The Hidden Adult Themes of "Where the Wild Things Are"

It’s an absolute fixture in children’s libraries worldwide and upon its publication in 1963 was awarded the Caldecott Medal, a distinguished award given to the year’s best picture book for children as decided by the Association for Library Service to Children. In the years since, it has inspired countless toys and children’s games. But after "Where the Wild Things Are" became a big-budget Hollywood adaptation, people finally began to ask if it's really a children's story.


The fact that "Where the Wild Things Are" is primarily made up of author Maurice Sendak’s illustrations certainly endears it to children but its themes of isolation, growth, and dreams has spoken to adults for years. 

Three years ago, Hollywood press circulated rumors that the film had to be completely reshotafter Warner Bros and Jonze began clashing. The word was that Jonze had shot the film with adults primarily in mind and did not address a children’s audience enough. Whatever changes were made to the original version of the film, it’s still being reviewed in some cases as an adult adventure masquerading as a children’s story. Analyze the background of its author and illustrator, Sendak, and you may find this isn’t terribly surprising.

Already 35 years old when the book was published, Sendak was downright defiant in approaching questions about the film’s appropriateness for children. What’s more, in a documentary featured on HBO, Sendak claimed he didn't “believe in childhood.” Sendak’s telling the New York Times in 2008 that he had never revealed his homosexuality to his parents and “all I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy” further accentuates some of the potentially-adult themes explored in "Where the Wild Things Are." Same goes for some of the Holocaust references and sexuality in another of his picture books, "In the Night Kitchen."

To be sure, "Where the Wild Things Are," both the book and film, will continue to entertain countless children, as will the countless toys it inspired. But when it comes to the adult audience, they might share a more visceral, profound response to the story, and that may not be entirely unintended.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Big Think in 2009. 

Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Physicists find new state of matter that can supercharge technology

Scientists make an important discovery for the future of computing.

Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new state of matter called "topological superconductivity".
  • The state can lead to important advancements in quantum computing.
  • Utilizing special particles that emerge during this state can lead to error-free data storage and blazing calculation speed.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

How to heal trauma with meaning: A case study in emotional evolution

As tempting as it may be to run away from emotionally-difficult situations, it's important we confront them head-on.

Videos
  • Impossible-sounding things are possible in hospitals — however, there are times when we hit dead ends. In these moments, it's important to not run away, but to confront what's happening head-on.
  • For a lot of us, one of the ways to give meaning to terrible moments is to see what you can learn from them.
  • Sometimes certain information can "flood" us in ways that aren't helpful, and it's important to figure out what types of data you are able to take in — process — at certain times.
Keep reading Show less