Dave Eggers’ Monster Project: Behind “The Wild Things”
It took years to bring the adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen, and this weekend the Spike Jonze-directed film cleared another hurdle: the thoughtful and visually stunning picture opened at Number One at the box office. The film’s co-screenwriter, Dave Eggers, was so absorbed in the project he agreed to write a novelization of the book, titled The Wild Things, at Sendak’s request. At Rolling Stone‘s request, Eggers agreed to a rare interview about the project.
What’s the relationship between The Wild Things book and screenplay, and how did the novelization come about?
I think it was late 2005 or early 2006 when Maurice called me and asked me to write a novel based on the movie. Normally, I wouldn’t think of doing a novelization of a movie or screenplay — my only association was when I was a kid I read a novelization of E.T. — but in this case Spike and I had written so much material that we knew wouldn’t end up in the script, let alone onscreen. I had been thinking about it so much on my own so I thought of it as a good chance to create my version of the story. It was just one of those things that if any two friends tell the same story of even the night out together, those versions are going to be different. So Maurice has his version, Spike has his version and I would be able to take it in the direction that I wanted to go in the novel.
Did you take any cues from the E.T. book?
You know, it was written by William Kotzwinkle, who is a really good writer. It might have been one of the first full novels I ever read. It turns out, like, everyone I know has read this book. It’s very strange. So that was the only one I knew of and it was actually good. I think it had some literary elements. Often when you do a novelization, like if you did a novelization of Speed 2, it would be less … artful.
Is that your next project?
[Laughs] I don’t know, it’s a thought. It keeps coming up in conversation lately.
What was the biggest change you wanted to make in the novel that wasn’t represented anywhere else?
First of all, there’s no word limit or page count limit. That’s one of the many ways books are better than any other medium. If you transcribed the script, it would wind up being 100 pages or less. Here, I was able to fill in a whole lot of back-story and get into Max’s head. I had maybe 30-40 pages on Max’s home life before he left for the island and that was the place where I explored a lot of thoughts I had about boyhood or childhood generally.
I read that when you were writing you watched a lot of The Wizard of Oz. How much did you try to connect the things that happen to Max on the island back to what’s happening at home?
I love The Wizard of Oz to death and I must have seen it a hundred times at this point. Fifty of those times were in writing the screenplay and since my daughter was born. It’s an unimprovable, perfect movie. But there, the relationship between all of these people have direct correlation in Dorothy’s real life and all the foreshadowing of which farmhand is going to touch on what theme. We sort of sought actively not to have any direct parallels. That way, it lends itself to the way a brain might work at eight years old, where it’s more dreamlike and there’s a good deal of confusion of who’s who and who in your life represents what.
There’s one primary sympathetic female Wild Thing, but you can’t really say it’s Max’s sister. Is it Max’s mom? It’s not really just one; it’s sort of in between. Is Carol Max’s dad? Sort of, in a way, but it’s Max, too. The Wild Things are very immature in a lot of ways and very adult-like in a lot of ways. One of the points is that there are a lot of overlaps between kids and adults, but the main point was to keep it from being a puzzle that needed to be solved or would click tidily into place. It’s more of a Venn diagram than a puzzle.
Without belaboring the debate about whether the movie is too scary or dark for kids, The Wizard of Oz is a scary movie that still is a beloved children’s movie, and very attractive to children.
I think that Where The Wild Things Are is a lot less scary than The Wizard of Oz by a long shot. At a certain point kids need plot of some kind of a rift. They can’t just watch people eating ice cream for two hours straight. I think as a culture we’ve gotten a lot more prone to overprotecting kids from any risk, disappointment, fear or threat. But when kids write their own stories, they are always full of all of those things: death and decapitation and disappointment and treachery. Even at three, four, five years old. I think a lot of parents have forgotten these things.
Between Sendak’s book, your book and the screenplay we see the refrain “I’ll eat you up.” Sometimes it’s meant ferociously, other times it’s tender. Is that also part of the confusion, that parents don’t realize that these expressions even of love can seem scary?
I was told a hundred times my mom was going to kill me, once a day probably, and kids know the difference. Part of the point of the Wild Things in Maurice’s book and mine and in Spike’s movie is that they’re like adults in anyone’s lives: a Wild Thing is a larger version of an adult — and a hairier version — but they share similarities like posing a great threat to a child if they wanted to and a kid has to learn how to navigate among giant creatures, learn how to protect themselves and dodge a giant claw metaphorically and literally.
Do you think that the feelings of rage and powerlessness, earnest curiosity and mischief that are explored in Where The Wild Things Are and The Wild Things are universal or boys’ feelings?
It’s definitely a little bit more male, but I think it really depends. Max definitely likes to be king, likes to break things, chase the dog with a fork and has no fear. The well-behaved or sedate kind of boy in movies wasn’t anybody that I was or anybody that I knew as a kid. We definitely broke everything we could get our hands on and set fires. I tried to make Max a kid who was good and did well in school and was well-liked, but he also had a lot of energy and a lot of anger and lot of animal in him, which is probably most boys.
How did you bring the Wild Things to life as characters with names and why, for example, if you were responsible for both, Katherine is Katherine in the book and KW in the movie?
Well, Katherine was my choice. KW was Spike’s. In some cases I liked it one way and he liked it another, so there’s a lot of little things like that in the book. I didn’t think KW rolled off the tongue and I always like Victorian names for characters. I thought it was funny to call her Katherine, like Katharine Hepburn.
How do you go from looking at a picture to saying, “This is Carol, here are his issues?” What were you getting from the drawings that helped flesh out their traits?
Carol was the obvious leader and is the most prominent one in the book. He’s the one everyone thinks of first and is Maurice’s primary one that he draws, so that seemed to be the obvious choice for the father figure/best friend/would-be king. Pretty early on, we saw the goat was close to Max’s size and could be something like a doppelganger and rival for Max. They were smaller and had the some fur color.
How did he become an Alexander?
He isn’t a great world conqueror and he’s probably of the age that Alexander was taking over half of the civilized world, but he’s just a goat, so that’s an interesting juxtaposition there. But it also has kind of a geeky connotation if he’s Alexander and not Alex or Al. He goes by Alexander the whole time and that’s the kind of goat he is. He might feel a little neglected and a little fussy about himself and confused about his identity a little bit.
And the relationship between Katherine and Carol?
That one was the relationship that changed the most and had some history. We had to avoid it being just a father-daughter relationship and it’s definitely not a romantic relationship. Their relationship is the most complicated on the island and it’s the fulcrum that affects the rest of the Wild Things. They’re similar in a lot of ways so they fight a lot, but everyone just wants them to get along. It parallels parental relationships at home; a kid is affected by every rumble.
Why doesn’t the Bull get a name?
He did have a name for a long time. His name was Daniel. When we decided that he wouldn’t speak at all, we decided that he didn’t have a name. The Wild Things never call him the Bull so they might all know his name.
Let’s talk about Larry.
He’s a raccoon and a weapon of war. I think of that generation of animal as a Larry, a Hugh, a Hal. Fifties male names. They have that kind of attitude.
But originally he was a tornado before a book ever existed.
Yeah, we had a tornado at one point. There were a number of scenes that we conceived that ultimately didn’t make it in there. When I started the book, I thought I was going to put in the tornadoes and every scene that was dropped, but then went in a different direction and started writing some new stuff.
Why do the Wild Things put Max’s crown under the fire in your book?
Well, if you’re wearing a crown, it becomes a burden, right? It’s pretty and shiny and there advantages to it, but it’s hot to the touch and might burn your scalp when you put it on. Very early on, there were a lot of random details we came up with and one of them was that when Max wasn’t wearing the crown, as a matter of course every night, the Wild Things put it under the fire. He didn’t know why exactly, but he had to go along with it because it was the rule and a longstanding practice and he’d just have to wait for it to cool off a little bit. But every night they’d heat it to remind him of the burden. Maybe he’d get a scar around his forehead.
Are the Wild Things malicious? In your book Carol hears noises or voices underground. Is there really something there or is he trying to manipulate the crew?
I don’t know. You have all of the themes there. The point that that’s pointing to is that we don’t know exactly. We have threat levels at the airports every day, orange or red or yellow and you don’t know if they’re based on any facts or if they’re meant to scare us or if we’re being manipulated. Of course, it goes both ways because Max scares Carol with the story about the sun dying. But a lot of these things aren’t any fun to explain. It’s meant to be up to the reader.
Is there anything that you put in that people have missed or that you would want to explain?
I think that four people have read it, so I don’t know. But the thing about a movie is that the movies are beautiful and especially when Spike makes the movie, but you can explore more the political implications in a book. There were certain things on my mind in 2006 in the middle of the Bush years that were fun to look at, but there’s none of that political subtext in the movie. From the beginning, Maurice wanted the movie to be different from the picture book and I didn’t want the novel to be a replication of the movie. They’re three wildly diverging stories although they all start with the same three building blocks of Home, Island, Boy.
You met Spike after you wrote him a fan letter?
Yes. That was when they were talking about making the movie out of my first book [A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius]. I wrote him and asked if he wanted to do it. But it didn’t happen.
I was going to ask, does doing this change your mind about adapting your own work?
[Laughs] Oh no.
More secure than ever?
Well, they’re unrelated, but movies are hard to make, especially complicated ones. I decided years before my book wouldn’t be a movie.
And how much time did you spend with Maurice?
It’s been mostly over the phone, but he’s the greatest, most pure and uncompromising artist I’ve ever known. When I was a kid I wanted to be him. I worked many years to be an illustrator and writer of children’s books.
Did you show your illustrations to him?
Yeah, I’ve shown him a few of them. You know, they’re all about boys and monsters.
More Wild Things: