Nov 14, 2011

The Wild Things, by Dave Eggers

We all have favorite picture books from our childhood and for most of us (my age at least), it's one or more of the following (or at least something similar):
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon
  • Goodnight Moon
  • The Stinky Cheese Man
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • Corduroy
  • The Polar Express
  • Tuesday
  • Anything by Dr. Seuss
  • The Snowy Day
  • Where the Wild Things Are
Seriously, almost everyone will say one of these.  These are some of the most memorable picture books around.  I want to say it's because they all involve imagination: either with the reader having to use his imagination to fill in the gaps, the characters in the story use their imagination to entertain themselves, or the authors use their imaginations to go beyond traditional storytelling.  Imagination is what childhood is all about and we tend to lose that as we get older, so we hold onto these books as reminders of what that experience is like.  It's sometimes fun to revisit these books and often tempting to wonder what more of the story is beyond the traditional 32 page picture book format. 

The last one on that list, Where the Wild Things Are, is probably one of the top examples of imagination, where Max, angry that he's sent to his room without supper, concocts a world full of monstrous creatures (with human like features) to unleash his anger. Once his anger has subsided, he "leaves" the Wild Things and returns to his real life.  That's all the story we get and really, that's all the story we need.  We can imagine for ourselves where Max's anger stems from, if he ever returns to the Wild Things, what he's like as a child, etc. 

The Wild Things, by Dave Eggers, is a semi-novelization of both the picture book and the 2009 movie release.  This book gives us one explanation for Max's behavior: his parents are divorced, he thinks no one pays attention to him, he most likely has untreated ADHD, and is kind of a misunderstood twerp.  I kind of like this pre-Wild Things visit storyline because it's a lot more involved than the movie version.  It's a perfectly valid explanation for why this kid is acting up all the time.  But then it gets frustrating.

The beauty of the monsters in the original picture book is that the readers get to give them their personalities.  In The Wild Things, we don't have a choice, and quite frankly, they all suck.  Sure, they're all fragmented versions of Max's personality/people in his life, which is a nifty little trick, but they are all so horrible!  While Max probably spent about 15 pages with the Wild Things in the picture book, he's stuck with them for over 100 in this novel.  Over 100 pages that completely drain the imagination and creativity from readers' own original impressions of the monsters. 

I'm a fan of different interpretations of classic stories, like fractured fairytales, but this book just obliterated all the fond memories I have of Where the Wild Things Are (I hated the movie too).  For books that thrive on reader  imagination, maybe it's best to avoid works that offer their own interpretations in favor of your own. 

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