Here’s a prediction: the upcoming feature film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, to be released on October 16th, will be stunning artistic triumph or a critical disaster.
If it’s the former, it might even be a box office hit. If it’s the latter, it will surely end up a massive flop.
How is such an “either-or” prediction possible?
It has a lot to do with the unconventional director, Spike Jonze, who has broken the “rules” of filmmaking on both his previous films and who sees Wild Things as his most personal ever — despite its $80 million-plus studio-level budget.
But it also has to do with the troubled history of the film — turmoil that’s been spilling out onto the blogs for years now and is now featured in a splashy cover story on last Sunday’s issue of The New York Times Magazine.
Jonze is the director of only two previous films: Being John Malkovich and Adaptation — both critically acclaimed, but also impossible to pigeon-hole. (Indeed, Adaptation is a satire of the whole by-the-numbers filmmaking process — and an homage to those who try to circumvent it.)
From the start, the word on Where the Wild Things Are has been that it’s different — really different.
According to the New York Times, Universal Studios passed on the film, claiming that Jonze’s script, co-written with author Dave Eggers, didn’t have enough of a plot (much like the book). It was Warner Brothers that finally greenlit it, based on earlier successes fitting quirky indie directors like Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron into big-budget hits like Batman Begins and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
But Jonze battled the studio throughout the production, insisting, for example, that it’s okay that the film is thematically ambiguous and that what little dialogue there is be “realistic” and not always capable of being understood by the audience.
According to 2007 blog reports, an early screening of the film’s rough cut resulted in crying children and walk-outs.
The studio insisted on changes, but Jonze reportedly refused most of them. After all, the director went through similar disagreements with the financiers of Being John Malkovich, and he ended up being hailed as visionary.
With many millions of dollars at stake, the studio is now at least pretending to play nice.
“It’s like the studio was expecting a boy, and I gave birth to a girl,” Jonze told the New York Times. “And now they’re learning to love and accept their daughter.”
With the impending release of the film, it’s tempting to simply assume that Where the Wild Things Are is yet another case of a brilliant filmmaker being forced into mediocrity by a craven, soul-less movie studio — another Brazil, for example. The studio agreed to release Terry Gilliam’s cut of that film only after the Los Angeles Film Critics Association shamed them into it; the critics awarded Gilliam’s version Best Picture after a private screening by the director.
Still, for every success like Brazil, there are plenty of “director’s cuts” that are pretty much unwatchable disasters — films like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. (And for the record, Brazil still flopped, at least in the U.S.)
In other words, the studios aren’t always wrong, at least when it comes to wide appeal. After all, “wide appeal” is how they make their money.
There are even those (like this writer) who think that Jonze’s earlier films had major flaws and were critically acclaimed mostly because their concepts were so outrageous and bold — so decidedly different than anything else Hollywood was producing.
Still, no matter how slight the plot of Where the Wild Things Are is, the story of its adaptation as a movie will have a very definite ending: on October 16th, when the film is released.
It remains to be seen, however, if that ending will be a happy one for Jonze and the studio.
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