Guest Columnist: 'Where the Wild Things Are': A Jewish parent's perspective

Guest Columnist Where

By EDEN D. DONIGER
November 19, 2009 14:29
where the wild things are 248 88

where the wild things are 248 88. (photo credit: )

Children love to build forts. Whether made from an old blanket draped over chairs or a pile of materials gathered from the backyard, a fort offers a sense of security and intimacy within its confined walls. Inside the fort nothing bad can happen; you can hide from the evils of the world in its inviolate coziness. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers' adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, is a film about forts. It is a film about the inner sanctum of a child's fragile and homespun sense of security. It is a film about what happens to us when the world we trust - our family, our friends, our society - tramples upon our forts. It is about the human psyche's debilitating journey into loneliness and fear when the forts that we painstakingly build to encase all of our hope, love and humanity are wrenched away from us. It is a film about rebuilding those forts from rubble and making them even more beautiful, more comforting, than they were before. The opening sequences of the film show Max, an imaginative boy who spends his time playing alone, building a fantastic igloo fort in his front yard out of icy snow. He invites his older sister to join in. She ignores him, and he is crestfallen. Max then engages his sister's friends in a raucous snowball fight. They accidentally crush the fort while Max is hiding inside. Max is devastated. The self-absorbed teenagers do not know why, nor do they care. In a fit of rage, Max retaliates by destroying his sister's fort: He jumps on her bed wearing wet boots and destroys trinkets in her room, including a lovely card he had made for her. Max quietly tells his mother that night what happened to his igloo. Max's mother tells him that she would not have done that to him. Her tenderness is short-lived, however. When Max later builds an explorer's fort in his bedroom and invites his mother inside, she declines because she is entertaining a boyfriend in the living room and cannot be bothered. In one fell swoop, Max's mother has rejected the fort he specially built for the two of them and has allowed an interloper to invade the sacred fort of their family home. All of the forts, all of the layers of protection that comfort Max have been destroyed. Without them, Max begins to unravel. He bites his mother and runs away from home, a little boy in the cold, wild night, his mother chasing after him. Jonze and Eggers explore Max's emotional journey through the story of the land of the Wild Things, which Max reaches after days of dangerous, terrifying travel by boat across a tempestuous sea. When Max first encounters the Wild Things - a strange assortment of giant forest creatures - they are senselessly trying to destroy their fort homes, with some success. They speak in riddles that they themselves do not understand. They cannot articulate their motivation and purpose in destroying their homes. Max gains their trust and becomes their king just in time to prevent them from devouring him. MUCH OF the film is devoted to acquainting us with the Wild Things. Their grotesque bodies and faces are softened by sweet eyes and forlorn smiles. Their violent natures are tempered by their intense inclination to love and protect one another. In one moment, they are depressed and introspective; in the next, they are light-hearted and funny. Perpetually in search of a home, of companionship, of love, they aimlessly wander through forests, mountains and beaches. They smash towering trees for no reason, yet they sleep in a massive pile - a fort of Wild Things - so that everyone feels warm and safe. Max becomes particularly close with one Wild Thing, Carol who shows Max a secret, miniature world he built inside a cave fort where little statuettes of his loved ones and favorite places are kept eternally safe. But Carol is unhappy because his companion, KW, has left him in pursuit of new friends. Max embraces the Wild Things' loneliness and disconnectedness. He befriends KW and tries to repair the relationship between her and Carol. Through his friendship with KW, Max realizes that it is time to rebuild, to create order, security and beauty out of the primitive, unruly landscape of the Wild Things' world. He leads the Wild Things in an ambitious project to build the most grand and comforting fort the world has ever known. The Wild Things joyfully construct an architectural and mystical wonder. As the fort takes shape, Max discovers that the process of rebuilding has brought him a newfound sense of happiness and inner strength. And as the Wild Things confront Max with their realization that he is not truly a king, Max discovers that he, the boy, is going to be okay. Max's growing sense of security has the opposite effect on Carol, who is so hurt and confused by Max's new outlook and friendship with KW that he becomes dangerously violent. He destroys his own secret fort world and almost attacks Max. KW protects Max from Carol by placing him in the fort of her giant mouth. As Max sits in that dark, peaceful place, we are reminded of the original fort of the mother's womb. Max eventually asks KW if he can come out because it has become difficult to breathe in there. Max emerges from KW's mouth, reborn. Max decides he should head back to the home he left behind. One of his last acts in the land of the Wild Things is to recreate the card that he had given his sister and torn apart, this time placing it lovingly in the remains of Carol's secret fort, a symbol of hope and rejuvenation. The Wild Things, including Carol, tearfully send Max off in his boat, the magnificent fort they built towering in the background. Max arrives home to a panicked mother who embraces him and wordlessly feeds him cake. They smile at one another. He is safe again. AND I leave the theater feeling absolutely devastated. First, I think of my two-year-old daughter, whose happy life and ignorance of pain and suffering, whose simple and perfect fort, will one day be marred by the ugly realities of the world in which she lives. I think of my unborn daughter, fleetingly safe inside my belly. Then my thoughts turn to the Jewish Diaspora and the cycle of destruction and rebuilding that the Jewish homeland of Israel has been fated to undergo throughout history. I think of the impact of that pattern on the collective psyche of the Jewish people, and the desperate need of all Jews to believe in the beauty and value of rebuilding. I visualize Israel as the great fort of Jewish people around the world, without which our collective psyche would unravel, like Max's did. And I think about how it is my duty to make sure the fort of Israel continues to exist for my children and Jewish children everywhere. I do not know how Maurice Sendak would react to my musings about Jonze and Eggers' film adaptation. But it seems to me that Sendak, the American son of Polish Jewish immigrants and the author of another children's book, In the Night Kitchen, which by his admission evoked the horrors of the Holocaust, might nod in approval at what the film revealed to me. He might agree that Where the Wild Things Are, broadly imagined, teaches us that the sacred forts in our lives must be protected at all costs, and must be rebuilt when, ineluctably, they are destroyed. The writer is an attorney practicing law in Atlanta, Georgia. edendoniger@gmail.com


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