he explores, takes a boat across the ocean, encounters a race of strange creatures, and then returns for dinner
  • Scenery Porn: Both the original's illustrations and the film have this.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Actually a bit more cynical than your typical children's story due to a ruckus main character with a mother who punishes him. However, the story is not mean spirited or unsympathetic, focusing on a child who learns the consequences of being inconsiderate and the importance of not throwing a tantrum.

Specific to the book:

  • Ambiguous Gender: The Wild Things, although the name "Tzippy", implies one of the wild things to be female (assuming it's short for "Tzippora").
  • No Name Given: All of the monsters. Sendak had names that never appeared in the book for some of them — Tzippy, Aaron, Moishe, Bruno, Emile, Bernard — but never gave a name to the goat in the books or art (he's just referred to as "Goat Boy"). These names were created for the 1984 opera.

Specific to the film:

  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Max in the book was just a mischevious young boy who just so happened to be a bit of a troublermaker. The movie expands upon this by portraying him as a lonely and misunderstood young boy who is having trouble coping with his parents' divorce.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Three of the monsters from the book (counting the sea monster) do not appear in the movie. The seven they use are quite enough.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Pretty much required, as the original book was only ten sentences long.
  • Adaptational Name Change: While the names of the Things were not said in the book, Sendak has named them individually after his aunts and uncles. All of their names were changed in the film.
    • Bernard — the Bull
    • Bruno — Ira
    • Emile — Douglas
    • "Goat Boy" — Alexander
    • Tzippy — KW
    • Aaron — Judith
    • Moishe — Carol
  • Adaptational Personality Change: In the books, The Wild Things didn't have any defined personalities aside from angry, wild creatures. In the movie however, they are all potent symbols of different childhood emotions.
  • All There in the Manual: Any characters that haven't had their names said, are named in the credits, in which case, Max's mother is Connie and that her boyfriend is named Adrian.
  • An Aesop: You shouldn't take your anger out on other people. Sure, it's okay to get angry or frustrated every now and then but lashing out at others isn't going to solve your problems. It'll only make things worse.
  • Benevolent Monsters: The titular Wild Things. While they frolic quite fiercely, they're not in other ways malicious.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Max leaves the Wild Things, with the implication that he will never see them again, but he's happily reunited with his mother, with the implication that he understands her a little better and things might become more peaceful between them as a result.
  • Blatant Lies: Max's claims of being a king. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that pretty much all of the monsters had him figured out from the get go.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: In wild thing society, allowing someone to eat you is considered a polite gesture.
  • Body Horror: Douglas' arm getting ripped off and sand pouring from the wound.
  • But Now I Must Go: Max at the end, when he realizes what his mother must go through and that how he's been acting isn't helping things. However, he does leave with the knowledge that the wild things will be okay.
  • Brick Joke: Max doing the robot. Although it's somewhat less funny the second time round....
  • Calvinball: All the games Max comes up with. They, especially the dirt clods game don't seem to have any rules whatsoever, just a lot of running, jumping, screaming, laughing, and childish violence.
  • Canon Foreigner: The movie gives Max an older sister named Claire.
  • The Chew Toy: Douglas, who is okay with being thrown around (literally). It's hilarious. His arm getting ripped off? Not so much.
  • Coming of Age Story: Downplayed, however, it is a story where Max gains some maturity when it comes to dealing with others and his problems.
  • Darker and Edgier: A rather infamous case of this for a film adaptation of a kid’s book, especially considering how many kids were probably traumatized by Douglas getting his arm ripped off.
  • Easily Forgiven: Carol. For damn near everything, including pulling Douglas's arm off.
  • Empathic Environment: In one of the many sad moments in the film, snow begins to fall slowly. Depending upon where you fall on the Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane debate, this can be explained as Max's emotions affecting the place he's imagining.
  • Everybody Knew Already: It's heavily implied that nearly all of the Wild Things—and definitely Douglas, KW, and Alexander—figured out that Max was lying about his status as a king. Carol was the only one who didn't, and they all kept up the illusion to pacify his temper.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Max claims to be a king with amazing powers. He's not, of course.
  • Family of Choice: While their relationship to one another isn't really clear, the Wild Things view themselves as a family of some kind. This is lampshaded by Carol when he calls themselves "one big happy family".
  • Growing Up Sucks: Though really the film is more like "change in general is scary and can suck," than just growing up.
  • In Name Only: Of sorts. The movie does keep all of the essentials of the book including the title, the main lead Max, the creature designs, the themes of children understanding life through their imagination, and having the story center around a "wild rumpus" between Max and the Wild Things. However, as it is an almost 2 hour movie adapted from a short children's book, the story (not surprisingly) goes through a number of changes. In short, the book focuses more on Max's anger with his mother while the movie focuses more on childhood sadness and how a kid can cope with it.
  • Intelligible Unintelligible: Bob and Terry. To Max and Carol, they are simply The Unintelligible but the other wild things can understand them just fine.
  • Ironic Echo: In the beginning of the movie, Max runs away from home after his mom says he was out of control after he bit her. By the end, Max says that Carol is out of control after Carol ripped off Douglas' arm. Max then runs away, and the same music plays as did in the earlier scene.
  • Jitter Cam: The movie is more or less shot by someone really hopped up on Red Bull.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Max at the start. Like the Teens Are Monsters entry, it's Downplayed; Max is mainly like this to get attention.
  • Knew It All Along: The ending makes it clear that pretty much all of the Wild Things aside from Carol, Judith, and Ira figured out Max was lying about being a king. And those three were simply in denial. Douglas and Alexander admit that they both knew he was lying from the start and only went along with it because they saw how happy it made Carol.
  • Left the Background Music On: Downplayed; towards the start, Max hums along to the film's opening music cue ("Igloo"), but it's for a brief moment, and the music is otherwise non-diegetic.
  • Liar Revealed: Fuels the whole plot as Max lies from the beginning about being a king and having psychic powers.
  • Logo Joke: Each of the logos are static, and have apparently been drawn on by Max. The WB logo has a "wild thing" sort of shape drawn around it, with Max scribbling over the Time Warner byline and replacing it with his name. The Legendary Pictures logo has Max drawing a monster eating it. The Village Roadshow logo has Max turning the logo into his own name, with the "V" becoming an upside down "A", and a crude sword along the bottom of the logo.
  • Mama Bear: KW towards the end when she swallows Max to keep Carol from eating him.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's left ambiguous over whether the wild things are real or in Max's imagination.
  • Meaningful Echo: The line "I'll eat you up!" gets stated three times, each with a different meaning.
    • Max says it the first time right before biting his mother, and it's a sign of his instability and temper.
    • Carol repeats it to Max after his Heroic BSoD, and begins violently chasing the boy to genuinely devour him.
    • KW has the last version as Max is preparing to leave. Her version—"I'll eat you up, I love you so"—comes across as a caring parent expressing the depth of their emotion for their child.
  • Mood-Swinger: Carol, and, to a lesser extent, all of the wild things, but he's this more so, as he tends to change moods almost at the drop of the hat.
  • Mood Whiplash: Goes from being funny to being serious to being sort of creepy to being sad. Sometimes in the same scene.
    Douglas: He's not a king, Carol.
    Carol: How can you say that? How dare you say that? [rips Douglas' arm off]
    • Another scene that stands out is after Alexander warns Max not to tell Carol he's not a king. Max, worried as he hears Carol growling in their sleep pile, tries to make a private room just for himself. While Carol reacts calmly, though confused as to why Max is pulling away, partway through the conversation, he suddenly punches a hole into the home the group made, never even raising his voice.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Max, and ALL of the Wild Things. Max and some of the Wild Things—namely Carol and Judith—have the vice of high emotion with no regulation, while the others—KW, Douglas, Ira, Alexander, and Bernard—have the issue of never speaking up in the name of keeping the peace.
  • Mythology Gag: Perhaps not intentional, but Alexander's character was the only one who didn't get a nickname from the writer. In the movie, he's ignored by everyone to the point where he might as well not exist.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Max's mother was un-named in the book. In the movie, she's given the name Connie.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer for the 2009 film pretty much shows Max having fun/goofy adventures with the titular Wild Things. The actual film is a poignant drama about family and growing up.
  • No Name Given: The bison/bull in the movie. Bernard, per the credits and one brief line.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Is "that was my favorite arm" really all you have to say, Douglas, in response to getting it ripped off?
  • Only Sane Man: The Monsters' voice of reason is Alexander. Too bad nobody ever listens to him.
    • There's also Douglas, who seems to represent logic and order among the Wild Things. Unlike Alexander, Douglas is heard by the others—but Douglas is also wise enough to know that his opinions are unpopular, and keeps his mouth shut as a result.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs wrote the score for the film.
  • The Quiet One: Bernard never speaks until before Max leaves.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The monsters all represent an aspect of Max's own psyche. For instance Carol is big, loud and emotional, like any child's imagination. KW is both a Cool Big Sis (as seen with her interactions with Bob and Terry) and Team Mom, representing Max's relationships with the females in his life. The littlest monster Alexander represents the child's logic and reasoning, which is still growing and never fully developed within a child.
  • Sadist Teacher: Max's class on astronomy drifts off into a discussion on how everything is going to die, and a list of all the ways all of humanity could be wiped out, delivered cheerfully obliviously to a class of 9-year-olds.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Max's mom, Connie, also has a phone conversation with a "Mr. Lasseter". Back in the 80's, John Lasseter attempted to make a WTWTA movie with Disney. It would have been one of the earliest examples of CGI in film, featuring traditionally animated characters in 3D CGI environments.
    • There's a scene where Max is being shown his "kingdom", which is a pretty obvious reference to The Lion King (1994). Some of the dialogue is very similar to that scene, as well.
  • Some Call Me "Tim": The monsters are Carol, Ira, KW, Judith, Douglas, Alexander, and Bernard.
  • Stepford Smiler: The Wild Things in general but especially Carol. KW flat out tells Max that life on the island gets difficult but the others are in denial over it.
  • The Storyteller: Max. It's how he's able to lie so quickly when under pressure with the Things.
  • Swallowed Whole: When KW swallows Max so he can hide from Carol.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Downplayed. Claire's friends don't wreck Max's snow fort out of malice but out of playing too hard for the smaller kid. They even look genuinely upset when they realize what they've done — but are much too self-conscious to apologize.
  • Tertiary Sexual Characteristics: Both the female wild things have long hair.
  • Those Two Guys: Bob and Terry, K.W.'s two owl friends.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: One of the trailers showed KW saying, "I'll eat you up, I love you so", to Max at the beach. This spoils the ending where Max says goodbye to the Wild Things.
  • Triumphant Reprise: The song that plays as we are introduced to Max's home life is "Igloo"; the song that plays as Max leaves the Wild Things and returns home is "Sailing Home", a happier and more upbeat version of "Igloo".
  • Wham Line: Alexander's line "Just don't ever let Carol find out" when Max tells him that he was never a king. At that moment, you just know what's going to happen next, considering how happy Carol was.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Max spends a period of days (and possibly weeks) on the Island of the Wild Things, but when he returns to the "real world," it's the same night, and possibly only minutes, after he left.

Alternative Title(s): Where The Wild Things Are