This past Saturday I took my three oldest sons to see the movie Where the Wild Things Are. Some Christians are all exercised about the fact that the movie might be too frightening for children. They’re wrong. The movie is not a great one, but that’s not the reason why. As a matter of fact, Where the Wild Things Are fails because it’s not scary enough for your kids.
And there’s something there Chrisians can learn about children, horror, and the gospel.
From the time my sons were babies I’ve read to them the Maurice Sendak classic picture book. They love it, and so do I. They’d sit attentively through Goodnight Moon, but they’d squeal “Let the wild rumpus start!” whenever we’d journey with Max to the place of the wild things.
Children, it turns out, aren’t as naive about evil as we assume they are. Children of every culture, and in every place, seem to have a built-in craving for monsters and dragons and “wild things.” The Maurice Sendak book appeals to kids because it tells them something about what they intuitively know is true. The world around them is scary. There’s a wildness out there. The Sendak book shows the terror of a little boy who is frightened by his own lack of self-control, and who conquers it through self-control, by becoming king of all the wild things.
The Sendak book, with its muted words but fantastic drawings, achieves this sense of wonder and wildness. The movie doesn’t. That’s because the movie tames the wild things too much. It’s not that they’re too scary for children. It’s that they’re not believable as scary. The dialogue sounds like it was lifted from an old episode of Thirtysomething, as the beasts talk through their psychodramas and jealousies and interpersonal offenses with one another. Kids will be entertained because the special effects are good. But they won’t “get it” deep inside like they do the book.
I’m amazed though by the way some Christians react to things like this. They furrow their brow because the Max character screams at this mother, and bites her, even though this is hardly glorified in the movie. They wag their heads at how “dark” the idea of this wild world is. Of course it is “dark.” The universe is dark; that’s why we need the Light of Galilee.
Where the Wild Things Are isn’t going to be a classic movie the way it is a classic book. But the Christian discomfort with wildness will be with us for a while. And it’s the reason too many of our children find Maurice Sendak more realistic than Sunday school.
Too many of our Bible study curricula for children declaw the Bible, excising all the snakes and dragons and wildness. We reduce the Bible to a set of ethical guidelines and a text on how gentle and kind Jesus is. The problem is, our kids know there are monsters out there. God put that awareness in them. They’re looking for a sheep-herding dragon-slayer, the One who can put all the wild things under His feet.
Your kids might be bored by the Wild Things movie. They won’t be bored by the Wild Things book. It’s their story, and mine. But read them the story of Max and his monsters, and then show them the Story they were knit together to love.
And let the wild rumpus start.