Ten years ago, like a lot of the rest of the country, I found myself intrigued by the story of Chris McCandless as depicted in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” My reactions to it were perhaps predictably conflicted. On the one hand, I’m one of the large multitude of people who, especially as a young man, was very attracted to the idea of doing something extreme—hiking the AT straight through, walking across the U.S., that sorta thing. I loved to think about how long I would have lasted had I been one of the guys on Stephen King’s Long Walk, or how far I could have run with Forest Gump. While not attracted to the idea of trying to live “in the wild” for any period of time, there was something about the romance of McCandless’s quest that I did find compelling.
On the other hand, I couldn’t help but picture the guy as being a member of the arrogant- self-righteous-mystical-I-walk-alone-but-want-you-to-know-it tribe. As one of my friends (who was reading the book at the same time) remarked, “I knew tons of guys like this in high school. Always so self-righteous, always so full of themselves. I didn’t like them then, and I don’t want to read about them now.” I knew what she was talking about. In a way similar to the old equation I used to hear in the late 1970s--“I like the Doors; I just don’t like the people I have to hang out with to listen to them”--I liked the romance of extreme self-reliance, but I didn’t like the people I had to hang out with to dream about it.
My primary problem with Krakauer’s account, however, wasn’t with the representation of McCandless so much as with Krakauer’s over romanticism of it. If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably know what I mean: Krakauer not only writes an apologia for McCandless by telling a story about his own youthful extremism that makes both their acts seem like reasonable masculine rites of passage, but he also creates elaborate explanations to explain McCandless’s ultimate demise. Krakauer’s explanations—which now demand a great deal of scrutiny—ultimately work to suggest that McCandless’s journey was a remarkable masculine adventure, one only foiled by a few very unfortunate bad turns. In my mind, Krakauer’s account went way too far to make McCandless’s “great Alaskan adventure” appear admirable with no inkling that it might have been simultaneously reckless and damaging to others.
It was with this mindset that I went to see Sean Penn’s treatment in the film version of Into the Wild. I was more than pleasantly surprised. Indeed, were I to be forced to recommend the book or the film, this is one of those odd cases where I would vote for the film hand’s down. It’s not because the film provides a fuller story; no, the written word can always provide a richer, more detailed account of any narrative; it’s more that I simply like the overall “message” I took from the film.
Before I tackle the film’s thesis, however, I want to make a few comments about the film itself. First, the performances: Emile Hirsch, the kid who plays McCandless . . . oh, what a surprise that guy is. Not only was he wonderful at playing the angry young man (a relatively easy task), but his turns at being wide-eyed with wonder, and desperate with starvation were equally impressive. Hal Holbrook was fitting as a wistful old man; Catherine Keener made me want to meet an aging hippie; Kristen Stewart turned her five minutes as a 16 year old hippie version of Liz Phair into a home run; and William Hurt almost scared me as an emotionally hardened father who eventually breaks down with the disappearance of his son. While my son found Penn’s use of multiple styles to be a bit much, I found the changes appropriate and sometimes downright moving. Moreover, I was thankful that Penn chose not to pan on landscape shots for long periods of time. While “nature” was part of the story, this was clearly a film about McCandless and about relationships between people. Finally, Eddie Vedder’s original soundtrack was far more effective that I expected. His voice was made for the themes of this film.
(As a side note about what happens to careers when one plays a particular type of role too often: when the film began and the opening credits were showing, my son and I were oooing and ahhing at the number of actors that we like a great deal and were surprised to see in this film. When Vince Vaughn’s name came up, I caught myself feeling disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is funny, but I didn’t want him in this film. My son, getting it right faster than I could, turned to me and whispered, “He plays an aging frat boy in this movie.” He didn’t, of course, but his role was unbelievable for just that reason. What a wasted talent.)
Back to the film, and why I liked it ideologically. Compared to the book, this film emphasized McCandless’s growth as a human being. While Krakauer made me feel as if McCandless reaches his fulfillment in death, Penn makes me believe that McCandless began to understand how he could be a better human being, living with other human beings, just before he died. In Penn’s hands, McCandless’s death becomes a tragedy rather than a redemption. In short, while Penn ultimately romanticizes the growth of a young man which tragically ends in death, Krakauer emphasizes a romantic life that could perhaps only have met fulfillment as a story in death. Penn’s story is a redemptive tragedy; Krakauer’s a heroic narrative. Given the choice of which narrative I think helps us all live better lives amongst other humans, I choose the former.