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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where the wild things are swinging

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If I had to choose only one book to save from our children's shelves when they grew up, it would be Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. (No doubt a whole lot of other people feel the same.) Sendak wrote and illustrated the 48 page, ten sentence book in 1963, and I discovered it the next decade during bookstore "squats" in the children's section when I was in college. Maybe I wished I had written it and drawn those illustrations. A few years ago I did copy one of his pictures onto the new seat Don sawed for our 60-year-old swingset my siblings and I grew up with, which now sits on the hill behind our family cottage. This was the first time that old swing seat had been replaced. I used to fly so high on it that I wondered what would happen if I looped all the way up and over the top of the A frame. What I imagined didn't happen, thank goodness, but Sendak's vision did, as I copied and painted his swinging characters right onto the new wooden seat. I even bought a copy of the book to leave in the cottage's red reading room so kids would be sure to have the book handy for a read after swinging.




So you'd think I would have been ecstatic at the movie theater recently when I saw a trailer for Spike Jonze's upcoming feature movie version of Sendak's book. But my immediate reaction was horror. NO! You can't make this book into a movie! I closed my eyes to shut out the images and saw only those from the book in my memory.

In the book you have ten glorious run-on sentences (for example: "Almost over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of my own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot."). You have a boy's dream after he has been sent to bed without his supper, illustrated in some of the most evocative images ever. You have a nightmare transformed into a love story, the mysterious dilemmas of parenting with mercy and grace, and conversely of being a child who has to grow up into a responsible person, but not quite yet. You have delicious and cuddly monsters painted in warm earthy tones. You have cute small Max in a white wolf suit and crown. The way he dishevels that crown when he's sleepy is so charming! As a lover of children's illustrations, I got lost in them. I wanted little text. Making it into a movie would fill in the gaps of imagination in unwanted ways, changing it forever.

It is the dilemma of all books-to-film. How do you take Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and make it into the film "The English Patient"? In that case, the book is spare and wonderful, and the movie is lush and wonderful. Both succeeded. But often the film is a disappointment after a rich book. Of course the opposite can often be said too.

In a fantastic article Loring sent me by Wendell Berry (he whose beloved poem resides on my sidebar) about our country's warped economics, in which he criticizes the entertainment addiction we're in (The Progressive, Sept. 2009, p. 24), Berry wrote:

If you can read
and have
more imagination than a doorknob,
what need do you have
for a "movie version" of a novel?


To agree with Berry, you could argue that a novel is different from an illustrated children's book. Without illustrations, a novel relies on the reader's vision of each scene and interpretations of characters. If you're a good reader, this terrain can be fertile indeed. If a movie gets made, and if you had any attachment to the book, you wish they would consult with you about the cast, set, direction and costumes! It's your story now after all, for the scenes and characters have evolved into your inventions too. Especially vile is when a film is made of a classic tale, such as "The Scarlet Letter" or "Last of the Mohicans," and the story is changed unrecognizably and unforgivably into a more palatable (sell-able) Hollywood adaptation. Why not just write a new story-script in the period and context?

To argue against my original mortification, a children's illustrated book is different, no matter how sacred, especially if the author was also the illustrator. Apparently Maurice Sendak has been working on a movie version of Where the Wild Things Are since the 1990s, and he pursued Spike Jonze as the one to make it. How do you argue with a book's author, if he had a vision for it as a film? It makes perfect sense that a visual artist would cross over into film. And from the enticing film sets and costumes I've seen so far, I myself can feel the pull. Can he help it that so many of us own this entity called Where the Wild Things Are and might object to his decision? Such controversy in my head over his imagination's expression!

In the video below you can hear Sendak and Jonze describe their collaboration in the movie. As Sendak says, Jonze took the peculiarness of the book and made it into his own Where the Wild Things Are with Jonze peculiarness. The glimpses of the monsters in the misty forest and silhouetted by the crashing sea, and of the fabulous Max, who happens also to be a "Max" in real life, have seduced me. Guess where I'll be October 16? In the presence of a newly inspired and evolved expression of what Maurice Sendak made possible: a wild seat to ride up and up as high as the next visionary could take it.

But please, no movie version of Goodnight Moon. I can live with the sweet animation narrated by Susan Sarandon, but I will not allow my future grandchildren to watch it on TV when I'm around. They must look at the pictures from my lap and hear "Good night comb and good night brush" from my voice box, feeling my heartbeat against their temples. And then I will close the finger-softened pages of the book and tell them for the 100th time how their mother said "Dat Doh" for "Goodnight Moon." Then I will eat them up, I love them so.




Here are my siblings' grandchildren helping me put the new swing on that old swingset.







57 comments:

Bella Rum said...

I loved this post and I'm buying Where The Wild Things Are for my grandchildren right now.

ellen abbott said...

I love that book. When I read it to my kids I think I was more awed by the ending than the kids. His dinner was still warm! What magic. And the way his room transformed. I actually, later, went out and bought a book about Sendak and his art.

My first thought was 'no way' too but then I didn't know Sendak was behind it. Hmmm. Might have to rethink that but I'll let you go see it first.

CottageGirl said...

You are a talented girl, Ruth! Beautiful work on that swing! I want to come over and play for a few hours!

You won't believe it, but yesterday, I pulled out "Wild Things" for my sub to read to my kiddos today. (I had a funeral to attend.)

I TOTALLY agree with you on the subject of children's books made into movies. Should be against the law!

Everything from Chris Van Allsburg's Polar Express and Jumanji to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
... and even Anne of Green Gables ... All should have been left alone! (Even though our Ella is obsessed with Polar Express, she'll never know the wonder and mystery that the book possesses. Fortunaely Allsburg has written others!)

If you start a petition banning all children's books from becoming movies, I'm first in line to sign it!

Anet said...

That is THE most charming swing ever! I want one:)
I know how you feel about the movie, it was my first response also. But then I saw a trailer to the movie and now I'm excited to see it!
Noah has seen all of the Harry Potter Movies and now he's reading the books. He said "I'm glad I'm doing it this way (movies first then books) so I wasn't disappointed with the movies.
Now the books are even better!"

The part about you reading
Good Night Moon to your future grandchildren, made my eyes tear up. It's so beautiful!

Annie said...

Kids and their magical world... The swing pictures are lovely.

Jeanie said...

I have to say I'm spot on with this -- loved the book, which I also encountered in college with children's lit classes and was deeply concerned about its transformation to film. Most books, I feel, are best left alone. And the option to that is see the movie first, or else one is bound to be disappointed. But having seen the previews -- well, let me say I'm not sure, but knowing Sendak's involvement, the faithfulness in the "look," well, I have more hope than before.

Gwen Buchanan said...

Adult or child could never resist sitting in a swing such as this... What a treat you have given them... Now you have started something!!!

I hope they all read this posting one day... and know how much you care... but I'm sure they know already...

You are a treasure!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

For me, even The English Patient didn't make the grade. It paled in comparison to that magical book, as movies always seem to do.

But I have to admit that I've been seduced by the trailer for Wild Things. I have cried every single time I've seen it!

Sidney said...

I agree... Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are... is a gem!

ds said...

Oh, you talented, talented person, Ruth! That swing is as gorgeous as your words. (I knew you were a swing-soarer!)It's funny, no matter how many times the book is read, or the movie seen, the verdict has always been the same: the book is better. Now I will have all of those tales in my head: "Good night light and the red balloon (that was the favorite)..."
"They danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon"..."and it was still hot." Still perfect.
Thank you.

Oh said...

a wonderful piece about wonderful books. Esp WTWTA. I will probably go see the movie, for the "comfort" of it, for being so familiar with the book and having seen a teeny bit of a preview. I admit I'm curious.
But what could be better than to have a swing that has the "creatures" on it? That is wonderful. If I were a kid visiting you, the minute I got to your house, I'd run out into the back yard just to see the swing, just to see the dear paintings on it.
bliss.

Loring Wirbel said...

I agree on both choices, but what about the phenomenal success of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? True, the movie did not follow the plot of the book at all, but the book was one of the finest children's books ever, close to being the equal of Sendak's work.

Pat said...

I love your swing. It's just beautiful. I understand where you're coming from as far as turning that book into a movie. We'll just have to see how it turns out.

Anya said...

It sounds
like a very interesting book ;)
Thanks for the story !!

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Peter said...

I must admit that I didn't know the book, but I know that the film will be on the screens here just before Christmas under the name "Max et les Maximonstres". That Spike Jonze (Being John Malovich...) makes the film gives some good hopes; should not be "too Hollywood"! ... and I can't compare as I haven't read or seen the book!

That novels are used as basis for films seems normal. Everybody doesn't have the talent to write their own original synopsis, cannot afford or take the risk to have something especially written...

If you have loved a book and then see a for you disappointing result, this may perhaps also be normal; we may all have different ways of appreciating what we read. Maybe we must force ourselves to see two distinct things and not expect a film to reflect what you have felt from the book?

Then you may be disappointed after all! :-)

Claudia said...

Ruth, can you do my kids' swings? I'll invite you over for a week of tea and scones, rhubarb desserts, inspiring drives through the beautiful English countryside and plenty of dramatic weather! ;-)

I also love Maurice Sendak's book. It's a precious little gem. Let's see if the movie version of it is not too disappointing. Who knows, the adaption might turn out as fulfilling as the one of The English Patient.

I had never noticed your blog motto "inspiration is a spark from the fire of love"... is it new? I do so agree with it...

California Girl said...

I agree with you about books to movies. Every once in a while there is a wonderful execution but they are awfully few and far.

Love the painted swing/chair. What a lovely gift you gave your children and grandchildren.

rauf said...

Years ago, i removed the door from my room. Two reasons, i never wanted any privacy which my friends and family never let me have anyway. And the second reason was, without the door i could take better portraits with angular light, the studio and my room formed a L shape, this was before the house was demolished. The open door was blocking the light.

i never noticed Ruth, there is no door knob here on my door now. i should buy myself a huge door knob
EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

Susan said...

Ruthie, I don't even have the words to say how I feel about this wonderful, inspirational post. All I know is this....you will be the most amazing grandmother and they will be the luckiest grandchildren on Earth.

Deborah said...

Oh, that brought back memories. Read over and over, and still in the bookcase although everyone has flown.

Deslilas said...

Max et les maximonstres est la traduction française de ce livre.
Il devrait y avoir une adptation cinématographique cette année par Spike Jonze.

Arti said...

In sync again... I've been mulling over the idea of screenwriting for my next post and here you are dicussing the topic of book into film. I agree with you that films are not mere illustrations of books. Two years back I wrote a post entitled "Vision not Illustration", I mentioned that: "...a good movie should be the portrayal of a vision, not mere illustration or graphic representation of the written words...a major difference between vision and illustration: the former is seeing through an interpretive lens, rather than simply transferring images from one medium to another..."
Yes, "The English Patient" is a success for both forms, and I can also suggest "Atonement", while the Canadian movie "Away From Her" has achieved a more poignant effect as a film than the short story by Alice Munro.
I'm sure some of the items in the following link would pique your interest:

http://en.wordpress.com/tag/book-into-film/

Thank you for the heads-up on WTWTA the movie. I look forward to more film discussions with you in the future.

P.S. May I contact you by email regarding the comment you received in Chinese?

Sandy said...

Wonderful post Ruth and I too, am anxious to see this movie. My grandkids will love it.

I enjoyed the photos of your siblings grandchildren and the swing.

shoreacres said...

Not having read any Sendak, just barely recognizing the illustrations that made their way onto your swing and still not able to transform myself into someone who cares much about film, I can't really speak to the Sendak book-into-film issue on any level.

But, I did go looking for information on Sendak, and in an article about the current museum exhibit in San Francisco, I found a line that may have endeared him to me forever:

Sendak once admitted that when he started out as an illustrator in the 1950s and '60s, "children's books were the bottom end of the totem pole. We didn't even get invited to grown-up book parties at Harper's."

And, of course, there's that little mention of a 48 page, TEN sentence book! I may go squat in a corner of Barnes and Noble just to give that an exploratory peek!

Ruth said...

Bella, I hope you'll come back and tell me about it, and if you and your grandkids like it. Ohh it's fun to picture you reading it the first time.

Ruth said...

Ellen, all right, it's a deal. If I don't remember to tell you about it, you can ask.

Ruth said...

CottageGirl, you raise an interesting point - banning, in that one of Sendak's books is banned - In the Night Kitchen (because there are illustrations of a boy falling naked in a pitcher of milk. Wow.).

I don't know if I agree with you any more, after talking myself through this. I can totally see how a visual artist, such as Sendak, would want to cross over into film.

I guess what we fear is that children will stop reading. It is a very loud lament these days in my English department. I don't think we can predict a thing like that, but it is disheartening seeing young people avoid books.

I think I am the enemy, because I don't read anywhere near as much as I "should" for a literary person. :|

Ruth said...

I should say that Sendak's book In the Night Kitchen has been banned in some places.

Ruth said...

Hi, Anet! There is just no way to take a big chapter book and make it into a perfect movie. You have to leave too much out. I love the BBC "Pride and Prejudice" because they squeezed my favorite book into five or six (can't remember) episodes. When I saw Kiera Knightley's P&P I was disappointed. To make the story flow and get in all the wonderful lines, it just isn't possible.

But with a children's book I think it is quite possible. It takes a serious collaborative effort though, with the author and filmmaker, to make it work. (That's my uneducated opinion, and I'm sticking to it until Loring or someone argues me out of it.)

As for HP, I like the movies far more than the books, in that I think they are much better made than the books are written. My family disagrees with me completely.

Ruth said...

Annie, too bad we forget it - until we have kids and grandkids. Well some of us do anyway.

Ruth said...

Hi, Jeanie, it will be beautiful, I can't wait!

Ruth said...

Gwen, my bay dwelling friend! It's so good of you to pop your head out from behind your solderer to come say hello. I needed to see you. And I needed to see something your hands made.

So, do you mean you might start making swings?? I was going to make a few of these myself after this first one. Your paintings or sketches would make brilliant swings! I really wish you would get your illustrations into a children's book.

Ruth said...

Pamela, I think they managed it, and even a little more. But I didn't think it was possible.

Ruth said...

Sidney, I'm happy you found it in the Philippines (or maybe not there).

Ruth said...

DS, I am enjoying movies less than I used to. I used to lean into the next releases like a hungry cat, ready to pounce. Now I don't even know what movies are on the horizon. This one stood out because of the book, of course. I do enjoy some books-to-movies, but I am not the book lover you are. You have earned the right to your opinion, and how.

As I said in my comment to Anet, I like the BBC Pride & Prejudice because there is far more time to give Austen justice. I wonder if you like that sort of series?

Ruth said...

Oh hello, Oh. (I love writing that.) This swingset is at our family cottage now. In fact I need to take it off and put it indoors for the winter when we go up for our fall work weekend in a couple of weeks. I was sad the first season it was out that the "permanent" pen I used completely faded. So now the paint is there without much outlining. I have to learn what to use before doing this again so that black outline lasts.

Ruth said...

Loring, I am out of it, I didn't know Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was a childrens book! Of course I've seen the hype about the movie, so fun. Maybe I need to go squat in the childrens book section again.

Ruth said...

Pat, I was at the cottage on the weekend and I didn't even take a swing. What's wrong with me?

Ruth said...

You're welcome, Anya. You could try reading it to Kareltje in a thunderstorm.

Ruth said...

Hello, Peter. Oh that's a nice title "Max et les Maximonstres."

In some way I think it would be more difficult to write a screenplay from a book, because of the pressure to be faithful, please fans, etc. But of course you have the story fixed.

I am only a little bit literary, so I can appreciate movies in their own right. Most of the time I see a film and never know it was a book. Maybe this is a benefit. My poor literary friends bear such disappointment.

Ruth said...

Claudia, I would love that week! In fact now that you have mentioned it I can hardly stand not to do it.

Thank you for noticing my new epigraph. It came to me when I was responding to a comment in the last post.

Ruth said...

California Girl, I am trying not to be overly opinionated about what I do not understand. I really ought to swing more. It has a way of releasing everything except the moment. And it is bliss.

Ruth said...

rauf, I remember admiring certain doorknobs when I grew up. The brass ones that had tarnished, with fine molded designs. I like the iron ones too, even more I think. I imagine you could find a very nice doorknob in one of your recycling centers where they sell doors and all.

Ruth said...

Susie, thank you for the vote of confidence! It is quite wonderful to imagine myself the most wonderful grandmother ever! I admit I do that.

I know the reality will be that I will make many mistakes, just as I did, and keep doing, as a mother.

It is my job to be real with my dear family, and I can't wait to do that with grandchildren. Oh to catch them up in my arms when they have fallen!

Ruth said...

Deborah, I am not surprised that a person of your sensibilities keeps the book on the shelf.

Ruth said...

Oui, Daniel, c'est un bon titre. Je l'attends avec impatience.

Ruth said...

Hello, Arti, don't you wonder sometimes if the ideas and inspirations are floating in the air, and we happen upon them at the same time?

I agree that a film is best if it is its own vision. It is such a dilemma. If the filmmaker makes it his/her own, then every fan of the book is potentially outraged at any deviation. But any new form will be a deviation. So it's best if the new form is a piece of new art, not just a duplication, as you said. I loved the movie "Atonement" but did not read the book.

Yes, of course please email me about the Chinese comment. :)

Ruth said...

Hi there, Sandy! Ah, from your artistic eye, those gorgeous sets will be assessed and admired I think. Your grandchildren are so lucky, you know. Well, and so are you. They are soooo precious.

Ruth said...

Linda, I am less and less interested in films. I just don't want to commit to 2-3 hours. My attention span is dwindling. Maybe I am getting late onset ADD. It's definitely NOT ADHD; I am so NOT hyper. Well, sometimes I am, my family will tell you, but not in the way ADHD kids are hyper.

Oh it's fun to imagine grown up book parties for children's books, isn't it? Wow. I love thinking about that, all that red punch and party hats on the likes of Sendak's gray head.

Mrs. M. said...

There is no replacement for the Sendak calendar in 1975 you gifted me of illustrations from "Chicken Soup With Rice"....

Treasured forever, and my own swing seat.

Ruth said...

Oh, Mrs. M., I almost mentioned the calendar in my post. I LOVED doing it and giving it to you. I'm glad you still have it, that means so much to me.

Sometimes I hear those rhymes in my head. :)

Oliag said...

This afternoon I was sitting with my 4 year old grandson next to a small bookcase filled with children's books when his face filled with a huge smile and he said to me "I'm smiling because I'm looking at that book I like"...he was referring to Sendak's book In the Night Kitchen. It is amazing how kids are so drawn to certain classics...he also adores Wild Things. These books in my bookcase have been there since his mother and aunt were children...I am right there with you when I say I was completely horrified when I heard they were making a Wild Things movie and this is the first I have heard that Maurice Sendak is so involved...I enjoyed the video (I love Dave Eggers too) so I think I may just have to see that movie too:)

Another blog I read just had a post about another of my and my children's and my grandchildren's favorite children's authors...Virginia Lee Burton...when you have to read a book over and over again it is good to have a great one:)...I think I have just read Katy and the Big Snow for the zillionth time...

Ruth said...

Oliag, lucky grandchildren. And to think that In the Night Kitchen was banned in some places for a time because it had illustrations of a boy naked in a bowl of milk.

I do not know Burton, so thank you for the introduction. I have to get busy stocking shelves and bins for future grandchildren. :|

Ruth said...

I beg your pardon, Oliag, I should have looked at her books first. I do know The Little House. How could any childrens library be complete without her books and illustrations? So recognizable.

Ginnie said...

Something I've started doing lately, Ruth, is watching all the features on movies I love. They've become almost as important as the movie itself. I was totally absorbed by the hours of features in the LOTR trilogy and thought of Peter Jackson while reading this post. There were so many people who loved Tolkien's masterpiece who were scared to death their story would be mutilated. Everyone of them to a person was enthralled by what Jackson was able to accomplish. I have seen the previews of Where the Wild Things Are several times now and think it will be priceless. Interestingly, however, Nicholas has seen them with me once and thinks it'll be stupid!

Ruth said...

It's true, Boots, Jackson did a phenomenal job with LOTR. I never get tired of watching them, and I feel I am in the books. Whenever we watch, we discuss this and that from the book. He did have to leave some important things out, but every filmmaker has to.

Nicholas is so funny. The eyes of a child.