I’m not very good at facing reality. I don’t think I ever have been. When I was a kid I would stage elaborate battles with enormous numbers of tiny plastic soldiers. I built up a series of forts and walls on either side of a table, and positioned all the troops and then I took turns firing missiles at each side until the battlefield was a wasteland of upturned blocks and upended soldiers. I had a friend who came over and we would get out piles of blankets and furniture and build a tent city of tunnels and caves that filled my whole room, then we would chase each other around them. When I went to his house he had an awesome section that ran down the side of a hill to a creek. The section itself was a forest filled with trails, and fallen down trees, and hidden dens. Whenever we played hide and seek down there it turned into a weird experience more to do with feeling lonely and slightly scared, than with chasing each other about.
It was this same friend that introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. I was immediately, and totally hooked. Shortly after this introduction I convinced my mother to take me to Huysar’s Bookshop which was on Victoria Street in Wellington just around the corner from the McDonalds on Manners Mall. Huysar was a fairly grumpy man, but he sold the red box with the books inside it for the Basic D&D package.
The incredible thing about D&D and all the other roleplaying games was that it was simply an adult sitting down and working out all the rules for continuing a childhood game into teenage and adulthood. Once you become too self-conscious to run around pretending you have a sword and that you are chasing a monster, and once you want a bit of story and emotional involvement where do you go? There were a lot of rules in these roleplaying games, but kids aren’t bothered by rules – they’re like petrol heads talking about the capabilities of various engines. I suppose roleplaying also filled a niche that video games probably fill for a lot of teenagers now.
I played D&D, and Call of Cthulhu, and James Bond, and Twilight 2000, and Paranoia, and Middle Earth, and Cyberpunk and some game to do with vampires (naturally). There were dozens of different worlds you could flee into and I willingly plunged into them all. I played out immature, teenage versions of Conan, Sean Connery, Boromir, and Raymond Chandler detectives. It was enormous fun. Wonderful stuff. You didn’t of course play it alone, you essentially formed little clubs and played these games together, each person a different character, interacting and horsing around, and sulking when you got a bad dice roll.
But it ended. There came a time when I began to feel self-conscious about pursuing this hobby, when I began to feel like I should probably be actually trying to live my life instead of pretending to live another one. Slowly the roleplaying dropped away. Of course it was replaced by other fantasies. I joined other clubs in which young men in their twenties dream. One was a writers’ group that met once a week to exchange stories. We were pretending to be undiscovered authors in that club. Another one was a band. My latest one is a blog.
Which is how I get to Where the Wild Things Are. The movie. Cathy and I went and saw it when it came out and I wasn’t really sure what I thought about it. A couple of months later we got it out on video and watched it again and, well, I sort of still don’t know what I think about it as a version of the book, but as a movie I like it.
I like it because it is a movie full of loneliness, and neediness and anxiety about love. I also love it because it is about trying to escape those feelings by creating magical worlds, and the worlds that are created in this movie are fantastic. The massive, round stick fort, and the secret cave city are incredible visual high points, but there are plenty of other places to escape to: the igloo, Max’s bedroom, the belly of a beast… to name a few. Not to mention, of course, that the whole centre of the movie is an escape into a fantasy world. Sendak was probably right to criticise the screenplay for departing from the book here. In the book Max’s room is transformed by his imagination without him having to go anywhere, but in the movie Max flees his house and runs out into the night before making his escape into imagination. It was the same with all the silly roleplaying games; you created fantastic worlds right there in your boring, suburban living room.
The problem with escape is that you take yourself with you when you go. You end up in some new, magical place with new, magical friends, but you find yourself – even if you adopt a disguise, or take on a persona – acting yourself. You might exaggerate aspects of yourself, and downplay other parts of your personality, but it’s always you underneath it all, bloody you, making the same stupid mistakes, and saying the wrong, hurtful things again and again and again, and you know what? This magical world isn’t so magical, and these magical people aren’t so magical and….
You get the idea.
You smash up the place of escape, and shout at the new friends, and wind up back where you started.
With the ones who really love you.
If you’re lucky your tea is still warm when you get back.