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The Rumpus Starts: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers and Catherine Keener on 'Where the Wild Things Are'

Long considered unfilmable, much to the chagrin of Hollywood studios hoping to capitalize on its enduring popularity, Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are is hardly plot-heavy. At 20 pages and 10 sentences in length, Sendak’s vision is communicated primarily through his handsome, evocative illustrations.

Now, after nearly two decades of false starts and delayed release dates, comes director Spike Jonze’s big-screen adaptation, fleshed out on the written page by Jonze, whose Being John Malkovich (1999) impressed Sendak, and Dave Eggers, author of the bestselling Pulitzer Prize finalist A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Were they tempted to take liberties with Sendak’s minimalist prose?

“From the beginning, Maurice read every draft,” says Eggers, 39, who lives in the Bay Area. “The whole thing was his idea, from the moment he asked Spike to direct. He was the reason we were there.”

“It was like we were working for him,” adds Jonze, also 39. “It felt more like adapting a poem than a book. The book is only 388 words long, but it’s expressive in a way that transcends words.”

Catherine Keener, who co-stars in the film with 12-year-old newcomer Max Records and voice actors including James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker, calls Sendak a “spirit guide” whose tale of a small boy fed up with feeling ignored at home resonated with her own childhood experiences.

“I used to run away a lot as a kid,” says Keener, 50, who also starred in Malkovich and seems perfectly at peace with the world – or, more likely, sleep-deprived – as she lounges on a plush hotel couch. “It was more of a benign thing, not like some kid running away to Los Angeles and horrors befalling them. But I got the story. I had no control over anything going on in my house as a kid.”

Eggers, who tends to ask as many questions as he answers, was drawn to Sendak’s work in part by his own boyhood dream of becoming an illustrator, but also by the elements of danger and menace evident in Sendak’s stories. Those qualities are conspicuously present in Wild Things, a movie that astutely reflects the nightmares of childhood as well as the joys. According to Jonze, that’s no accident.

“We didn’t want to be overly pandering, overly movie-like or overly safe,” he says. “Sure, there’s some intense stuff in there. It’s a movie that takes kids seriously.”

“When [Pixar's] Up came out, people said it was too much of a downer for kids,” adds Eggers. “But when I saw it with my then-3½-year-old, she understood it, and she loved it to death. I think we’re at a weird cultural moment where we expect very little of kids. We wanted no part of that.”

While rumor has it that Warner Brothers executives delayed the release of Wild Things for a year based on test screenings that left some children frightened – for the record, Sendak, now 81, recently told Newsweek that parents who find the film too scary can “go to hell” – Keener dismisses any concern that Jonze’s latest offering is too mature for its own good.

“Kids attach to stuffies – stuffed animals, that’s what they call them now – very early, and they give them personalities, including very scary ones,” she says. “The Wild Things are like stuffed animals come to life. My son, when he was 5, had a whole menagerie of stuffies that helped put him to bed, ones that he was scared of and yet engaged with, and to him they were real.

“He played through some very emotional stuff with them, the stuff that kids go through. That made my job easier. He heard [ex-husband Dermot Mulroney] and I arguing, and he knew what was going on. So I think there’s so much in this movie he could relate to, even at that age.”