Sunday, October 18, 2009
more letters to famous people.
Dear Spike Jonze and Dave Eggars,
Spike Jonze, I had all the faith in the world in your artistic integrity and vision. I believed that you would create a film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are that would be fiercely magical. I believed that you would not compromise with studio executives pressuring you to "make accessible" what should have been a work of, perhaps not brilliance, but at least, focused, intentional inventiveness.
The movie's compromises vibrate on screen like neon day-glow. Who is this film for, adults or children?
James Gandolfini as Carol takes the viewer so far out of the movie that one cannot begin to appreciate the cinematography and costume design- two of the movie's stronger elements. Other overly-recognizable voiceovers, in combination with the odd human-naming of the creatures, are equally intrusive. Viewers should not be distracted by trying to identify famous voices or trying to make more "real" the beasts of dreams and imagination. Viewers should be swept up in and completely believe in the magic of the wild things and their kingdom.
Setting the first part of the film in 2009, though this classic book was written in and illustrated in the 1960s, also fails to match some of the movie's latter vision. (I'm still convinced that you had a clear vision at some point.) The last two-thirds of the film stay visually true to the book while also bringing it to life in new ways - that is part of the task of mastering this adaptation. The 1st third, in terms of tonal quality/lighting and set design, disorients those of us who sat several times through a trailer that promised warm, muted browns, yellows, greens and grays, and promised the director's full attention to interpreting and constructing the book's time and place. The white scenes are beautiful: the chaos of snow flying, the shrieking of kids at play-war. But, among other scenes, there is the misplaced pop of a Hannah-Montana-esque bedroom set design that jolts viewers out of the understanding with which we entered the theater.
The 1st third of the movie should have taken cues from your ex-wife Sophia Coppola's film adaptation of The Virgin Suicides and Ang Lee's adaptation of Rick Moody's novel The Ice Storm. Even Sam Mendes's American Beauty would have served as a more fitting reference. Saturday morning Disney corporation sit-coms are an ill-fitting point of reference if one is to masterfully adapt this classic, well-executed and well-loved picture book.
Max Records, the little boy who played Max, gave a strong performance considering the script he had to deliver. This brings me to my final qualm.
Dave Eggars, what is going on with your screenplays? I first became skeptical after I saw Away We Go. The director and editor should have cut the over-written scenes.
In Where the Wild Things Are, the tacked in 2009 teen-speak, the one-liners and rudimentary slap stick jokes make it seem that a sitcom with a laugh track has landed inside of the movie the way Dorothy's house landed in Oz. Your script offers Max's back story: he is a child dealing with his parents' divorce, his sister's adolescent angst and a few bullying teenagers. The revelation of Max's history should have, and could have, been more gracefully and lovingly executed. Yet, one feels no love behind this script; one feels only the distinct pull of the dollar.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield calls his writer-brother who has gone off to California a prostitute. What is your hourly rate, Dave Eggars? Please, get back to writing for the page and from the heart. I beg of you.
The crux of the problem with the entire film, including its script, lies, not in the fact that filmmakers adapted a 10-page picture book, but rather, in the original question of audience.
Is this movie intended for children? Or is the intended audience adults who hold in our hearts a special place for the book Where the Wild Things Are? Is the film an opportunity to sell future video games and other commercial merchandise? (I suspect that this is what studio executives imagined.) Or is the film an opportunity for adults to revisit children's stories and to newly examine darkness that often lies beneath and within picture books? (I suspect that this is what Jonze originally envisioned.) As it is now, the movie-version of Where the Wild Things Are neither succeeds in provoking adults who handle adult problems to exit theaters deeply empathizing with their children and the muted complexity that creates and saturates children's worlds, nor leaves adults to admire and desire the vibrant coping mechanisms with which children deal. If it is successful at all, it succeeds at artfully riffing on Mrs. Doubtfire - creating a feel good film for the entire, comically dysfunctional American family.
The screen version of Where the Wild Things Are leaves me pondering how disappointing the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz would have been had it been made in today's cinematic climate. What would it be had studio executives asked filmmakers to make The Wizard of Oz less scary and more commercially viable?
While I am let down by this film that I had anticipated so enthusiastically, at least I am reminded of the relevance of the book form. There is relevance in possessing tangible pages to turn, reading words and images that speak to one's own mind's eye, spark one's own inventiveness, and allow a human being to delight in and believe in far off kingdoms that hold magical healing powers and ultimately, remind us of the loving safety-even through instability-that is home.