Simon Foster looks at why it's taken so long for the adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's tale, Where the Wild Things Are, to make it to the screen.
27 Mar 2009 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

In 1963, author Maurice Sendak wrote Where The Wild Things Are, an award-winning children's book that has become a bedtime-story classic, fuelling flights of fantasy for three generations of kids as they dozed off into their own dreamland.

It is supremely ironic that the Hollywood adaptation would cause so many sleepless nights for all involved.

There is no arguing the exalted status that Sendak's book holds for millions. With the internet release of the film's trailer, all manner of websites adopted it and a torrent of opinions flowed – from the literary community, keen to see Sendak's work duly honoured, to childcare providers, for whom the book has cast a spell over many a rowdy playcentre.

But no industry watched more closely than the film industry. With a budget set to top US$100million, arthouse wunderkind Spike Jonze tackling his first big-budget studio picture and a production history that has kept the film in the editing room for 18 months, Where The Wild Things Are carries with it a sense of anticipation unlike any film in recent memory.

The story of Max, a four year-old whose imagination transports him to a faraway land filled with towering monsters called the Wild Things, has defied cinematic interpretation for 43 years. Maurice Sendak has kept his creations close to his chest, allowing only a 7-minute Czechoslavakian animated-short in 1973 to bring any sort of film-life to his characters. In 1982, a young animator named John Lassetter, today one of the most successful animation proponents in the world as the force behind Pixar, created a 30-second computer test using Sendak' s characters.

False starts
It was not until 1999, when Playtone Productions acquired the rights to Sendak's work, that the incredible journey to the screen began in earnest. Tom Hanks (one half of the production team who, along with Gary Goetzman, created Playtone) went after Where The Wild Things Are, declaring it his favourite children's book ever. Sendak and his own production company, Wild Things Productions, warmed to Hanks' enthusiasm and the film was moved from Sony's Tri-Star Pictures (where Sendak had a development deal) to Universal (who were aligned with Playtone).

Gore Verbinski, who had directed the energetic kids pic Mousehunt, was attached, with Universal committing to a hefty budget to cover the live-action/CGI mix that Hanks and Sendak envisioned would bring the imaginary world to life. But Verbinski's vision clashed with Sendak's; the director was replaced by Eric Goldberg (co-director of Disney's Pocahontas) but, despite being fast-tracked by Universal for a summer 2005 release and an endless stream of writers and directors adding to the script and providing design work, the project stalled.

In the interim, Hanks and Playtone committed to the effects-heavy The Polar Express, set up at Warner Bros. (and backed by Australia's Village Roadshow). With Where The Wild Things Are now moribund at Universal, Playtone encouraged Warner/Roadshow to acquire it 'in turnaround' (a common Hollywood dealing by which one studio can relinquish a project's rights to another studio, in exchange for remuneration based on the development costs to-date).

The green light
In January 2006, Warner/Roadshow gave a greenlight to begin production. Announced as director was Spike Jonze, the coolest young filmmaker in Hollywood, with the arthouse hits Being John Malkovich and Adaptation to his credit. A few industry sceptics noted no big-budget family-oriented studio projects were on his resume, but Jonze's vision of the film as a live-action, on-location, dark adventure story impressed Sendak. He told the New York Times in October 2005: "I am in love with it. If Spike (does) not do this movie now, I would just as soon not see any version of it ever get made."

Principal photography began in mid-2006 in country Victoria.

To Warner/Roadshow's credit, they understood Jonze was a unique visionary and gave him a great deal of freedom (and money) to make his film. Sendak, Playtone and the other producing partners, Legendary Pictures, all liked what was coming from the film's shoot in distant Australia. With the first test screening scheduled for December 2007, hopes were high that Spike Jonze had captured the essence of Sendak' s classic story and families all around the world were in for a treat.

Testing times
That test-screening changed everything. Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are was very dark – some reports suggested it was 'subversive', 'too weird', 'unmarketable' as family entertainment – and that small children left the screening in tears. Playtone's Goetzman countered frantic post-screening reports with the following: "There was no screaming, no crying, none of that." Some feedback suggested Max Records, the young actor in the lead role, was bratty and unlikable - one scene sees him slap his mother (Catherine Keener).

Of most concern were the live-action effects. It was obvious to all that the animatronic faces of the monsters would not cut it in this CGI-reliant marketplace.

To make matters worse, a clip was leaked to the internet that made the film look and sound...well, awful.

Spike Jonze was forced to set the record straight, issuing this statement: "That was a very early test with the sole purpose of just getting some footage [...] to see if our vfx plan for the faces would work. The clip doesn't look or feel anything like the movie, the Wild Thing suit is a very early cringy prototype, and the boy is a friend of ours, Griffin. We love him, but he is not in the actual film...”.

As Jonze reshot scenes, re-edited key sequences and worked feverishly on new visual effects, a further spanner was thrown in the works when Warner Bros. CEO Alan Horn went on record with the Los Angeles Times. "We've given (Jonze) more money and, even more importantly, more time for him to work on the film," Horn said. "We'd like to find a common ground that represents Spike's vision but still offers a film that really delivers for a broad-based audience. We obviously still have a challenge on our hands.”

Gary Goetzman replied: "Warner Bros.' vision and Spike and my vision of the picture may be a little different. In the end good taste will prevail. The final cut is Spike's. Warner Bros. is not taking over the picture and has no intention of bringing down the hammer on anyone here."

Jonze himself finally went on record in the December 2008 issue of Rolling Stone: “All the reasons (we) were excited about it, those were the reasons they [Warner Bros.] were uncomfortable with it. It isn't what they're familiar with. But they've become comfortable and embraced it. In the end, they let me finish my movie.”

The trailer that flashed across desktops this week has done much to reverse some of the mystery and negativity surrounding the film. The internet is full of praise for the scenes that reveal Spike Jonze's take on Maurice Sendak's imaginary world, most notably the life the director has given to the Wild Things. Web-spin is now turning back in favour the film – hopes it will be “a unique and fascinating film”; “breathtaking” said of the trailer.

Set for a December 10 release here in Australia (October 16 in the U.S.), the long and at times bitter journey of Max and his friends the Wild Things will soon come to an end. For Spike Jonze, the ride has been an exhausting one. “ I think I was sort of willfully naive about how hard it was going to be, given the size of the movie, the technical difficulty, that it's a movie starring a kid, shot on locations. I need to sleep for a year before I can do anything again.”

Got some perfect night-time reading for you, Mr Jonze...