Hurray: The wild things are here!

Browsers Ecstasy

 The wild things

Sendak had been looking for the right director to bring the book to screen, and when he saw Being John Malkovich, he picked Jonze. As a companion piece Jonze has made a one-hour long HBO documentary on Sendak, and co-scriptwriter, author Dave Eggers, will bring out a novelisation of the film.

The director has spoken of the long battles with studio heads who felt the adaptation was weird and scary.

Interestingly, some five decades earlier, this was the exact same response Sendak received from teachers and parents about the book. Sendak is 81 now, and he wrote and illustrated Wild Things in 1963. But who is Maurice Sendak and what is Where the Wild Things Are? I first heard of this author and his legendary book from a friend while in college.

By that time, it was already a children’s classic in the West and Sendak was considered a genius illustrator-writer who had changed how children’s picture books would look in the future. But few readers — children and adults — knew the book or its author in India, and it wasn’t until many years later that I finally saw the little book myself.

For the first few encounters with the book, I found myself, unexpectedly, not very impressed with the illustrations or the story. The wild things the boy meets — what admirers and detractors of the book had found either remarkable or troublesome — didn’t do much for me. Since then, however, I’ve kept running into the book here and there and found that with each new browsing of Where the Wild Things Are, I began entering Max’s adventure with more empathy and enjoyment, until I became the little boy.

The story of the book is simple and beguiling at the same time, and a Wikipedia synopsis nicely sums it up: “The text consists of only nine sentences. It tells the story of Max, who one evening plays around his home, “making mischief” in a wolf costume by chasing the dog with a fork and growling at his mother.

As punishment, his mother sends him to bed without supper. In his room, a mysterious, wild forest and sea grows out of his imagination, and Max sails to the land of the Wild Things. The Wild Things are fearsome-looking monsters, but Max conquers them “by staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once,” and he is made “the King of all Wild Things,” dancing with the monsters. However, he soon finds himself lonely and homesick, and he returns home to his bedroom, where he finds his supper waiting for him, still hot.”
The deep power of Sendak’s drawings and words don’t spring at you, but enter your imagination subtly. His secret, by his own admission, is that he recalls the mind and emotions of a child with a vividness, clarity and affection few adult artists remember or know how to.

“I was sickly as a child and gravitated to books and drawing. During my early teen years I spent hundreds of hours at my window. I sketched and listened. If I have an unusual gift, it is not that I draw particularly better than other people — I’ve never fooled myself about that. Rather it’s that I remember things other people don’t recall: The sounds and feelings and images — that emotional quality of particular moments in childhood. Happily an essential part of myself — my dreaming life — still lives in the light of childhood.”

Saying he doesn’t draw better than other artists is Sendak’s modesty — the modesty of genius. (Another typical instance of this is when, at a book signing, an anxious child not wanting to spoil her book by autographing it asked him not to sign it —Sendak agreed wholeheartedly, returning the book back unsigned).

I think his drawings of children and animals are enchanting for their detail and beauty. No picture book artist I know can describe a child’s emotions and subconscious dream world in the truthful, unfinished way Sendak’s books have. The stories really have no sense of completeness or wholesomeness — the characters tumble from one fanciful, silly, transcendent situation to another and when you reach the end, the fantasy has no meaning. No lessons are learnt (at least nothing typical) and no morals are drawn.

Sendak has illustrated more than 100 books over nearly seven decades. And each book, small or big in scope, is unfailingly and uncommonly good. They have continually challenged the conventions of children’s literature and spoken powerfully and indelibly to adults as well. He is the winner of the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal, a Library of Congress ‘Living Legend’ medal, and that Booker of children’s picture books: The Caldecott Book Medal.

The biggest collection of Sendakiana is showcased at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia. Here the Maurice Sendak Gallery contains several original drawings, art work, rare sketches from his best know work and several first editions. Original colour artwork from Where The Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and The Nutshell Library.

Among many things he told young artists, one stays in my mind, and I quote it here in full: “You must never illustrate what is exactly written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do their work. Artistic style is a means to an end, and the more styles you have, the better. To get trapped in a style is to lose all flexibility. If you have only one style, then you’re going to do the same book over and over…lots of styles permit you to walk in and out books. So, develop a fine style, a fat style, a fairly slim style, and a really rough style. No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it is not a work of the imagination.”

Trailers for the film posted on many websites show that the wild things (made from a combination of animation and monster suits), look uncannily like those in the picture book, but the rest of the film feels different. To be sure, the film is not the book we know but will it, in its own idiosyncratic way, grip our imagination the way Sendak’s little picture book did?

Will it please the zillion fans of the book across the world? From several reports we know that Jonze has refused to make another Shrek-like Hollywood drivel: The images have a brown-green hue rather than colour, and there are no pretty lines but characters talking at the same time, with voices overlapping. For me, the book is perfect and complete in itself. It didn’t — and doesn’t — need a film.      

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