Book Review: The Wild Things by Dave Eggers
Once upon a time, there was a children’s book. A great children’s book. One of the most beloved, iconic children’s books of all time, showing us all in words and pictures journey of a boy to the farthest reaches of his imagination and back again. And so, it was perhaps inevitable that this children’s book would eventually be made into a movie. That movie, “Where the Wild Things Are,” came out in October. To me, Maurice Sendak’s original book was full of wonder at the prospect of a world where all the wild things bow down to our hero, Max, as king, tempered by the knowledge that eventually, he must always return home, “where someone loves him best of all.” The movie, on the other hand, made the wild things still wondrous, still lovable, but also weird and confusing at times, mirroring the thorny issues Max faced in his real life.
So, after collaborating with director Spike Jonze to bring “Where the Wild Things Are” to life on film, Dave Eggers found that he wasn’t quite ready to let go of the story. Thus, “Where the Wild Things Are” was reborn once again, this time as a full novel entitled “The Wild Things.”
“The Wild Things” goes a step further than even the movie in exploring the scary, unpredictable and yes, wild natures of the wild things. This wildness, too, is reflected in Max’s own character. In the 78 pages before Max’s departure, when he “makes mischief of one kind and another,” we begin to wonder whether he has ADHD or some other developmental disorder. In the picture book, Max only jumps on the furniture and teases the dog. In the movie, his mischief is a bit more serious and far-reaching, but still within the normal range for a rambunctious little boy. In this novel, Max very coldly and deliberately pours bucket after bucket of water on his sister’s floor, bed and walls, to the point where there may be structural damage to the house and his sister has to sleep in a sleeping bag. We find that sometimes Max can be a perfectly sweet little boy, “but there were other times, other days, most days really, when the thoughts did not line up. Days when he chases the various memories and impulses as they veered and scattered away from him, hiding in the thicket of his mind.”
From this thicket of his mind, presumably, spring the wild things. And yet, when Max arrives on their island and declares himself their king, he is very much out of his depth. Expecting an island full of playmates, he delightedly proposes every game he knows, from a dirt clod war to a parade to building a fort. And the wild things go along with him, for a while, but soon are more concerned with getting food and staying safe from the real or imagined whispers that come from beneath the earth. They expect Max to make everything better, and he doesn’t know how. He slowly comes to realize that he is only making everything worse. On top of this, he’s hungry, tired, cold, lonely and always a little bit afraid of being eaten.
A lot of the plot mirrors that of the movie, but Dave Eggers manages to make the story his own. In the acknowledgments, he admits that “‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is a book I read as a child, was terrified by, and finally came to grips with somewhere in my early twenties.” This terror shows through in every moment; “The Wild Things” is not about Max coming home to someone who loves him best of all but rather about him discovering that he cannot master an unknown and frightening world. He returns to the relatively-more-stable world of his home life. It is about childhood, certainly, but it is not in any way meant for children. It seems to question whether childhood is too much for children to bear.