Review: Where the Wild Things Are and POV

Have I already talked about point of view in films? Maybe… but here we are again.

Where the Wild Things Are (WWTA) is a film based on the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak of the same name. The book has only 10 sentences of text total, so you know that the film is going to be a pretty different experience. Typically, this is the kind of scenario that I would say is practically guaranteed to reek of Hollywood in all the worst ways. WWTA dodges that bullet. The team behind the movie is Spike Jonze (writer/director) and Dave Eggers (writer). If you’re at all into edgy, indie, heartfelt work then this should be a very exciting combination for you, and they hit it out of the park with WWTA.

The plot of the original book features Max, a young boy in his wolf outfit rampaging around the house and getting in trouble. He is sent to bed without supper and in his room pretends he travels to an island populated by the Wild Things, who he conquers. After having imaginary adventures for a bit, he misses home and returns to the real world to discover dinner is still waiting for him. On the surface of the read, Max is a bit of a little butthead. It takes a generous reading to infers that Max regrets his behavior and is worthy of being forgiven by his mother.

The film addresses this ambiguity handily—and here be the spoilers.

In the film, Max is a young boy, as in the book. However, his angst is much more clearly expressed. We see that he’s lost touch with his mother and sister who have grown up and moved on a bit in life, leaving him feeling alone. He acts out to garner attention, is punished, and then runs off and enters into his dream realm. Once on the island, he meets the Wild Things, each of which have a distinct and somewhat difficult personality. Max becomes their king, tries to meet everyone’s wishes and realizes pretty quickly that it is not easy to just make everything better just by wanting it to be so. After a time, Max decides he must return home and is reunited with his mother and gets his hot meal and loving embrace. The film succeeds much more effectively than the book in communicating that Max has learned the impact of how he is reacting to his family and how difficult it must be for them to deal with him. When Max is back with his mother and enjoying his meal, there’s a very real sense that he has changed and his experience was a revelation for him.

It’s important to note, though, that the film doesn’t actually state any of this. No one asks Max if he’s learned his lesson. He never stands up and proclaims he’s changed. In fact, nothing really of substance about Max and his life is ever actually stated in the film. Everything we need to know is communicated through the point of view for the film. There’s a very distinct and narrow point of view: Max’s. We see things only as they impact him; there’s no aftermath or reactions to Max’s initial outburst. Our focus is his frustration and alienation. When he travels to the island of the Wild Things, our understanding of them and their relationships is defined only by Max. The entire content of the action with the Wild Things focuses around their emotional needs and interactions and there are absolutely no clear resolutions presented or reached. How could there be? Max is a child and we experience along with him his child’s frustration at the way of things. Why can’t his new friends get along? Why don’t his plans and reactions fix things for them? Why are things always so difficult? He doesn’t have the answers or words to fix things, but it’s apparent that what he sees in the Wild Things are the more difficult parts of himself.

A film that takes a clearer view of this storyline and looks from the outside in simply wouldn’t work. There would be overt explanations and too self-aware realizations and stiff movie moments. Being told how life can be for a child isn’t nearly as effective as being made to feel the way a child might.

To point to an example about as far across the spectrum as could be, think of Memento. Memento is a film that, without its incredibly focused point of view simply would not work. We need to experience Leonard’s confusion and live in his head for the narrative to work (to clarify: Leonard has no short term memory, and the film plays essentially in reverse. We start at the end of his journey and work back to the beginning to reveal what Leonard cannot himself recall. If we know anything outside of what he knows, the illusion is shattered).

Think about what your story is saying. Is it telling a story, showing some action, dealing with an idea or is it trying to communicate an emotion and state of being? If you want to really communicate a character’s life, make sure the film tells their story very specifically. Write things as only they would understand them. Only place the reader/viewer in scenes that the character would be in. Keep your focus tighter for a better story.

  1. #1 by Chelsea on October 21, 2009 - 2:16 PM

    Agreed. Already commented elsewhere, but great point on POV.

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