It is uncommon for a film to have a dramatic impact upon me. While I like film as a general rule and I enjoy discussing them with my friends and family, I generally reserve my highest praise with more than a little caution. To confess in public to a film having significant impact upon me is quite rare. In the case of a film based on a book, it is more likely for me to read the book first, and then see the film than the other way around. For whatever reason, Into the Wild happened in reverse. Of the films I have watched in the last year, Into the Wild is my favorite. Sean Penn adapted the film’s screenplay from the 1996 Jon Krakauer book of the same name.
Jon Krakauer has done this to me before. A little less than a year ago I read Krakauer’s chronicle about the fatal 1996 catastrophe atop Mt. Everest, Into Thin Air. I was so engrossed by the book that I read it almost straight through. I paused in reading it for only a few equally compelling diversions: to go to work at a new job; to enjoy Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s video travelogue of their motorcycle trip around the world, Long Way Round; and to walk the entire length of Clark Street with my friends on a beautiful late summer Saturday.
Into the Wild attempts to tell the end story of Christopher McCandless. In the spring of 1990 McCandless graduated a top student at Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation he abandoned plans to continue to law school, broke off communication with his family, gave away his savings and began traveling the continent. For two years he made his way through the American Southwest, the Dakotas and the Pacific Northwest. He alternated between settled periods where he would work a job and make friends and time spent living alone without money or human contact. His eventual goal was the wilds of Alaska where he died in August 1992.
Upon viewing the film, Whirl noted to me that the story of McCandless’ disappearance, death and discovery were front page news where she lived in Oregon. The story became national news as well after the 1991 Gulf War fell off of the daily news cycle. I was living in Germany at the time and unaware of McCandless’ impact. Krakauer’s book made McCandless a heroic figure to many. The abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail where McCandless camped in Alaska has become a tourist destination and a campground. Others are more critical. Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote: “I am exposed continually to what I will call the ‘McCandless Phenomenon.’ People, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent […] When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate.” I grew up the west and am not unsympathetic to that idea. The wild is unforgiving. The wild makes no special provisions for hope or transcendent experience.
There are several themes I find compelling in McCandless’ story without trespassing into hero-worship. McCandless and I would be close in age. We both traveled, often alone, into unknown territory around the same time. We both struggled with finding a purpose to our lives once unshackled from the expectations of family, school, friends and society. I never took the step of inventing a new life for myself– I could not, and cannot, loosen myself from the social bonds required by such a re-imagining. The romantic in me, the sentimentalist in me, the adventurer in me– still these are drawn by the possibility.
Krakauer’s wrote of the fatal mistakes on Everest with clarity and sympathy. I have great respect for him as a writer. I am very hopeful that his treatment of Christopher McCandless is written with the same voice. I could use that.