Not a Tame Wild Thing…

Where the Wild Things AreWe went to see Where the Wild Things Are last night. It’s a basic go-to-the-otherworld-to-find-yourself kind of story, in which our hero Max (wonderfully portrayed by the too-cute-for-words Max Records) responds to his mother’s exasperated declaration that he’s “out of control” by running off to where the wild things are. He talks them out of eating him and into getting appointed King of the Wild Things, and the Wild Rumpus ensues. At first Max finds it’s great to be king, but eventually things start to change.

Early reports about the movie suggested that Maurice Sendak (who wrote and illustrated the original children’s book) was happy with Spike Jonze directing the movie because he didn’t try to turn the wild things into just big cute, cuddly teddy bears. In other words, he let them stay wild. Apparently this made the movie studio nervous, and rumors swirled during the production of the movie that it was too scary for kids. Even more to the point, it doesn’t have a tidy, feel-good ending, even though its faithfulness to the book does offer a sense of resolution. Although Max follows the rules of the hero’s journey and makes his return at the story’s dénouement, we viewers are left with the unsettling implication that the wild things remain wild — and in the wild. You never know when they’ll show up again, or when Max will run off for another visit.

My daughter, who normally has a pretty low tolerance for movies with an edge, liked it, and she and I howled like wolves all the way from the theater to the van.

I’m reminded of one of the most important lines in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when one of the characters (it differs from book to movie) notes that Aslan is not a tame lion. The truth is, we always want to tame God, just as we always want to tame anything and everything about our own deep wildness, and about the stories we tell about “the wild” —i.e., the otherworld. We want the fairy-folk to be cute cuddly garden sprites, despite the fact that in Celtic folklore they are not only not-so-small, but also both dangerous and unpredictable. Tolkien wisely gave us the diminutive hobbits as our ambassadors to his otherworld, forcing his readers to identify with small protagonists because ours is an age that insists on keeping our fairy tales small as well. From a hobbit’s-eye view of things, even a domesticated otherworld can still seem mighty big and dangerous. Something similar is at work with Spike Jonze’s reimagining of Sendak’s story, where a child has to encounter some life-sized monsters. Of course, the psychological punchline is that the wild things all live inside of himself. “Inside all of us is a wild thing,” proclaims the movie’s trailer, set to a spunky, bouncy soundtrack. Guess what? Aslan is inside all of us, too, and he’s waiting to roar.

We all want Aslan to be tame, and we want God to be safe and predictable. This is the temptation behind fundamentalist religion, where God is reduced to a robotic father-figure-in-the-sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad. And then there is the God of liberal religion, who just is a big nice guy who loves everybody unconditionally and who pretends that evil doesn’t exist. Where the Wild Things Are (the movie) takes aim at both of these kinds of domesticated deities and blows them to smithereens. It may not be an explicitly religious movie, but it makes some pretty important theological statements nevertheless.

So if the Ultimate Wild Thing isn’t just a robotic dispenser of justice or a feel-good postmodern psychotherapist, then just what are we dealing with? I’m not sure I can answer this question, for after all, we are dealing with Mystery here. Part of why Aslan remains Not a Tame Lion has to do with Aslan being the Ultimate Mystery. But just as in the book version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the beavers assure the Pevensie children that while Aslan isn’t safe, he is good, I think we can start with that small measure of comfort. After all, if God isn’t good, then the universe is meaningless, and we all have to create our own good, much like Max and and the Wild Things build their fort. But without a deeper and higher meaning, sooner or later we tear down the forts we build. But some things endure, like love, compassion, noble acts of self-sacrifice for the good of others, the belief in fairness even when life seems pretty unfair. That these things persist over time, to me is evidence enough that good exists, not as a convenient human construct but as a real ontological principle, somewhere deep inside the ultimate Wild Thing. And that makes me willing to get on the boat and join Max in the adventure. Even though I suspect it will get pretty dangerous out there (or is that “in there”?).

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • sandysays1

    Do you think that a lower age limit is appropriate? My human is thinking about taking the grands, but has some very negative word-of-mouth about the youngies, 6 ‘n’ under. True? Sandy PS- A very intelligent and useful post.

  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    Great post, Carl!!

    I agree, it is necessary to remind myself that God is good but he is not like a big jolly Santa. Sometimes I forget that, and then awful things happen and I get thrown back into the mystery space again that he is entirely other, that the things he has allowed in my life have baffled me, that I have had to forgive him for letting these awful things happen to me, you know? But flowing under all of those questions and lamentations are the thread that says he is good, he is good.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Sandy, I was worried about my daughter (who is 24 but is intellectually disabled) seeing it, although she ended up liking it. But her emotional level is more like a 12 year old than a six year old. It does offer moments that small children might find intense, like the monsters ganging up on Max and threatening to eat him, and a play “war” between the Wild Things that ends up going too far. Several of the Wild Things are either scary or come across as amoral, and even the one that Max most bonds with throws a big scary temper tantrum. Max is shown misbehaving at home without clear consequences. I would think twice about taking children under six to see it, and at the very least I would be prepared to console them or answer some difficult moral/ethical questions they might raise (eg, “Why were the Wild Things so mean to each other?”). If you’re the kind of person who can tolerate seeing a movie twice, I’d strongly encourage going to see it by yourself first. And thankfully, I think this is a movie that will bear repeated viewings.

  • thegreeningspirit

    This is a magnificent and penetrating post..I am going to pass it and this wonderful website on to my friends and readers…the questions raised and insights about the wildness within ourselves and the variedc perspectives on God are powerful. Thank you Carl for a wonderful, wonderful post and reflection (again) Christine

  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    I love the quote by Chesterton: “Fairy tales don’t teach children that monsters exist. Children already know that monsters exist. Fairy tales teach children that monsters can be killed.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    P.S. to Sandy and anyone else wondering about taking children to this movie: read the Movie Mom’s wonderful review at http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/2009/10/where-the-wild-things-are-1.html
    She suggests the film is appropriate for children at least in grades 4-6.

  • Brian

    It is a Victorian impulse to eviscerate, sanitize, mount and stuff for display the darkness of the Wisdom Traditions. I think it is our psychological material that we project onto children that they only contain light inside and darkness only comes from without, and by confusing this projection with reality we do a disservice and dishonor to the truth of children, people, the World and the Divine. The inner lives of children are decorated with darkness that abounds in intensity and ubiquity. They have their bad dreams no matter what we do. The darkness that is found in Sendak’s works for children is the engine of their longevity. Children, and the adults they become, are drawn to these menacing, treacherous and gloomy depictions because they give voice, shape and vision to their own experiences and solipcisms.

  • http://nitecaravan.blogspot.com/ Greenmonk

    Thank you so much for your review. I wondered about taking some young people to see it, but I may hold off as they may be too young for it at this time. Thanks!

  • sandysays1

    Thank you for the insight and caution – I’ll take your advice.

  • Soltera

    I was practically raised on Tolkien, and only met Aslan in a literature class at Berea. The instructor really emphasized the “not safe, but good” nature of the metaphor. Several years ago I encountered a painting that really captures the essence of Aslan. It’s a fierce and serious looking male African lion standing on a savanna, dipping a paw into a pond. When you turn the picture over, it becomes a painting of a realistic looking lamb against a night sky (the lion’s pond). Their forelimbs are touching very gracefully through the water… Sometimes I display it with the Lion on top, sometimes with the Lamb. It’s a great reminder of the mystery in the majesty.