‘Where The Wild Things Are’ Author Maurice Sendak: A Big-Screen Tribute

The children's book creator inspired filmmakers and actors through his honesty and imagination.
By Fallon Prinzivalli, with reporting by Ryan J. Downey

Maurice Sendak and Spike Jonze
Photo: Theo Wargo/ Getty Images

Children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died Tuesday (May 8) as a result of complications from a stroke. He's best-known for revolutionizing the children's book genre with the surprising success of "Where the Wild Things Are." Far from popular children's fare like "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" or "Green Eggs and Ham," the dark fantasy focused on Max, a rowdy boy in a wolf suit, and his adventures with the hairy beasts of his imagination.

Sendak spread his influence from children's books to the big screen when filmmaker Spike Jonze took on the ambitious project of turning "Wild Things" into a motion picture. Previously described as "unfilmable," Jonze was sure to stay true to Sendak's vision and yet bring his own ideas into the story and reflect how the book affected him. The author had much involvement in the project, acting as a producer and helping to steer Jonze in the right direction.

"[Sendak] said from the beginning that you have to make it dangerous — make something that respects kids and doesn't talk down to them, or if not, it wasn't worth doing," Jonze said in a featurette for the film.

In an industry where beloved children's films are routinely turned into money-making machines, Sendak focused on the children. His other credits include creating "Seven Little Monsters," the children's television series that followed monsters as they learned about life. He also acted as a co-creator and writer on the Nick Jr. hit show "Little Bear," which follows a young bear and his adventures with his animal friends.

But his classic story of Max and those monsters who "roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth" spans its influence across generations, even inspiring the stars of "Where the Wild Things Are." Lauren Ambrose, who voiced KW in the film, told MTV News, "I read the book as a kid; it was read to me. I read it to my kid now. One of my best friends from childhood has a giant tattoo of Max with a fork in his hand down her back. It was like a big, big deal, deeply embedded in our collective psyche. And also, on her back."

Forest Whitaker, who voices Ira in the film, echoed this sentiment, saying that he first read it as a kid and began to really appreciate the story as he got older, finally reading it to his own kids. He didn't realize when he was younger that the popular book was made up of only nine sentences.

"It's weird, because I didn't really count," Whitaker laughed. "But I think, as a kid, I knew that the story was more in the pictures."

Following his adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are," Jonze co-directed the documentary "Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak." In a chat about that film — which includes intimate conversations with the author about his life — the director called Sendak an inspiration.

"I find his imagination is certainly inspiring. I think that's what really drew me to him," Jonze explained. "But what I find deeply inspiring is his ferocious honesty and his fearlessness to be honest both as a person, as a friend and as a mentor in helping us make this movie. And the thing about him is, he has no ability of small talk or chitchat. He wants to engage in something real. He is who he is and he doesn't have the energy to pretend to be someone else."

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