Where the Wild Mormons Are

Bored in VernalMormon 14 Comments

I took my 10-year-old and 2 friends to see the movie “Where the Wild Things Are,” and I watched enthralled as they yawned, ate candy, threw popcorn, and cheered when it was finally over. Apparently the film didn’t contain the action required to capture their attention. But I found much to ponder and enjoy.

“I have only one subject. The question I am obsessed with is: How do children survive?” –Maurice Sendak

Beside my admiration for Sendak and his storybook, which was read to each of my children at bedtime for over 15 years, I can relate to his question. For I, too, have an obsession: How do Mormons survive? My blog posts often deal with this theme, and I love to observe the many different ways my LDS brothers and sisters and I struggle to make sense of our place in and our relationship to the Church. As I watched the film adaptation of Sendak’s book, I saw insights into the human psyche which are particularly noticeable in Mormon wards and stakes.

“Wild Things” portrays a young boy, Max, who takes a trip in his imagination to an island upon which dwell several larger-than-life characters. Each wild thing represents traits which children (and adults!) must face within themselves. I found it particularly fascinating to compare these wild things to Mormon stereotypes.

Within a Church environment, there are unconscious needs, frustrations, and fears found in ourselves and others. When Max arrives at his island, he finds the creatures in need of a king. Although Max feels powerless, he fashions himself their ruler, imbued with magical powers which he promises to use to help his subjects. A crown is given him, taken from the bones of others who have gone before. In my mind I compared this with the Bishop of a ward. Ward members are often anxious to create a bishop with extraordinary spiritual powers that can aid them in their struggles. The bishop steps up to the expectations as Max did, although he may have inner doubts or inadequacies. I saw some interesting parallels when I compared the wild things to stereotypical LDS types:

Carol, a male with a decidedly female name, has destructive impulses and is insecure. He needs and wants certainty in his life, and this is why he searches for and welcomes a king. The other wild things note that they like Carol better when there is a king. Many of our Church members find it easier to have strong leaders and clearly defined commandments to follow. It is simpler, for example, to remove a second earring than to explore and implement the meaning of a “modest” pair.

Alexander is never listened to. He has an opinion, but it is overlooked and unheard by others. He corresponds to the Church member who sits on the back pew, the one who is always called to the Nursery and never serves in the callings to which he secretly aspires. But indeed, there are parts of all Church members which are discounted. There is a tension between wanting to be heard and wanting to be obedient.

Judith is defensive and judgmental. Her voice was particularly familiar to me in Church settings. Fault-finders are found in every ward. Sometimes this is never voiced but manifests as an inner frustration. Many members are critical of leaders or those who work alongside with them in callings. To curb this tendency, we admonish ourselves and others not to speak evil of the Lord’s anointed.

Ira is a sad, mournful fellow with a large, red nose. This Church member longs for comfort. He or she finds great solace in doctrines of the Church which promise an eternal reward and an eternal family, but tends to shy away from the more unsettling, contradictory aspects of our faith. On the other hand, they are often involved in LDS humanitarian causes and personal service to their fellow Saints. This is a good example of how our inner demons can have “wild,” out-of-control, or overwhelming characteristics and can be used in positive and negative ways.

K.W. is the soothing female type. She is the one who is fulfilling her womanly role, and ward members look to her for help and support. She is found in the female callings, mothering the Primary children, encouraging the youth, befriending the sisters. K.W. is unhappy when the significant people in her life are not getting along. She longs for recognition and appreciation for the efforts that she makes for the kingdom.

“The Bull” is a dark, iconic figure. In the film he never speaks. To me he represents the rarely seen less-active members of the ward. Every stake has a great number of them. Though they are unknown and faceless to us, they are very large and present as we conduct meetings and programs to discuss and serve them.

Douglas was one of the most intriguing characters for me to watch. He is the enabler, the supporter. At the ward level, we have seen those individuals who don’t describe themselves as leaders, but insist that what is needed are more “Indians.” They are the followers, the lifeblood of the Church, yet in the end Douglas has his arm ripped off. It can seem that the more we try to serve and obey, the more we are taken advantage of.

Watching “Where the Wild Things Are” with a Mormon perspective was comforting to me. Although Max can represent the Bishop of a ward or a Church leader in his relationship with the creatures, he also teaches us something about ourselves. We all experience conflict in a Church setting. We deal with many emotions and personality types, within ourselves and rubbing shoulders with our fellow Saints. The temptation is to pretend that we know what we are doing, that we have magical powers, that we are in control. But we are not. We find ourselves in danger of being eaten by giant emotional forces. We must come to terms with our tendencies to be critical, to disappear in the back row, to take over, to go inactive. As we confront and befriend these shadow sides of ourselves, we realize that the human psyche is complex and beautiful. I like to see members move toward becoming more accepting of the wild things in themselves and others.

In Jungian terms the shadow represents the repressed in our life. At midlife, psychologist Murray Stein says the shadow or repressed, “…returns and needs to be dealt with in a new way, because the seeds of psychological renewal and of possible future directions for life lie hidden within it… When the unconscious erupts at midlife, what first comes most strongly to the fore are rejected pieces of personality that were left undeveloped and cast aside sometime in the past, for one reason or another, in the rapid movement forward of personal history. Life still clings strongly to them. And actually the seeds of the future lie in these neglected figures, which now return and call for restoration and attention.” Robert Johnson says that there is “gold” in the shadow. This gold needs to be mined and brought to the surface. There is much positive that can be gained from the shadow, but there is much resistance.

Latter-day Saints seem to resist acceptance of the wild things within them more than most. In our quest to become perfect, we are afraid of those things inside of us which may rage out of control if we give them any recognition. Johnson reminds us that “to own one’s shadow is whole making.” He also tells us, “No one can be anything but a partial being, ravaged by doubt and loneliness, unless he has close contact with his shadow. The shadow consists of those aspects of your character that belong to you but that have not been given any conscious place in your life. … Assimilating one’s shadow is the art of catching up on those facets of life that have not been lived out adequately.”

As committed Latter-day Saints, there is so much work to be done to discover our spiritual heritage and our relationship with Deity. There are many moments of bliss and joy, but there is also pain, sorrow, and struggle. As in one of the film’s most touching moments, sometimes there are no words for the emotions which well up inside of us. At those times, we can only howl, and it helps if we have someone to howl with us.

Comments 14

  1. I like your analysis of the movie versus wards, but I gotta say, that movie was one of the WORST movies of all time. Jonze took a beloved children’s classic and turned it into a movie that is largely unsuitable for children. All three of my kids–17, 14 and 7–hated it as well, and they all love the book. Biggest disappointment since Wall-E (only my 7 year-old enjoyed this turkey). Hollywood is turning out some real turkeys lately…

    But, still, nice analysis.

  2. Thanks BiV. I wasn’t sure about this one (mostly because, as Frecklefoot got at, I really saw little connection between the book and the movie) but I really want to see it now, not because it’s based on the book, but just for the sake of the movie itself.

    And there are a LOT of movies that are A LOT worse. First, Armageddon, and almost anything with Ben-a-fleck. Second, Ghostrider, and almost anything with Nic Cage. πŸ˜€

  3. Well, I didn’t think it was a turkey at all. I think the problem comes in when it doesn’t match expectations. When you see that it is a commentary on children’s reactions to the world through symbolism (and relating it to the child in us all), it is enjoyable. However, I did notice a lot of places where more humor could have been added, more action, etc, that could have made it very suitable for general audiences including children and teenaged boys πŸ™‚ It’s interesting to read what Sendak had to say concerning his reactions and feelings about what Jonze did with his book. (He liked it.)

  4. Nice post – I like it.
    Great book – I’ve always loved it
    Terrible movie – worst one I’ve seen in 2009 (and we see quite a few). My kids hated it too.

  5. If someone hates Wall-E and hates this movie, I will definitely see this movie. Wall-E was genius, like Castaway was genius but a lot of people didn’t get it. Not enough ‘splosions, I guess.

  6. I’m extremely interested to hear that there are people who HATED it. I can understand someone being a little bored, or not fully understanding the purpose or symbolism, or even being disappointed. But there are elements of genius to this film. I would be fascinated Mike, and anyone else who had this strong reaction, to come back and explain what kinds of things made it “terrible” for you.

  7. The film had me in tears nearly the whole time. I hadn’t related it at all to the church. For me, I was thinking of my young son and the crazy emotions he must always be going through. I ached for him b/c I know how hard those feelings are to deal with.

    The film didn’t keep my kids’ attention, however. And my dad who saw it with us thought it was horribly boring and pointless. He doesn’t even remember the book though (I wasn’t aware of that until afterwards)! And he’s at a different stage of life, so I guess he doesn’t remember childhood as vividly as I do. πŸ™‚

  8. I really enjoy all types of movies. I like classic movies. I like sci-fi. I like action films. I like character films. I like foreign subtitled films. I even liked District 9, even though everyone else with me hated that one.

    For this movie, several things I didn’t like:

    1) For something billed as a kids’ movie, it started out on a really dark premise, with broken families, etc. While this is actually close to reality, it was nowhere near as whimsical as the book might have you think. It’s ultimately up to the director how he/she wants to portray and develop the story, but I didn’t think it had to be as dark for kids

    2) The effects were actually really cool. The animation was great.

    3) While the characters were developed much as you so aptly captured, it was done in a very slow and tedious manner. I love long movies. I could have watched the Lord of the Rings movies for twice as long. Most movies end before I want them to. In this one, by the half-way point, I found myself looking at my watch wondering when it would end. It took f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get anywhere.

    4) I didn’t want to prejudice anyone I was with (I saw it with 4 of my own kids, several of their friends, my wife, and some grandparents) as I tend to think movies are great that most other people hate. When we talked about it afterward, it was fairly unanimous that everyone hated it. They didn’t particularly articulate why, although the adults tended to think it was a bit dark and boring for a “kid’s show”.

    Overall, the story is loved since I was a kid. It’s very short so obviously a lot has to be added to it to make a movie. The effects were wonderful. But the pacing was so slow that it overshadowed the good. And you got the point of the characters fairly early on – so rehashing the character development over and over just bored me to tears. They could have done so much more…

    Just my 2 cents.

  9. Post

    Thanks, Mike, for taking the time to analyze what you didn’t like about it.

    Broken homes: kids have to deal with that one every day. Just like they have to deal with the wild emotions inside themselves. I think adding that element (the book didn’t have it) was important for the movie.

    Character development: I agree with everything you said. Apparently I just enjoyed that aspect πŸ™‚ but I can see how it might be tedious. My daughter and her friends certainly were bored by it.

  10. This is an interesting post and I think right on in most parts. I deal with many former and disaffected Mormons and what I have observed is this: the Shadow is so completely quashed as a member of the Church, that when they finally leave, they almost let it engulf them.

    In (rudimentary) developmental terms, Mormons who leave the faith often go into what they should have done at 12–17 years of age: their teenage rebellion against authority. BUT…what happens when you reach age 12 as teens in Mormondom? That’s right… The religion’s tenants and the consequences of opposition become more serious, more stringent; the shame and fear-based teachings get amped up, become more pronounced in order to maintain control of the Wild Shadow (to mix a metaphor) within.

    I remember terrifying lessons on sexual feelings and the presence of Satan–if I had sexual feelings, “He” was close at hand. How horrible! One teacher told of a time she had “gone too far” with her then-husband while they were engaged (she was 19, I was an enthralled 13 year old). That night, she felt a demonic presence in her bedroom and a pressure on her chest pressing down on her, as if some unseen force was laying on her. She also felt a force, like a hand, encircling her wrist, squeezing painfully. Sexual metaphor aside, this terrified me as a teen. TO THIS DAY, I can’t have my arm hanging off of my bed at night while I sleep.

    Didn’t keep me from being sexual, but it sure changed my sleep habits. Night lights became my friend.

    The point is, we all have a Shadow and in the culture of “Sunshine in My Soul Today” Mormonism, there is no room for acknowledgment of said Shadow. This keeps many Mormons stunted developmentally. This is good news for the Faith. If it had a bunch of rebellious, questioning-authority teenagers as members, it would last about a week (the back-talk alone would kill the apologists). If Mormonism can effectively keep a hold on a young man until his mission–the ultimate indoctrination process, then it has a better shot of keeping him. And young women? They use the fact that being married in the temple and having children is the most glorious of callings. If you don’t remain “pure”, no respectable RM will have you–you are sullied; you are unclean. It’s a daunting task, especially if you have a healthy libido. Trust me.

    Once an individual has quashed their natural tendencies to question, rebel and think for themselves, they are much easier to control. Questioning is no longer an option or priority; raising all of those kids and managing the callings is where the focus lies.

    But there are some, a few, who JUST can’t get that rebellion out of their craw…the thinkers, the intellectuals, the questioning…and the fact that some of these people (like you it seems) stay involved in the Church is interesting and fascinating to me.

    For me? I had to be a Wild Thing with a little Mormon sprinkled in, as opposed to a Mormon with a little Wild scattered about. It just feels more…natural.

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