About the hoopla surrounding the film adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are," Maurice Sendak is characteristically gruff.
"I kind of want it over," he said. "I'm not used to this invasion."
But that speaks more to the 81-year-old author's fondness for privacy and quiet than his feelings about Spike Jonze's film, co-written by David Eggers. In a recent phone interview from his home in Ridgefield, Conn., Sendak said he considers both Eggers and Jonze to be good friends, and believes the director has done a "spectacular" job with his most famous work.
The movie is a long time coming. Sendak originally co-founded a production company in the mid-'90s. Two directors earlier tried their hand at adapting the book, but their visions didn't impress. And it took Jonze years to finish his "Wild Things," a process all the more arduous because of widely reported arguments with the studio, Warner Bros., which wanted a lighter approach.
"The people I dislike, I've never gotten to meet, so I can't say anything bad about them," says Sendak. "And they're all in Hollywood, where they belong."
No longer a bitter pill
The beloved illustrator has always had a complicated relationship with "Wild Things." When it was published in 1963, Sendak, a son of Jewish immigrants, was an up-and-coming children's book author. His life was irrevocably changed by the success of the book.
It won the prestigious Caldecott Medal and has since sold more than 10 million copies. The story of Max, a misbehaving boy clad in a white wolf suit who's sent to his room that soon grows into a forest, resonated with children — an impact all the more remarkable because it was done in just 10 sentences.
But as much as it elevated Sendak, it also overshadowed much of what he's done since. He's not only written other classic children's books like "In the Night Kitchen" and "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" but also collaborated on operas (Mozart's "The Magic Flute" with director Frank Corsaro, "Brundibar" with playwright Tony Kushner), illustrated adult books (Herman Melville's "Pierre") and co-founded the Night Kitchen Theatre.
Sendak says he no longer feels tied to "Wild Things."
"At one time, that was a bitter, bitter pill. It no longer is," says Sendak. "`Where the Wild Things Are' is no longer an enemy. It's now Spike Jonze's and lots of nice people who have become friends."
Ahead of its time?
"Wild Things" caused quite a stir in its day. It was revolutionary in its honesty about childhood: Max misbehaves and his mother loses her temper. The Wild Things, based on Sendak's aggressively affectionate relatives, scared some children. For a time, many libraries refused to stock the book.
Max, Sendak says, "wouldn't be invited to Winnie the Pooh's house — and if he had been, he wouldn't have gone."
Much in "Wild Things" can be found throughout Sendak's work: the power of the imagination, the always looming threats of childhood. Sendak urged Jonze to remember those qualities.
"I advised him to make more mischief, and he made more than most," says Sendak. "In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy. There's a cruelty to childhood, there's an anger. And I did not want to reduce Max to the trite image of the good little boy that you find in too many books."
Sendak clearly sees something of himself in Jonze — he notes Jonze made the movie at roughly the same age he wrote the book: his early 30s. Jonze has also made a moving, intimate documentary of Sendak, "Tell Them Anything You Want," that premieres on HBO on Wednesday.
"Maurice was our sort of mentor in this whole thing," said Jonze. "He was the one person that I really wanted to please. The thing that's so great about him is he wanted me, early on he said, `You need to make this your own. Don't worry about me, don't worry about the book, don't worry about what anyone else expects. You have to just make something bold and not pander to children and make something that's as dangerous for its time as the book was in its time.'"
Whatever the problems of children's literature, they're probably worse for children's movies. Sendak says you'd never "catch me at a kiddie movie."
Instead, he credits Europe for producing films faithful to childhood, like Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" and Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog."
"They broke that sound barrier a long time ago," said Sendak. "We've always been the prissy country."
Gripped by griefSpeaking with Sendak, it quickly becomes apparent how much he simply feels — how deep his passions run for writing, for children, for those close to him. In recent years, he's lost several very good friends — "like leaves falling off trees" — including his longtime partner, Dr. Eugene Glynn.
"I could not read, nor hear music," says Sendak. "Grief completely overwhelmed me."
His brother Jack and sister Natalie — perhaps the two people most important in forging Sendak's creative life — are also gone now. Sendak recalls his own childhood as sickly and unlooked-after, but extremely lucky for his siblings. Jack, older by five years, often created things — drawings, toys — with his younger brother, sitting with him while he was sick in bed.
"I will never get over their loss," says Sendak. "I don't want to get over their loss."
But just a week earlier, Sendak says, he began to come out of his depression. It started by picking up "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens, one of his great loves, and was followed by listening to Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
"I'm coming back to life — and the movie of `Wild Things' and everything is life-enhancing," says the author. "One looks for signs and symptoms of what is good and what is bad, what is pulling you down and what is holding it up. It's Mozart, but I haven't listened to him carefully for a long time. Now he's back in my life with a vengeance. ... And there's Charles Dickens."
Max at 50Sendak has two books in the works — the "old thrill" is back, he says. One is, at this point, purely text and a tribute to his brother. The other is illustrated and about a boy who "unfortunately for him happened to look like and be a pig."
Max, of "Wild Things," would at this point be around 50. Sendak has previously joked that he imagines him still living with his mother and in therapy. He notes, though, that he's perfectly free to revise that vision.
"If I had a preference, he would be an artist," says Sendak. "He would be an artist and it could be in any profession — in painting, in illustrating, in writing, in music. Oh, God, if he were a great pianist, I would be so happy!"