LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Turning a classic children’s book into a Hollywood movie takes courage.
When that book is Maurice Sendak’s dark but beloved “Where the Wild Things Are” and the illustrated original consists of just nine simple sentences, it also helps to have the author’s blessing.
Director Spike Jonze had both when he set out to bring the award-winning 1963 book to the big screen in a version that is both a departure and an homage designed to appeal to adults as well as children.
Five years in the making, Jonze’s part live-action, part puppetry, part computer-animated version of “Where The Wild Things Are” arrives in North American theaters on Friday to a mixture of glowing reviews and deep reservations.
The book is a spare but lavishly illustrated tale of a rambunctious boy who dons his wolf suit and goes in search of mischief but falls back on his imagination when he gets sent to his room. It has been one of 10 all-time best selling books for children since the 1970s.
But Jonze, the man behind the quirky 1999 film “Being John Malkovich,” said he did not intend to make a traditional kids’ movie.
“I set out to make a movie about childhood,” said Jonze, who also co-wrote the screenplay with novelist Dave Eggers.
“It’s about what it’s like to be 8 or 9 years old and trying to figure out the world, the people around you and the emotions that are sometimes predictable or confusing.
“He (Sendak) is very proud of it,” said Jonze, who also made a documentary with the 81-year-old author that will be shown on HBO on Wednesday.
In the biggest departure from the book, lonely but playful Max (played by newcomer Max Records) runs away from home and sails to a wilderness inhabited by fanged and furry Wild Things that are looking for the kind of leader that Max wants to be.
The film was shot near Melbourne, Australia, and features sand dunes, sea shores and fire-ravaged woods instead of the green forest that magically grows in Max’s bedroom in the book. It has the kind of art house feel rarely seen in Hollywood’s standard kids fare.
The Wild Things are voiced by actors including James Gandolfini of “The Sopranos” and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and given physical substance by other actors wearing vast body suits made by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
John Leonard of New York magazine called it a “fabulous treehouse of a movie” but David Denby of the New Yorker wondered how young children would react. “I have a vision of 8-year-olds leaving the movie in bewilderment,” Denby wrote. “Why are the creatures so unhappy?”
Sendak, who is a producer on the movie, has dismissed suggestions that parents might think the screen version too scary for their children. Amazon.com says the book’s target age range is 4- to 8-year-olds.
“I would tell them (parents) to go to hell. That’s a question I will not tolerate,” the author told Newsweek when asked about the movie’s fright potential.
Talking to reporters, Jonze said Sendak’s book was initially criticized by librarians and psychologists because it depicted a kid who was wild, who yelled at his mother and who acted out.
“It wasn’t teaching kids a lesson,” Jonze said. “But it was true and kids recognized that and it became popular because kids loved it. I think the movie has the same intention (of) not trying to condescend to kids.”
Jonze also came under pressure from Warner Bros studio executives, who were expecting a more family-friendly treatment. Media reports last year said the studio delayed the release for 12 months and asked for more work on the estimated $80 million production.
Jonze declined to detail his discussions with Warner Bros, saying, “It was just not a fun part of the process.
“But in the end we made the movie we wanted to make and now they (Warner Bros) are embracing it.”
Editing by Bill Trott