How much of your life do you owe to the ones who love you? What are your obligations to the imperfect people who raise and care for you, as you set out to forge an individual sense of self?
In 1995, the author John Krakauer (Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven) wrote Into the Wild, the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young Emory graduate from an affluent Washington DC suburb. Inspired by Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London, McCandless gave all his savings to Oxfam, drove to Arizona, left his car, and wandered the western U.S. for two years in an austere search for authenticity and spiritual wisdom. He communed with graying flower-children in California, kayaked through Colorado River rapids, and worked a grain elevator on the Great Plains. Finally, Chris hitchhiked into the untamed Alaska Range, where he starved to death in August 1992, at the age of twenty-three.
As a writer, Krakauer sketches better topographies than people. He poetically reproduces the jagged natural backdrops for McCandless’ soul-searching, yet his characters are too often wedged into psychological “types,” and they speak in the tinny, mannered style of TV drama. But Krakauer refuses to shy away from the act of immature cruelty at the story’s heart: McCandless never informed his family of his plans, or contacted them during his wayfaring. The book keenly asks whether Chris’ family deserved better while he followed his utopian dream, and this inquiry is what ultimately makes Into the Wild such compelling nonfiction.
It’s a shame the new Hollywood treatment of Into the Wild glosses over the question of familial obligation. Written and directed by Sean Penn, and starring newcomer Emile Hirsch, the film arrives fifteen years after hunters found McCandless’ emaciated body in an abandoned Fairbanks city bus in Denali National Park.
Hirsch is terrifically charismatic in the lead role. His bright eyes thirst precociously for truth as he bounces from state to state. But Hirsch is asked to inhabit a Chris McCandless more ethereal than earthly. Penn’s screenplay lacks subtlety, and jettisons Chris’s faults like dead weight from his backpack. Gone are the book’s interviews with classmates who sometimes found McCandless self-righteous and overbearing. His early journal writings, which Krakauer describes as revealing but pretentious, are infused with absurd nobility.
Most glaringly, Penn alters the story’s facts. Chris’s parents meant well, but their materialistic ambitions clashed with their son’s asceticism. They also failed to tell him he’d been born while his father was wed to another woman. That’s ample reason for youthful rebellion, but the family’s punishment didn’t fit their crime. Chris ordered the Post Office to hold his mail for months, just so nobody would suspect he’d left (he didn’t own a phone). His vanishing act especially hurt his adoring—and innocent—younger sister, Carine.
Penn sidesteps all this, portraying a volatile household where mother drank too much and father argued with his fists. By concocting scenes of domestic abuse (incredibly, the family okayed the script), Penn condones Chris’s every move. Even Carine exonerates him. His disappearance is transformed into a dignified blow to unfit parents.
The film begins in Alaska. Chris claims the bus as his home, and etches a bit of triumphant graffiti inside, calling his journey “the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution.” Penn then backtracks, first through McCandless’ college graduation, then through his Western drifting, with periodic returns to the frozen backcountry where Chris met his end.
Along the way, Chris collects some ragtag friends—Jan, a hippy mother with an estranged son; Ron, an octogenarian WWII vet who lost his wife and child in an accident; and Wayne, a South Dakota farmer (Vince Vaughn with an inexplicable Southern twang). In his seemingly sinless state, McCandless becomes their conscience and confidant. Ron dotes on him like a grandfather, even offering to adopt him. Amazingly, when Jan and Ron—who know something about parental loss—each ask about Chris’s family, he’s able to brush them off with moral superiority. In one scene, Chris stands atop a hill, literally looking down on elderly Ron, whom he advises to change his square, stilted “lifestyle.” Penn presents the admonishment without a trace of irony.
Other films have demonstrated how difficult it is to hold a moviegoer’s attention when the only two characters are nature and an isolated soul. Penn’s decision to chop up the four months in Alaska, then, is stylistically understandable. But we oscillate so much between the bus and Chris’s other peregrinations that little tension builds. His survival hardly feels threatened until the very end. Instead, we watch Chris howl giddily against the bus’s side, communicate with owls, and play in the snow. Life in the spiritual wilderness never looked so easy.
When the going finally gets tough for McCandless, it gets tough fast. He spirals into hunger and desperately struggles to keep his wits. In the margins of a Tolstoy story, he weakly writes, “Happiness only real when shared.” But instead of sparking bitter regret over his earlier choices, the scribble seems more like a child’s optimistic but peripheral resolution to take piano lessons. When Penn’s Christopher McCandless dies, he dies alone, heroically.
On balance, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a troubled film about a troubled seeker. It fails when it tries to un-complicate its subject, whether by careful omission of faults, or the careless addition of fake family secrets. Visually, it’s a stunning achievement, zooming in and out on a cold, majestic Alaskan landscape that cared nothing for Chris’s efforts to prove himself in its great expanses. The film is a sign that we’re drawn to this young idealist, because he rejected the excess cares that master so many of our lives. But it misses the chance to take up the conflict that Krakauer highlighted between filial duty and rugged individualism, between a young man in search of himself and a family that waited for any word from him, as he lay dying thousands of lonely miles from home.