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NEW FILM WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE SENDS PARENTS INTO A 'RUMPUS'. The Observer. This article appeared on p24 of the Focus section on Sunday 18 October 2009. Written by Vanessa Thorpe and Anushka Asthana.

A modern morality tale, Sendak's story sees little Max reject his parental home for a world where he can become "king of all wild things". It has been brought to the screen this autumn by director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers, who adapted the screenplay. Their film has won plaudits from many critics, but some parents have been troubled by the ferocity of the story, and by the power of Jonze's new interpretation. As a result, they are advising other families to stay away.

The protest, or "wild rumpus" to borrow a phrase from the book, that has greeted the release of the film echoes disquiet about the bleak message embedded in Disney/Pixar's latest animated release. Entitled UP, it has been viewed by many parents as anything but.

A handful of American educationalists, including Professor Holly Willett, of Rowan University in New Jersey, have rushed to defend Sendak's 1963 book, but the new film stands accused of presenting unsettling images that, although popular, are likely to breed nightmares. A public debate about whether or not a child's appetite for being frightened should be indulged is now in full swing.

"This is a classic hero's story in which the protagonist undertakes a journey and returns a wiser person," Willett, an expert on children's literature, has argued in the American press. And Sendak's original tale has certainly stood the test of time: it is a reliable classic on the shelves of middle-class toddlers on both sides of the Atlantic and in 1983 composer Oliver Knussen turned it into a one-act opera that has joined the modern repertoire.

"I remember reading the Sendak book to my children and it frightened the pyjamas off them," Roger McGough, the poet, said this weekend. "But they went back to it. It is a scariness that you can control and that ends happily."

McGough has had similar problems with his own children's poem, THE LESSON, in which a teacher inflicts cartoon-style violence on his pupils. "I was a teacher myself when I wrote it and it was a joke, but some parents now consider it inappropriate and I can see that contexts change," said McGough. But he points out that children's stories, from Snow White onwards, have always contained danger and death. "It is just part of the landscape. Although I don't think a writer should set out to scare children."

The traditional fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm are packed with disturbing twists, while the appeal of Roald Dahl's work is inseparable from the dark side of his imagination. Dahl's story THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX is the subject of another film adaptation by a cult American director this autumn. Wes Anderson's film opened the London Film Festival on Wednesday and is full of nature "red in tooth and claw". Like Dahl's book, it tells of a family of foxes besieged by evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who are armed with guns, industrial diggers and explosives. Anderson has defended the "adult content" in his film by saying that children in his audience should be able to ask their parents about their worries as part of their learning process.

Willett argues that a good storyteller "knows that kids have many difficult feelings, as well as feelings that adults have forgotten about", and so does not shy away from dark material.

Jonze and Eggers have fought hard for five years to retain the more troubling content in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Eggers received repeated notes from concerned producers about the screenplay. "There is a whitewashed, idealised version of childhood that is popular in movies. It has the kids sitting neatly in their chairs, talking with some adult, in a sarcastic, overly sophisticated but polite way a concoction that bears no resemblance to an actual kid," he explains.

In defence of the new film, Michael Phillips, critic for the Chicago Tribune, has argued that it is grown-ups who are more disturbed by its darkness.

"I suspect kids will go for it more than their parents; in my experience, it's parents who tend to get fussed up about material they perceive, often wrongly, as 'too dark' or difficult. There's a certain amount of pain in Where the Wild Things Are, but it's completely earned. The movie fills you with all sorts of feelings, and I suspect children will recognise those feelings as their own," he writes. In an article in this month's edition of the journal The Psychologist, psychoanalyst Richard Gottlieb argues that this book and other works by Sendak are "fascinating studies of intense emotions disappointment, fury, even cannibalistic rage and their transformation through creative activity".

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