A 400 word children's book, Where The Wild Things Are, has been wrought into a full-length movie during the Obama Administration, and it's hard to imagine a more fitting moment for the première.
Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, Where The Wild Things Are is a more haiku than narrative. The book explains far less than it suggests, than it encourages one to imagine. What was it that set off Max's shenanigans at home? The author doesn't say, only to note that Max was "making mischief of one kind and another." And so the child reading it or having the book read to him fills it all in-and with little effort. He knows, knows damned good and well what sets parents off and has him exiled to his room. The Things Wild Max encounters on the island roar at him and gnash their terrible teeth. Aside from threatening to eat him up when he decides to leave, they don't otherwise speak a word to Max. Again, the kid having the story read to him doesn't need any dialogue from the likes of Wild Things. He's heard many a conversation among the wild things that inhabit the darker corners of a bedroom at night, the black recesses of a basement or attic. That's no small part of what makes Where The Wild Things Are the wonderful story it is. Most of it goes on not in the written words but in the child's own imagination, in the forest that grows magically in his own bedroom, on the ocean that gushes up, at that land the Wild Things call home.
And so naturally, Hollywood had to lay waste to those glorious landscapes of the imagination. Pave them over and paint them with flat sets decorated in cheap, contrived gilt. Imagination? No need to bring it. The movie explains it all for you. Max was behaving like a little beast because his single mother (she must be single; Hollywood could not inflict upon sensitive child viewers the dysfunctional nightmare of a pair of happily married parents) brings home a boyfriend for dinner. The Wild Things chit and chat and engage in deep philosophical dialogues with Max, "sharing their feelings," contemplating their emotional frailties, and exploring the varied existential challenges of growing up and the lessons of learning how and why we need to behave as we do to be happy and centered as humans in a way Hollywood knows is best. All the fantastical wide open spaces left in the book are refurbished and colored in for us, right down to the voices in which the Wild Things speak. All because, well, you know why. Because the reader and the read-to don't have the imagination to do it for themselves, you see. If they try, they'll fail. Or come up with some dreary, pedestrian version that is just so mundane compared with the bright and sparkling model the movies can give us.
And so isn't the movie treatment of Where The Wild Things Are just the perfect metaphor for the benign totalitarianism of our current political season. Our betters can give us a much more attractive presentation of the story than we could ever do for ourselves. Just like our betters in Washington can take care of our health needs in ways infinitely fairer and more productive than we could do it. And restaurant and bar owners could never police their customers and decide if smoking ought to be allowed on the premises, not half so well, anyway, as autocratic city councils who will decide it all for them. You don't have to think about what compelled Max to sail off "for a year and a day." The movie will explain it all for you. Just like leaders will let you know where to set the thermostat this winter, and what kind of car you are best in buying, how much fat to pack into your diet, and what soft drinks are right for you to sip.
It took Max "a year and a day" to get to the bizarre jungle island of the Wild Things. Watching the imagination-impoverished movie version of his journey and thinking back to last November only makes one contemplate how much further we have gone in far less time than that.