Maurice Sendak's Monster Makeover

The much-anticipated film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's classic Where the Wild Things Are hits theaters Friday. In an article in the Boston Globe, Roger White explains how Sendak "made the world safe for monsters, and vice-versa."

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"Where the Wild Things Are" hits theaters tomorrow. Director Spike Jonze will try to bring to life the fuzzy, but majestic monsters of the beloved children's book. But monsters have changed quite a lot since Maurice Sendak wrote his 300-some words in 1964. From "Monsters, Inc." to "Shrek," many present-day monsters seem to be, well, tamed.

Today, Roger White joins us to talk about monsters of the past and how Sendak helped make the world safe for monsters today. We also want to hear your stories. What monsters have stuck with you? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Email us at talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site and find a link to Roger White's article in the Boston Globe. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Roger White, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ROGER WHITE (Correspondent, Boston Globe): Hi.

ROBERTS: Well, why do you think Sendak's wild things changed our perceptions of monsters?

Mr. WHITE: Well, I think it was one of the first times where monsters became less, you know, figures of terror and were suddenly very accessible, friendly, lovable creatures that you wanted to hang out with rather than a, you know, tormentor.

ROBERTS: Well, the monsters, they're not that lovable. I mean, you know, they've got big teeth and long claws and yellow eyes.

Mr. WHITE: Right. Yeah, yeah. No, it's true. One of the interesting things about Sendak's wild things is that they're a very strange mixture of, you know, the legitimately frightening, horrific. You know, they have all the sort of classical attributes of monsters, the scales and the claws and the fangs and the mismatched animal parts. But at the same time, there is something sort of endearing about them.

And I think a lot of the reason for that is that Sendak, in fact, based the wild things on these caricatures of people that he knew, of his relatives, stuff. So that, you know, beneath the monstrousness, there's this sort of friendly, familiar core.

ROBERTS: Well, also that idea of mismatching body parts from different animals is throughout classical art.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the things about the wild things is that if you're looking for maybe a genealogy of where visually they came from, you can look all the way back to Greek myth, where you have, like, the Chimera, which was a lion crossed with a snake crossed with a goat, or you had Cerberus, which is a three-headed dog - you know, all these sort of bizarre agglomerations of very familiar things.

ROBERTS: It's interesting to see "Where the Wild Things Are" as a transitional moment, too, because while Max doesn't run screaming from the monsters, he also doesn't stay with them. He doesn't, you know, become a warm and fuzzy monster himself.

Mr. WHITE: Right, that's true. I mean, it seems like it's very much about passing through a strange experience, you know? But compared to, you know, if the wild things were a Greek myth, Max, would sail to the land of the wild things. He would have to slay them or run in terror, have this confrontation. But instead, you know, there's a moment at the beginning where it's possible that they're going to eat him, but they - he sort of makes peace. You know, they have a party, and then he returns home. You know, it's a different way of dealing with something that's weird and disturbing.

ROBERTS: We are talking about our favorite monsters here on TALK OF THE NATION. You can join us at 800-989-8255.

Let's hear from Bill in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Bill, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BILL (Caller): I really enjoy your show.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

BILL: And your subject is near and dear to my heart. My first memory of a monster, I was four years old - I'm 61 now - and I ran screaming out of the theater when King Kong reached through that window for Fay Wray. And my grandmother loved to recount that story for most of my life.

ROBERTS: So King Kong is certainly an ancestor of today's more fuzzy, cuddly monsters, and an ancestor of the wild things.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, definitely. I mean, Sendak, in interviews, talked about - you know, maybe like the genesis of his love of storytelling was that he would go to these creature features as a kid and relay the stories back to his friends who hadn't seen the movie. And if they hadn't seen the movie, he could elaborate and make them sort of even more fantastical. Probably, you know, "King Kong" was very likely something that he would have seen.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Bob in McCall in Idaho. Bob, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BOB (Caller): Thank you. Thanks for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

BOB: I just wanted to share that when I was a child, there were alligators under my bed. And there was a point to get to the end of the bed and jump as far away from it as I could so that they wouldn't come after my feet. And now as an adult, I keep a cement lawn ornament alligator under my bed all the time, because it keeps the other ones at bay.

ROBERTS: Ah. So you've got - you've co-opted the monster under your bed to control the monster population.

BOB: Exactly. It's better the alligator that you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Bob, thanks for your call. The under-the-bed thing seems almost universal.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah. I wonder if - I mean, it must be sort of like, as long as there have been beds, there have been monsters under them, right?

ROBERTS: Right. And I guess it's the, you know, the lights are out and what's unknown and...

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, definitely. That's another reason, I think, that the book was so fantastic is that, you know, in the book, Max - it's not like he actually travels to the other place. His bedroom becomes, you know, is transformed into this unknown land, and then transformed back into his bedroom when it's over.

ROBERTS: We haven't talked much about the actual art of Sendak's book. As an artist, what do you make of it?

Mr. WHITE: I mean, they're just beautiful illustrations. You know, when you think about it, I mean, there's very few words in the book, in fact. It's all pictorial.

You know, the books - there are these lovely watercolor washes over which, you know, Sendak has gone with a pen and ink and really gotten into these rendering the, you know, the physicality of these monsters, you know, this, like, very maniacal cross-hatching that he does. And the what really comes out is just the, you know, the texture of them. They're very furry. You know, it's like a central aspect of the wild things is that they're these, like, hairy creatures, and the way that he draws them really brings that out.

And once again, everything is just - it's - on the one hand, they're very flat. The pictures, they're like these - it could be a frieze on the side of a, you know, like on a bas-relief sculpture. At the same time, you know, there's this incredible depths to them, this richness of the color.

ROBERTS: Do you see echoes of monster paintings from the Middle Ages?

Mr. WHITE: Definitely, yeah. I mean, if you look at something like Hieronymus Bosch, who was a Netherlandish painter working at the beginning of the Renaissance, you know, he made these enormous canvases filled with tiny little figures of like demons and monsters that are, you know, tormenting sinners.

And, you know, a lot of them - you know, there's a very similar thing going with hybridization. There'll be like a rabbit with a, you know, like a human body, or a giant mouse or a fish with wings, you know? It's the same sort of, you know, putting different things together into strange combinations. But those are very much about frightening you to death, you know, keeping you sort of on the path of good behavior, whereas Sendak is obviously about something different.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Doc(ph) in Oklahoma City. Doc, welcome to the program.

DOC (Caller): Good afternoon, and thank you so much for taking my call. You've hit upon a subject that, again, is near and dear to my heart. I've been a fan of monster movies since a little child back in the '50s. And I would have to say, out of all of them, it was a toss-up between Rodan and Godzilla, but Godzilla won out for a number of reasons.

Number one, I've enjoyed all of the early Japanese genre. They - I think they did a super job. I always enjoyed the miniatures. But much like the tornadoes that we have in Oklahoma, you can see Godzilla coming. He is about 400 feet tall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DOC: And there was a certain tragedy there, especially at the end. He's all powerful and he's unstoppable, and he just runs the gauntlet. And then a simple little device strips him of his bones and his immortality, if you will; I think that entered into it, too.

But the one thing that always stood out in my mind about Godzilla, and this is the funny part of it, was they found a trilobite. You know, a little invertebrate worm, basically, from the Cretaceous period. And that always caught my interest, that little trilobite they found, and - which forced me to go into the geologic field. As I got older, I studied geology down at OU back in the '60s for that reason, and you can really blame Godzilla for it. It's all his fault.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Doc, thanks for your call.

We also have a bunch of calls and emails about the Jim Henson monsters, both pro and con. Surprisingly, we do have some con-Jim Henson monster emails. This is Rob, who says, as much as they scared me as a kid, I've always loved any Jim Henson monster. But the big, pink ones from the beginning of the show haunted my nightmares.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: And Stacy(ph) says I loved the "monster at the end of this book," who is, of course, Grover. Let's take a call from Catherine(ph) in Menlo Park, California. Catherine, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CATHERINE (Caller): Hi. Thank you very much for taking my call. First of all, I have to say in terms of Jim Henson, I always loved Grover because he always kind of got things wrong, and you always have to relate to that as a child.

But you also have to consider taking this back a little bit - the Fiesta de la Muerte and the art that came out of that. You know, and they're very silly and they are making fun of death and scary things. And do you think that's kind of - was brought in or affected, especially in the Halloween time of year with monsters and all this? And people maybe psychologically need to be able to make fun of things that frighten them.

ROBERTS: That's an interesting point. Roger, why do you think, that the whole idea of turning something scary into something that's a source of amusement...

Mr. WHITE: Yeah. I think it's...

ROBERTS: ...defangs it?

Mr. WHITE: I think it's really central for Sendak, even for the Muppets, you know, if they weren't sometimes, like, actually a little bit creepy, I think they'd be a lot less charming. They'd just be cuddly. You know, there's sort of a ogre versus-teddy-bear dichotomy going on, and you need a little bit of both, you know. And that's sort of what makes these stories, you know, really important and really stay with you and psychologically relevant is that, you know, yeah, it's a bit creepy in any way to deal with monsters.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jessica in Moneta, Virginia. Jessica, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JESSICA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was just thinking about -listening to the program about the monsters. And I just was thinking about when I was a kid and my mom used to rent on laser disc "Pete's Dragon." And just -"Pete's Dragon" was such a sweet movie because Pete had his imaginary dragon friend - or invisible one, rather. And the dragons always, historically, have been kind of mean and scary. And to have a dragon portrayed - sorry, my phone is beeping - to have a dragon portrayed that way, I thought was always really, really fun. And my kids like watching the movie now.

ROBERTS: Jessica, thanks for your call. Yeah, the friendly dragon theme is almost as prevalent as the friendly monster theme.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah. I wonder how far back it goes. I mean, when was the first friendly dragon, do you think?

ROBERTS: Puff? I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: It probably was Puff, which is probably around the same time as the Wild Things, in fact. I think the '60s were a very good time for friendly monsters.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Ray Ellen(ph) in Boston. Welcome to the program, Ray Ellen.

RAY ELLEN (Caller): Hey. So (unintelligible) monsters in "Where the Wild Things Are" is they're really the monsters within Max. He's having a temper tantrum, and the monsters takes over his world, and he slowly finds his way back in. And I think that's really the story that Maurice is telling in the story. And I really like the use of white space in the book, where in the beginning he's a little angry, and by the middle of the book, there's no white space on the page at all. And little by little, the white space creeps back in and he finds himself in his peaceful room at the end.

ROBERTS: Are you going to go see the movie?

RAY ELLEN: No, I think I am but I'll probably not like it, because the movie usually ruins the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: We have a similar email from Laurie in Champaign, Illinois. It says, let's not forget about the psychological allegory "Wild Things" seems to provide to children, in part the acceptance of anger as temporary and fantasies of wild, uncivilized or animal-like behavior as acceptable parts of one's psyche.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's really interesting in the book that, you know, with Max - the whole thing starts because he puts on this wolf suit, you know, and that sort of, you know, Sendak says that's what causes this, you know, ruckus, and he gets sent to bed without supper. And then, of course, he meets these creatures of his imagination who are, you know, like actual monsters. He just - he's sort of playing at it, but then these are the real thing, these wild things. But, you know, once again, you know, by the end of it, he's sort of got it under control. I mean, having put...

ROBERTS: Right. And his dinner's still hot.

Mr. WHITE: Mm-hmm. Exactly.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Alana(ph) in Powell, Wyoming. Alana, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ALANA (Caller): Well, thank you. I just wanted to relate a little story. My sons adored the book "Where the Wild Things Are." And we read it most every night. And, of course, as children do, while it scared them, they wanted to hear it again and again. We would read it, and then they would express concern that the wild things might come into their bedroom and take them somewhere. So we made a concoction, a special magic potion of water and glitter in an atomizer spray bottle, and I would give it to them. And it was magical. It could make those monsters go back to their island. And so they had control of things and continued to love the story of Max and the wild things.

ROBERTS: Wow. That is some magical potion right there, Alana.

Mr. WHITE: That's a good trick.

ALANA: It truly is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALANA: And my background in early childhood helped me to know the right thing to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: We also have an email from Margaret Anne(ph) in Oro Valley, Arizona, who says: When I was a child, maybe three or four years old, I once told my mother there was something under my bed. I could hear it breathing. When I insisted, she finally came and looked and found the neighbor's Irish Setter had somehow got in and stationed himself under my bed, breathing audibly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: Will never doubt her again, right?

ROBERTS: That's right. So, Roger White, do you have a favorite monster?

Mr. WHITE: I'm probably a Godzilla man, also, actually, like Doc. There was something wonderful. I used perch myself by the TV, hoping that they would rerun one of the films. And what I like the most about it, I think, was that it was obviously a guy in a rubber suit walking through, like, a small-scale model of New York. And it was just - I sort of wanted a Godzilla suit like that, really.

ROBERTS: Roger White, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mr. WHITE: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Roger White is a painter and the sounding editor of the art journal "Paper Monument." You - we have a link to his article in the Boston Globe. It's called "Monsters Ink: How Maurice Sendak Made the World Safe for Monsters, and Vice-Versa." You can find it at npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us today from Middlebury College in Vermont.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, a look at creating memories in fruit flies, the latest missions to the moon, and a new report linking a virus to chronic fatigue syndrome.

I'm Rebecca Roberts, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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