Saturday, November 06, 2010

Where The Wild Things Are (Not)

I read Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are only in 1996 or so. My brother-in-law, Tom, had sent it for my son, Rituraj, who was four or five. But it was only a few years later that I really got engrossed in the book and story. I had been in Jerusalem on work, and in the end of my stay, had visited the Holocaust Museum. There I learnt about Dr Janusz Korczak, in the Warsaw ghetto, and then read about him in the book The King of Children. Talking about my visit to the museum with colleagues in my office, the idea of a film took shape in my mind, a musical, an animated musical, on Dr Korczak. Refusing to abandon the children who were his wards in his orphanage, he had walked along with them, all singing in chorus, to the gas chambers in Treblinka. For me, that would be the climax of the film, an expression of the indomitable, indefatigable human spirit, through which he rises from this mortal world, and temporal enemies, and becomes immortal. Yes, it was a terrifying, tragic moment, but also one of heroism, and hence a moment to celebrate, and thus honour. My colleagues wondered whether people could accept a celebratory musical on the holocaust, and referred to Life is Beautiful, which was then running in the cinema hall.

After my return to Calcutta and Talimi Haq School, in Howrah, Janusz Korczak was always on my mind. The idea of a drama production by the children of our school arose in my mind, from reading about such things done by Korszak. Somehow, in this context, the idea of doing a drama production of Where The Wild Things Are took root. For that is one heck of a book and story!

Written in 1963, it is about a naughty boy, Max, who is sent up to his room, as punishment, by his mother. And there begins his fantasy, this angry naughty boy's fantasy ... of being wild. And so he voyages, to where the wild things are, and has himself a wild, wild time, with the wild things, before returning home, and ... (I won't say more).

Where The Wild Things Are is one of the world's most read, most loved and most sold children's books.

The images in the book, of the wild characters, spurred within me the project of making costumes and stage props to bring the book to life with exactness, in a production titled "Jidhar Jangli Cheez Hain". All to be done by the children and their teachers. So, for several weeks I was in a world of my own, immersed in thinking about and planning the production and the fund-raising means to support all this.

Anyway, nothing happened. Life went on.

So, when some months ago, I learnt through television about a film version of Where the Wild Things Are, notwithstanding the general impassiveness with which I tend to relate to most things nowadays, it did evoke a feeling of interest and happy expectation. I got the film some days ago, and watched it yesterday.

One could say the film is based on the book. But it's NOT the book. Its much more, with all kinds of impositions to the very short, very simple story. In fact the story is so short, and so threadbare, while being so explosively full of fun and mischief and innocence, that it poses a challenge to any dramatiser or film-maker. While seeking to add substance to the original story so as to give something for the film to stand upon, it actually diminishes the original story. And that takes the cake. The film is something else altogether. As if driven by the logic of the unnecessary impositions, it goes on and on, and goes ... to some places ... which are not wild, just ... gimme a break, who wants to see this rubbish.

The whole point of the film is its name, which is the name of THE BOOK. So to see a film of that name and find something else - after one has invested goodwill to watch, and want to like it - is disapponting, annoying. Soon one begins to dislike it, and watches it probably only out of inertia, or out of academic interest, to see where else it goes. It drags, it hangs, it's unconvincing. As if the entire assembled cast have to somehow do something or the other to fill the time alotted for the film.

The little boy, Max, the central character of the story - tries his best, but he has no chance, given the mish-mash mess the screenplay is. So it ends up being a mis-cast.

Perhaps someone who has never read or SEEN the book may like things about the film. It is a lavish production, with an evidently generous budget, enough to see that no efforts were spared, in terms of locale, costumes, effects etc. Money, technology, expertise and creativity all came together under the name. The music and songs - are okay, but not great. That would anyway be another big challenge for any production. In this film, the music and songs do not really take up that challenge.

The film is too long, and needlessly so. Why could it not have been a much, much shorter film? One could do justice to it through animation. But there is also the short film medium. I have no doubt all the lovers of the book would have tried to see and obtain the short film. It could have been a classic. But to decide upon a long film format, a priori, and then alter the story till it is almost unrecognizable in terms of its essentials ... is inexcusable.

In the end, when the credits appear, one learns that the film was co-produced by Maurice Sendak himself. That seems unbelievable. If he allowed the film to appear with his title and his name, one assumes he stands by the film. One wonders how he could have done that. It is also co-produced by, surprise, Tom Hanks! I wonder what he thinks about the film. Is there something I missed? Did they have no idea what a let-down the film is, how it devalues Sendak's brilliant work, and how it diminishes one's goodwill towards him?

One wonders while watching the film - is there something helplessly unstoppable in Hollywood whereby this happens? Whereby what is poor at core, in conception, is wrapped in very expensive trappings? Just because money is there? I had wanted just a small amount of money, to devote specifically to celebrating that book, but that was not to be. Now one understands why JD Salinger never allowed his Catcher in the Rye to be made into a film. I hope this film marks the final burial of Hollywood in my consciousness.

Maurice Sendak has sold himself terribly short.

Thankfully the book remains, and shall remain, long after the film is well-forgotten. Or perhaps it should not be forgotten. It should be a classic How Not To Make film. Maurice Sendak will thankfully continue to be known as the book's creator, despite his error of judgement with the film. The film being forgotten - will also protect the goodwill he enjoys from his readers.

Where The Wild Things Are will continue to inspire creative artists to bring it alive in a fitting manner, so that the viewers love and celebrate that rendition. It poses a terrific creative challenge. But few productions can have the benefit of a name as powerful as that.

Perhaps the best rendition of Where The Wild Things Are would be a musical stage production, by, of and for children, undertaken by oneself. Where producing it as as wild as the book.

I wait, and meanwhile I imagine. There, where perfection is possible, where wild things are.


Vincent said...

You have my heartfelt sympathies, Rama, in this matter of being pre-empted in your creative ideas. It seems to me that Life is Beautiful didn’t exhaust the possibilities of a film on the topic of such nobility in the holocaust, and your idea of a musical still seems valid.

As for the new film called Where the Wild Things Are, I hadn’t till now heard of it, and I take your word for it being a travesty of the book. Again, your idea of a stage production for schoolchildren still seems valid.

Actually I read the book in 1970 to my four-year-old son. I didn’t think much about it one way or another. It is only recently (hearing a radio programme about it, and recalling the story and pictures) that I discovered a definite antipathy to the story, and remembered a ghost of that reaction when I first read it.

I find myself on the side of the child’s rebellion, and the world of imagination which he enters. The denouement is a tame surrender: “Max has a tantrum and in a flight of fancy visits his wild side, but he is pulled back by a belief in parental love to a supper 'still hot,' balancing the seesaw of fear and comfort.” (from Wikipedia, which also points out the psychoanalytical theory behind it). I find this family stuff stifling, probably because I didn’t get such parental love, and my refuge in fantasy was something to abide in long-term: more sustaining than one hot supper.

So though the book may be a world-wide favourite, it doesn’t suit a boy who kept the wolf-suit on all his life and grew up to become like Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, till he met his Hermine.

Nila-kantha-chandra said...

Nice on Vince! Yes, one's experiences in childhood tend to have a defining impact. But in my reading, the child's anger and wild rumpus and desire for maternal warmth need not be mutually exclusive. And yes, like Lou Reed enjoined, we must all "... take a walk on the wild side".

Vaswar said...

Haven't read the book..maybe that is why I found the movie quite impressive. All the characters in Max's imagination were probably different shades of himself. And I felt the movie embodied a child's psyche very well- from its need for a parallel world, Max's destructiveness('danpitey chele'in Bangali), surprising lack of empathy at times contrasting with the intense longing and affection. Very similar to the portrayal of Apu's son.