One of the more significant and highly anticipated literary collaborations of recent years isn't even a book—it's a movie. Where the Wild Things Are, based on Maurice Sendak's classic picture book, is slated for major motion picture release in mid-2009. The collaborators on the screenplay are director Spike Jonze and author Dave Eggers, though the pair consulted with Sendak throughout the screenwriting process. And the film will carry a blockbuster of a tie-in—and it's not the book the film is based on: it is a solo novel, written by Eggers (working title: The Wild Things) inspired by Sendak's iconic tale, to be published by Ecco Press.
With such a high-profile double-header, the stakes are high for Eggers as well as for Sendak, whose 1963 book has sold over 19 million copies worldwide, according to HarperCollins. Will Eggers's audience buy his recasting of a children's story? Will the movie's pedigree translate to ticket sales, and will those sales move books?
Ecco will time the release of Eggers's book, described by publisher Dan Halpern as an adult, standalone novel, to coincide with Warner Brothers' release of the film. The publisher acquired world rights to the novel about a year ago, in a deal that involved not only Eggers but lawyers from Warner Brothers, since a tie-in book was already part of the movie contract. Intellectual property rights of both Sendak and HarperCollins (Where the Wild Things Are was originally published by Harper & Row) also had a bearing on terms. As Halpern put it, negotiations involved “many different moving parts.” But the goal was always to have any tie-in book published by a Harper imprint, per the preexisting deal between Warner Brothers and Harper, which owns publication rights to the Wild Things franchise. Sendak, who has since been affiliated with other houses, agreed “there was something correct” about Harper doing Eggers's book.
The Wild Things novelization, Sendak says, was all Eggers's idea. A plan had always been in place to have some kind of book come out to “add to the noise of the movie,” he says, but at first it wasn't clear what the book would actually be. Once tie-in talk began in earnest, Sendak, who had grown close to Eggers during work on the screenplay, began a campaign to have Eggers do it, and Eggers stepped up and agreed, broaching the idea of the novel.
Sendak expects to read the manuscript once Eggers finishes it; whether he'll have any input will be up to Eggers—though “knowing him and how we've worked previously, he'll hear me out.” (In terms of the screenplay, Sendak says some of his suggestions were taken up, others “blatantly ignored.”) Halpern says the manuscript is due to be delivered any day.
For Eggers, who since S&S's 2000 publication of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has published all of his books in hardcover under the McSweeney's aegis, moving to Harper is a departure, but as McSweeney's publisher Eli Horowitz put it, “This is a very specific project. It's not like [McSweeney's] won't be doing [future] books.”
Long Road to the Screen
Efforts to bring Sendak's story to the big screen have been ongoing for the past 15 years or so, since John Carls, an executive at Orion in the early 1990s, contacted Sendak about considering a studio deal. Subsequently, the two created a production company, but Sendak reportedly had difficulty finding writers and directors he felt comfortable with, and turnover in top management at several involved studios continued to stall the project. Ultimately, Sendak “hit the jackpot,” he says, with Jonze and Eggers.
A spokesperson for Eggers, who declined comment for this article, said the author isn't allowed by Warner Brothers to discuss the movie at this point, but Jonze and Eggers have reportedly turned Sendak's 300-word book into a screenplay of over 100 pages. The story follows eight-year-old runaway Max, who boards a boat for the island of the Wild Things, where he has a series of adventures. A large part of the screenplay is said to involve Max's journey home, and the film will also include a new take on Max's relationship with the titular creatures. The film will reportedly combine live actors with digital animation and puppets.
Halpern, who bought the book on description only, clearly relishes the opportunity to publish Eggers, declaring that the iconoclastic author “has a vision and doesn't deviate from it.” Though the book will bear the Ecco imprimatur, Halpern says they'll work with Eggers and McSweeney's to produce it.
At 79, Sendak's anticipation for the movie and the book is palpable. But he's circumspect, about the movie, at least, pointing to what he sees as a critical difference between the two mediums. It took time for Where the Wild Things Are to find an audience, he recalls; “the movie has a weekend to live.”