Every once in a while, Hollywood releases two (or more) movies in the same short period that have a clear connection and relation to each other. Sometimes this connection is specific subject matter (Deep Impact and Armageddon or Volcano and Dante's Peak or the Prestige and the Illusionist, I could go on), sometimes the connection is more ethereal and general (Igby Goes Down, Tadpole, and Roger Dodger). Usually, this doesn't mean too much; if anything, it just points out that Hollywood is full of copycats or maybe, less insidiously, it's just coincidence and something about collective consciousness, like Newton and Leibniz independently discovering Calculus at the same time. But recently there's been another example, a little wider in scope than previous similar releases and maybe that gives us a little more think about. In the last six weeks, we've gotten Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, both feature film adaptations of canonical books for children not made for children at all. Why is it that these two indie film stalwarts have chosen to both adapt children's books and why is it that neither made a movie for kids?
The one that seems most like a movie for kids is Fantastic Mr. Fox. It's animated, it's light-hearted and it's based on a Roald Dahl book with a (mostly) harmless plot, and since it actually is a really fun film with lots of clever material, it isn't necessarily not a movie for children. They probably would enjoy going to it and might even be able to catch the story's basic elements. But they wouldn't really get it, or what Anderson is really doing. I'm not just talking about hidden subtextual elements here, every film has them and usually children don't pick up on them even in the films that are expressly made for them, like the Incredibles for example has some pretty dark undercurrents that have surely been missed by the target audience. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is a little different because those adult elements are not under the surface, they are the heart of the movie. Mr. Fox's dilemma is not at all the stuff of a child's consciousness, and even though he goes through the same issue in the book, I recall it being told more from the perspective of his son. But Ash is relegated to a minor role here and the movie belongs entirely to Mr. Fox.
Mr. Fox's dilemma is totally and completely a mid-life crisis, but the new kind that 30 year olds have. This is not just implied in the film, it is stated outright; it's not subtext, it's just the text. It's more than just questioning the path his life has taken, Mr. Fox is going through a full on identity crisis, the kind that comes from seemingly having everything but being really unhappy all the same. He's not bored of his wife and he doesn't hate his kid, signs of the kind of mid-life crisis that affects older gentlemen who react by buying a sports car and filling a prescription for Levitra behind their wives' backs. Instead, Mr. Fox is trying to figure himself out in a wholly introspective way that doesn't even include any real bitterness towards anything. His job is unfulfilling because it isn't him, not because there's something wrong with it. In fact, he actually seems to enjoy it quite a bit, just not as much as stealing chickens and cider. This is the exact same thinking of someone who has gotten a taste of something and realizes they might want to try something else; it's the same impulse that has 30 year olds considering grad school; and just as Mr. Fox pines to return to the life of crime he gave up for his family, the grad school analogy represents a similar return, this time to the structure and comfort of academia, but that's beside the point. In a generational sense, there is nothing more Generation Y than Mr. Fox's existential dilemma. He doesn't want to live unfulfilled, he can't live as a square and he has absolutely no problem putting the lives of everyone he loves in danger (literal in the movie) to make sure he's happy. This sort of extreme focus on self-realization seems distinctly Millennial.
Where the Wild Things Are is a completely different story, or rather the movie takes a completely different approach to the same story. It is much more clearly not a children's movie, though there's no question that Maurice Sendak's original work, about the human child Max who spends a night as King of the Wild Things, is completely iconic, and that status probably lead many parents to take their children to it, not to mention a child being the main character which for some reason infers the appropriate demographic. But the movie itself is filled with incredible darkness. While there are a lot of "fun" elements - mud fights and running around and jumping and playing, Jonze's creations aren't so much Wild Things as they are monsters. They are huge, horned beasts, some with anger issues and hot tempers. In the climax, an argument leads to a fight which ends in the dismemberment of one of the Wild Things at the hand of another. The theme of the sun's imminent death runs throughout the film, and plays a part not just in the more figurative elements, but also in the action, it's the belief that this may have actually happened that spurs a tantrum. But the most striking element comes in the middle of the film's most sentimental moment, as Max is heading back to the real world, he is told by Judith, the crankiest of the Wild Things, that he is the first King they haven't eaten; this is also foreshadowed in the movie's first act when Max's crown is pulled from what is clearly a skeleton. Maybe he's the first King they haven't eaten, maybe he's the first kid they haven't eaten. Either way, the "wild rumpus" didn't include homicide in my memory of the book.
Of course, Jonze, in his adaptation, really grew the notion of the book and expanded it. There's not enough content in the book to fill out a film and he basically uses the book as a jumping off point more than anything; actually, it's probably more appropriate to say that he "re-imagined" it rather than "adapted it" for the screen. And that leads to obvious changes. The Wild Things of the book were a representation of Max's childish exuberance, and while they continue to be metaphorical versions of him in the movie, the unadulterated glee has given way to darker elements. Max's temper maintains in Carol, his naivete in KW, his isolation in the Bull and his resentment in Alexander. The most obvious parallel between Max and a Wild Thing is Carol, the character voiced by James Gandolfini and Max's immediate best friend (slash alter ego) amongst the Wild Things. The two are very similar, both are prone to exuberant upswings of mood and explosions of temper when things turn sour. In the film's climactic fight, Carol gets angry that certain things aren't turning out the way he wants and he throws a fit, the same fit that Max throws as a precursor to his journey to the Wild Things' island. Carol's main complaint is that the presence of certain people are causing the balance of their group to be thrown off, and even though Max doesn't make this complaint, it's clear that he acts out in a reaction to his single mother's new boyfriend. And Carol's temper is touched off by the previously mentioned anxiety about the sun turning off, something that we know is on Max's mind after his science teacher gives a lecture about it.
Carol as Max is a pretty clear comparison. But, Carol and Max also transfigure the role of parent and child. During Carol's outbreak, Max tells him that he's "out of control," the same phrase that Max's mother tells him. Not to mention that Max is now King and supposedly has dominion over the Wild Things and also is responsible for them, as a parent would be; it's his job to make sure that things are always OK. Yet, much of the action of the movie deals with the break up between Carol and KW, it informs the mood of everyone the same way that (theoretically) the break up of Max's nuclear family did (it's presumed that his father is dead). Carol as Max's surrogate father comes through early in the film, Max wakes up in Carol's arms and Carol is very protective of Max, as Carol himself tells us many times, he's "big." KW's role as mother to Max is visually defined late in the film when she hides him from Carol in her body and then births him at the end of the scene. When he is leaving, KW tells Max the most motherly line, also the only line in the book spoken by any of the Wild Things: "I'll eat you up I love you so." (This also hearkens back to Judith's line about Max being the only King they didn't eat and Max's line in the book about eating his mother out of anger, the connection between love and anger being very tenuous in this world.) But, like the others, KW is also a child; her pure love for two seagulls, Bob and Terry, is the love a child bestows on stuffed animals. The fact that she is only pretending to hear them talk makes this even more true.
It's the transfiguration between child and parent, or child and adult, that begins to get to the heart of the matter here since these are movies for adults based on books for kids. Both Jonze and Anderson have taken works that (presumably) spoke to them in their childhoods and realized them as pieces about themselves now. One can imagine a world in which these movies were made for the people who are reading and loving the books now, but instead we get movies that are for the people who loved the books twenty plus years ago, and about that same set. Mr. Fox's existential connection to 30 year olds is clear. Max's is a little less so, but the notion of child/adult confusion in Where the Wild Things Are is perfectly emblematic of an age group languishing between responsibility-free childhood and serious adulthood, and especially that group now at this time when 30 is the new 20, but it's still 30 and cause for anxiety.
It seems at play here are equal parts nostalgia and narcissism. It's only natural to want to adapt these books, they speak (and when we were children, spoke) to something innate because the struggle depicted within them feel so universal. Part of that universality means being able to depict the subtextual struggle of the director's choice, and both of these guys have chosen to depict themselves as they are right now, as if there is no other choice for them. They each could have expounded upon the imagination of children, Jonze especially was nearly unlimited in what his final product could be. These two directors have tied their films to works they cared about, but made them entirely about the people they are now and not the children they were back then. Like Mr. Fox and Carol, both seem to be unable to really let go of their desires and really become adults; they remain, like Ash and Max, children doing impersonations of the adults they see everywhere else. But they also can't look at the world purely as children do, with wonder and innocence, because they truly are adults. Whether they want to admit it or not.
Come on, Eldrick.