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How to kill a great book

Last year for his birthday, a friend gave my son a movie theater gift card. My son’s school has kids from this side of the hill and the other side, two different counties with two different area codes.

It was a great gift. Unfortunately, we don’t have that chain in our county. So it sat there and bothered me for months. I hate loose ends! Finally my sister (who lives in the East Bay) and I cooked up a plan for us to meet halfway and use our gift cards.

That is how we ended up at Where the Wild Things Are in a very uncomfortable IMAX theater in Santa Clara.

When our son was a baby, we decided that we’d raise our kids without TV. The seminal moment was on a Thursday night. Back in 1999, Thursday night on NBC was a must-see for us. So as usual, we sat down in front of the TV to watch. Usually a dedicated nurser, our son kept popping off and looking at the screen. He wasn’t even a year old yet, and TV was so distracting he couldn’t eat.

We turned it off.

Then I did what I always do when I want to know something: research. I found out that when kids are watching TV (no matter what kind of TV it is), their brains basically turn off. I found out that preschool teachers can tell which kids aren’t being raised with TV just by the quality of their play. I read about girls being pressured to conform to feminine stereotypes younger and younger, largely because of TV. Obesity, low grades, hyperactivity, you name it.

If you want to read some of the research, take a look at an article I wrote a couple of years ago for Growing Up in Santa Cruz.

In any case, that choice fundamentally changed our family, and we are notably different than most American families because of it. Throughout our children’s preschool years, videos were a very occasional phenomenon in our house. When I started homeschooling my daughter, we did add in a bit more. She is a high energy person, and both she and I need the break during a busy day. But we know what it is: it’s not learning, it’s anesthesia. We’re very clear about that, just as we are about junk food, which we call entertainment, not food.

Though we allow videos now, we’re still very selective. As little violence as possible, no commercial tie-ins when possible (it’s hard enough to go to the store without my child whining for the latest Dora toothpaste!), no Disney because Daddy hates them so much. OK, a bit of Disney: old Disney like the Shaggy Dog, Pixar movies because our son loves the animation.

And generally, we avoid watching remakes of really great books. Really, I’m never sure if there’s any point to that, past easy marketing. A great book seldom makes a great movie. Sometimes we get a movie based on a book and talk about the difference. Our son is working through the Harry Potter movies slowly. He acknowledges that the book is always better. He has never developed a taste for video violence so he can’t watch them before bed.

With all those caveats you know I’m not the right person to write a review of Where the Wild Things Are if you happen to be someone who loves TV and video. But review I will:

It’s really OK. There was no level of violence that I found particularly aggregious, and they did a great job with the massive, shaggy costumes that they put real actors into. It was sort of like Nightmare on Sesame Street, to tell you the truth.

My problem with it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was simply this: They tried to explain a great book, and when you explain a mystery, you kill it. Did we really need to know why Max got sent to his room? We could all picture it (I could, even though I was a generally docile child). Did we have to know that his mom and dad were divorced, mom had job troubles, mom had a new boyfriend, sister was mean to brother?

I really don’t think we needed any of that backstory, because when we read that book as a child, we know the backstory, and the backstory is ours. My parents were not divorced, and when we had money troubles, the kids didn’t really know about it. But we still got sent to our room. We still imagined our revenge, our escape. I understood Max. I didn’t imagine my room growing trees — I imagined living in our house turned upside-down and walking on the ceiling. But that never made any difference to the book.

If you go to this movie, your children might be transfixed, like my daughter, on the edge of their seats, eyes shining with excitement. Or your children might be somewhat bored, like my son, who waited patiently through all the backstory, and then once the Wild Things came onto the screen, we knew where it was going to go, and he didn’t really care about the Wild Things’ own highly detailed backstory, which I haven’t even described.

In the end, like so many short stories puffed into feature film size, the movie would have been improved with lots more curled-up, digital bits on the e-floor of the computer.

I’m not saying, don’t go, but then again, I will say don’t go to one group of people: If you loved Wild Things for those few pages where Max’s room transforms into a forest, and if your childish mind’s eye could see those trees and hear them creaking as they grew, don’t see this movie.

The only thing they cut is the one thing they should have kept: the power of a child’s mind to transform his world and thus transform himself. Instead, they gave Max the learned helplessness of a world that is out of control, and he is lost in it, waiting to be saved.

Posted in Books, Culture, Education, Films.

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