Saturday, October 24, 2009

When the World Suddenly Seems too Big

There's a moment in life, usually around adolescence, when we realize that our childhood has ended and things can't ever go back to the way they were. We learn that we can't always make everything alright by saying sorry or drawing a picture (not that those things ever fail to help a little). That there are some things that are going to be terrible and cause us hurt no matter what we do about them. 

I was so thoroughly impressed with the way Where the Wild Things dealt with this harsh subject matter. The film uses the imaginative retreat of the book as a metaphor for a child coming to terms with this difficult life lesson. It never strays from the issue, never tries to coat it, and never loses touch with the tough emotional struggle that goes along with it. 

There's a line in the Arcade Fire song used in the advertising of the film that sums up the movie very well. The song, addressed to children, warns "Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up." For many of us, that's how we feel in those years between being a child and finally feeling comfortable with the freedom of our late teenage years. I was surprise how geared this movie was toward that age group...not really at all toward the under 12 crowd. 

Sure, the movie is full of beautiful images, talking muppets, sweeping sets and other marvels. But all of that takes a back seat to the moving performance of the kid playing Max. At its heart, this movie is about a boy dealing with issues of a splintered family, loneliness, and general fears about a world that suddenly seems too big to shut out of the forts he builds out of bedding or snow. And while there is a deep sadness to the movie, there is also a overwhelming sense of hope. Unlike most kid-fare or Hollywood story lines, the message isn't that everything will be okay. The message is very clear. Everything will not be okay or work out how you always want, but in the end there is enough good to outweigh the bad as long as we're considerate and accepting. 

I also just finished a very good book called Ronia, The Robber's Daughter by Astrid Lindgren of Pippi Longstocking fame. I picked up an old hardcover copy this book at my local library's sale two weekends ago for the sweet price of 25¢ -- I felt like I was stealing. Though a vastly different story than the modern tale in Where the Wild Things Are, this light fantasy set long ago in the deep woods of Scandinavia, also deals quite a bit with the end of childhood. 

Like Max, Ronia struggles with a parent's actions that she doesn't agree with, causing them both much pain. Also like Max, Ronia is wild and imaginative and a bit stubborn when the world doesn't bow to her plans for it. Along the way, she learns that compromise is part of growing up. The messages are very different, but then again, I think the audience for this is much younger. It's like an advance warning where as Where the Wild Things is really a document to help kids having already gone through it comes to terms with this period of life.

As childhood gets further away, for some reason many of us tend to look at it as such a free and easy time. Though it can be, I think many people often forget that it's also the time when many of life's most difficult lessons are learned. This is a theme I think about often. It plays out a lot in my own writing and the novel I'm currently working on is no exception. It was nice to encounter two pieces in the same week that dealt with it so well.

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