Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are Captured the Terror of Childhood

Iana Murray

The overriding feeling I get from watching Where The Wild Things Are is fear. I’m certainly not alone in that feeling—Where The Wild Things Are is, let’s face it, a terrifying movie. It’s a film where limbs get torn off, owls get shot out of the sky (and we’re supposed to be okay with that, I guess) and a child lives under the constant threat of being eaten by monsters. I was 11 when Where The Wild Things Are was released a decade ago, and pretty much everything about it scared me. It still does—but upon rewatch, what scared me most of all was the palpable sense of loneliness that permeates the entire film. It’s an uneasy feeling to have in my twenties, never mind as a child.

As director Spike Jonze would go on to clarify, Where The Wild Things Are isn’t a children’s movie, but a movie about children. But it would be a disservice to say that children shouldn’t watch it. It’s a film in which the voices of Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and a gloriously unhinged Catherine O’Hara represent those messy emotions that a child is unable to articulate until they experience it themselves. How better to represent the terrifying, unfamiliar reality of growing up than through the prism of a child’s endless imagination?

Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s landmark children’s book remains faithful to the source material (some extreme liberties would need to be taken to diverge from the book’s ten sentences), but exists as a soaring expansion of what Sendak first created in 1963. It adds backstory and detail to the petulant nine-year-old Max (Max Records): his parents are divorced, his sister ignores him and his friends seem non-existent. After a fight with his mother, interrupting her date night, he runs away from home, only to discover a boat that takes him across an ocean to the land of the Wild Things.

With their blunt horns, giant claws and bulging eyes, the Wild Things are like disquieting teddy bears with a hunger for small boys. Like Max, love and aggression go hand-in-hand for them. “If we’re upset, your job is not to get upset back at us,” one of the Wild Things says after Max shouts at her. “Our job is to be upset. If I get mad and want to eat you, then you have to say, ‘Oh okay, you can eat me. I love you.’” The Wild Things show affection through destruction, encapsulating the complicated feelings rising in him as he grows older. To Max, these volatile emotions are impossible to discern. Where The Wild Things Are lacks simple answers, because that’s what the film is all about: the confusion of childhood.

The film’s scariness is perhaps the largest blemish on its legacy. Despite a warm critical reception, reports of scared children at abysmal test screenings, paired with the misconception that it was a children’s film, led to overwhelming controversy that clouded its release. No one behind the film even believed that it was scary. When the book’s author, Maurice Sendak, was asked if the film adaptation would be too frightening for children, he said he would tell parents to “go to hell.”

Spike Jonze was reluctant to direct Wild Things at first, having already tried and failed to make a children’s book adaptation of Harold and the Purple Crayon and seen the corruptive machine that is studio filmmaking. But Maurice Sendak, the book’s author, believed that Jonze was the only person who could bring his most beloved story to the big screen. It was one epiphany that changed his mind: the Wild Things are wild emotions. “As a kid, that was really scary and confusing—both the wild emotions in me and the wild emotions in the people around me,” Jonze said to GQ once. “Unpredictable emotions, positive or negative—you don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know what they mean.”

Jonze had never written a script before, his previous films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) having been written by the great Charlie Kaufman. He and co-writer Dave Eggers would spend the better part of five years perfecting the screenplay, creating a deeply personal epic that stands as the most realistic depiction of what it means to be nine-years-old that also happens to involve grotesque monsters.

Jonze has this preternatural talent for making the unfilmable filmable, and this special kind of wizardry is most apparent in Wild Things, with which he convinced studio executives to give him $100 million, barely make it back, and still create a rage-filled masterpiece. He refined his skills to greater success with Her, but Wild Things stands as a testament to his ability to make the otherworldly intimate. It’s just extremely annoying that Jonze did this with his first screenplay.

Take this as my desperate plea for Spike Jonze to make another movie. (It’s been six years since Her!!) Few filmmakers can articulate the strange feelings that reside in us all like he does. With Where The Wild Things Are, he takes kids seriously and addresses their fears with complete sincerity. That’s something to be celebrated.

He made the unfilmable filmable. He turned ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’ and a bunch of trippy videos into perfect vehicles of his surreal, almost childlike vision. But what he’s done with ‘Where The Wild Things Are’—a children’s movie that’s not really for kids—is truly scary

Originally Appeared on GQ