Book Vs. Film: Into The Wild

Book Vs. Film: Into The Wild

 

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

Book: Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer, 1996

Film: Into The Wild, adapted and directed by Sean Penn, 2007

I missed Into The Wild during its initial theatrical run in September 2007, and didn't catch it until the awards-bid screeners started crossing our desks in November. Which left a full two months for the film's supporters and haters to argue their cases at me. And pretty early on, I got the impression that it was one of those films, the polarizing kind that people either loved or hated, but rarely shrugged off. Actually seeing the film didn't change that dynamic at all; the only difference was, once I fell into the "loved it" camp, I had to help defend it from the haters. The last real argument I got into about a film at a party was over this one: Whether it was unbearably twee (No!), whether it was annoyingly shrill (No!), whether it disingenuously lionized its subject, Chris McCandless. (Nnnnn… um, well…)

According to the book, by travel/adventure writer Jon Krakauer, McCandless himself was a highly polarizing subject. For those not familiar with the story: Chris McCandless was a nice suburban kid, reportedly charismatic and outgoing. He was also an idealist and a bit of a fanatic. Immediately after college, he cut ties with his parents, donated his $25,000 grad-school fund to Oxfam, and started wandering the country, working short-time jobs, making friends, and living rough or with whoever took him in. Eventually, he worked his way up to Alaska, with a dream of living off the land and off the map. Months later, his starved body was found in a bus in the Alaska wilderness. He weighed 62 pounds. Much like Timothy Treadwell, subject of Werner Herzog's fascinating 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, McCandless shunned society and left it behind, and subsequently fell victim to his own convictions out in the wilderness.

When Krakauer first wrote an article about McCandless for Outside magazine, the responses poured in–half fascinated, half vitriolic. Some people sympathized with this kid whom they didn't know. Others fell over themselves to deride and castigate him at length for his foolishness, his immaturity, his "dumbassedness." So it's no real wonder that the film would provoke a similar response–people who saw McCandless as a foolish twerp who got what he deserved naturally aren't going to appreciate the way writer-director Sean Penn revels in his life and shows events from his viewpoint, framing him as an almost Christ-like shining hero. Viewers with some sympathy for McCandless' anti-establishment, pro-freedom, pro-independence beliefs, on the other hand, were predisposed to like the film.

But among all the people I've heard out on whether Into The Wild is a great film or a terrible one, a fairly common pattern has emerged: An awful lot of the people who absolutely hated the film had previously read–and in many cases loved–the book. And I suspect that the difference between Krakauer's approach and Penn's is a large part of what sparks all the vehemence.

I think it comes down to this, for the most part: Krakauer's book is an examination of McCandless' life and death. Penn's movie is an enthusiastic celebration of it.

Krakauer's book is something between a journalistic investigation and a personal essay on a topic that interests him, and the style varies a lot, with extremely accessible newspapery prose one minute, and show-offy vocabulary stretches like "contumacious" and "analysand" the next. It's basically McCandless' life story, as near as he can get it, based on a combination of interviews, McCandless' letters and diaries, guesswork, deduction, investigative legwork, and sometimes a combination of all of the above. He fills in the blanks with personal musings, revelations, memories, and environmental descriptions. Often he jumps between methods based on what he has to work with at a given moment, producing mismatched segments like this one:

 

McCandless had tried to disguise the fact that he was a drifter living out of a backpack: He told his fellow employees that he lived across the river in Laughlin. Whenever they offered him a ride home after work, he made excuses and politely declined. In fact, during his first several weeks in Bullhead, McCandless camped out in the desert at the edge of town; then he started squatting in a vacant mobile home. The latter arrangement, he explained in a letter to Jan Burres, "came about this way:"

One morning I was shaving in a restroom when an old man came in, and observing me, asked me if I was "sleeping out." I told him yes, and it turned out that he had this old trailer I could stay in for free. The only problem is that he doesn't really own it. Some absentee owners are merely letting him live on their land here, in another little trailer he stays in. So I kind of have to keep things toned down and stay out of sight, because he isn't supposed to have anybody over here. It's really quite a good deal, though, for the inside of the trailer is nice, it's a house trailer, furnished, with some of the electric sockets working and a lot of living space. The only drawback is this old guy, whose name is Charlie, is something of a lunatic and it's rather difficult to get along with him sometimes.

Charlie still lives at the same address, in a small teardrop-shaped camping trailer sheathed in rust-pocked tin, without plumbing or electricity, tucked behind the much larger blue-and-white mobile home where McCandless slept. Denuded mountains are visible to the west, towering sternly above the rooftops of adjacent double-wides. A baby-blue Ford Torino rests on blocks in the unkempt yard, weeds sprouting from its engine compartment. The ammonia reek of human urine rises from a nearby oleander hedge.

"Chris? Chris?" Charlie barks, scanning porous memory banks. "Oh yeah, him. Yeah, yeah, I remember him, sure." Charlie, dressed in a sweatshirt and khaki work pants, is a frail, nervous man with rheumy eyes and a growth of white stubble across his chin. By his recollection, McCandless stayed in the trailer about a month.

"Nice guy, yeah. Pretty nice guy," Charlie reports. "Didn't like to be around too many people, though. Temperamental. He meant good, but I think he had a lot of complexes–know what I'm saying? Liked to read books by that Alaska guy, Jack London. Never said much. He'd get moody, wouldn't like to be bothered. Seemed like a kid who was looking for something, looking for something, just didn't know what it was. I was like that once. But then I realized what I was looking for: Money! Ha! Ha hyah, hooh boy!

"But like I was saying, Alaska–yeah, he talked about going to Alaska. Maybe to find whatever it was he was looking for. Nice guy, seemed like one anyway. Had a lot of complexes sometimes, though. Had 'em bad. When he left, was around Christmas, I think. He gave me fifty bucks and a pack of cigarettes for lettin' him stay here. Thought that was mighty decent of him."

 

Sometimes the blend works. Sometimes it seems like Krakauer is just padding, especially when he goes off into page-long descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness, or when he devotes a long chapter to other survivalists and fanatics who "marched off into the Alaskan wilds over the years, never to reappear." It's generally interesting stuff, but it feels like a rabbit trail.

An even more difficult segment comes later, when Krakauer heads off into a major diversion (which, like the other-fanatics bit, naturally isn't reflected in the film): He stops talking about McCandless directly, and starts talking about himself instead. Specifically, he sets out to illustrate his belief that McCandless wasn't suicidal, or honestly planning to die in the wilderness. Some people have suggested otherwise, largely because McCandless' last letters before he headed into the wild say things like "If this adventure proves fatal and you don't ever hear from me again…" Krakauer thinks these were natural and entirely practical misgivings, but that McCandless had every intention of coming back alive. And as proof, Krakauer offers a lengthy story from his own life, in which, as a young man, he set out to the Alaskan wilderness to climb a forbidding mountain known as the Devil's Thumb. He made a lot of mistakes, hit a series of staggering setbacks, and ran up against his own mortality, but he emphasizes that he was never out to kill himself: He was trying to test himself, and to prove a point.

That particular multi-chapter story is sprawling and closely detailed, and in any other context, it would probably be fascinating, but here, it just seems like a vast, self-centered, self-serving side trip, especially when Krakauer goes out of his way to draw personal parallels between McCandless and himself, and set them up almost as alter egos. I understand what Krakauer is trying to do–he's illustrating, personally and intimately, what sort of mentality would drive a young person to McCandless' extremes of behavior. Since he can't fully get into McCandless' head, he offers up himself as a stand-in. It's an understandable byway, and I think it's well-intentioned enough. At the same time, journalistic stories that take the focus off the subject and put it on the writer are always a little suspect, especially when the subject isn't around to call bullshit. Does Krakauer really understand McCandless so very much better than anyone else? Well, who's going to be able to deny him?

At any rate. That's the book in a nutshell: McCandless from Krakauer's fractured perspective, as seen through the refracting lens of a whole bunch of different voices. Whereas the movie attempts to present the same story from one perspective: McCandless'.

This means setting aside a lot of the interesting data that Krakauer digs up, things McCandless didn't know, and which thus have no place in Penn's version of the story. For instance, the question of why that bus was sitting out in the wilderness. (The segment on the history of the bus alone would have made the book worth reading for me.) Or what ultimately happened to McCandless' abandoned car, which was claimed by the local park service and used for undercover drug sting operations for the next three years. [pagebreak]

The book also tells a lot of early stories about McCandless: his childhood, when he showed a lot of talent in various areas, but lacked the respect for authority, the stick-to-itiveness, and the patience to hone any given skill. His adventures in activism in high school, including bringing a homeless man to live in his parents' travel trailer. His crazed career as the leader of the cross-country track team, leading his squad off into uncharted territory. His college life, including his stint at the school paper, where he wrote intense, ranting editorials on a wide variety of subjects. The film leaves all this out, I suspect because it's irrelevant to how McCandless would tell his own story. No one wants to think that their personality was formed in childhood, and that the choices they make as adults might be predictable continuations of behaviors from grade school. Krakauer draws a clear line from McCandless' earliest days through to his death; Penn's movie, on the other hand, practically has him springing fully formed from the head of Zeus after college, with no past and a bright future.

That said, there are a great many specific parallels between the book and the film. The film necessarily dramatizes a lot of scenes between McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) and his acquaintances along the road, but much of the material specifically involving McCandless' life between his college graduation and his death is placed onscreen about as it appears in the book. The tone is different, but the facts are more or less the same, particularly in segments like the finding of the bus, the killing of the moose, McCandless' odd jobs, and his relationships with Ron Franz (played by Hal Holbrook, in an Oscar-nominated turn) and Jan Burres (Catherine Keener). It's worth noting, though, that Tracy (Kristen Stewart), the raw young camp singer who tries to seduce McCandless in the film, barely gets a mention in the book. Instead, Krakauer theorizes at some length about McCandless' sexuality and his beliefs on chastity and asceticism.

The book also includes a lot of darker material that Penn omits, like the segment where Krakauer accompanies McCandless' parents on a trip out to the bus where their son died, to look around and to leave a survival kit for any future inhabitants. Or the segment where Franz, depressed after McCandless' death, returns to heavy drinking and declares himself an atheist. It throws in some fairly depressing information about an easily accessible escape route that McCandless might have used to escape the wilderness area where he got trapped. And it draws some very pointed lines between the revelations about his father's infidelities, and his refusal to stay in contact with his family. The film presents this more as airy independence and a condemnation of their consumerist lifestyle, but in this area in particular, Krakauer paints McCandless as a sullen, brooding, grudge-holding, judgemental boy, very unlike the merry wanderer of the film.

In fact, the book takes a noticeably dimmer view of McCandless in general. While Krakauer's whole "I'm just like McCandless myself" segment certainly implies a lot of sympathy for him, he doesn't hesitate to judge him, either, and he highlights points where McCandless was arrogant, insensitive, flippant, and dismissive–where he tells his sister Carine that their worried parents are "fucking nuts" and "a bunch of imbeciles," or responds to the question of whether he has a hunting license with "Hell, no. How I feed myself is none of the government's business. Fuck their stupid rules." Contrast this abrasiveness with the scene in the film where he faces off against a park ranger about the question of boating down the Colorado River, and is met with indifference, contempt, and senseless regulations that would put him on a four-year waiting list for the trip. Rather than ranting about fucking the government's stupid rules, McCandless seems to find the red tape hilarious, and of course he does what he wants anyway, and no harm comes from it. (There's no parallel to this scene in the book, nor to the follow-up where, while boating and dodging the authorities, he meets the free-spirited Europeans out on the riverbank.)

This, no doubt, is where a good part of the accusations about Penn deifying McCandless come from. In the book, he's impatient, selfish, and caught up in a dream of idealism that has him reading Walt Whitman and writing ecstatic, enthused commentary in the margins. In the film, he's a gentler soul, cheerful and friendly, wandering the earth like Caine from Kung Fu and dispensing wisdom that doesn't necessarily help people, but still makes him seem a bit like Buddha. There's a sort of wry, munficient humor to just about everything he does. And that idealization really bugs some people. But here's the thing: I think that's a perfectly valid interpretation, because Penn isn't setting out to create a documentary. He's telling McCandless' story from McCandless' perspective, and in McCandless' eyes, of course he's a warm and happy hero. He's out living the dream of freedom. The people who stand in his way really are bad guys. Cities, as seen through his eyes and Penn's lens, are genuinely oppressive, crazy, dirty, dangerous places. Even the all-Eddie Vedder soundtrack (which drove some people of my acquaintance nuts, even people who otherwise really loved the film) strikes me as fitting. It's the music playing in McCandless' head: raw, young, jangly, and just a bit self-aggrandizing.

But it's worth comparing the film as a whole–the joyous "what a great big ol' world I'm living in" attitude that Penn credits to McCandless–with McCandless' actual voice, as seen in the book's diary and letter excerpts. My biggest gripe with the book is that there aren't nearly enough of these; they're more telling than anything else Krakauer runs across, and they say volumes compared with all Penn's idealizing and Krakauer's theorizing. For instance, there's the way McCandless refers to himself, in the third person, by his "road name," Alexander Supertramp. And the way he sees every setback as a monumental disaster and every success as a massive triumph. He comes across as impossibly young and naïve in these excerpts, which puts a very different spin on his life than the one either the book or the film is selling as a whole. For instance, this passage from his diary, written as McCandless was canoeing around a series of canals in Mexico, expecting (based on no information, just desire) that they'd take him down to the sea:

All hopes collapsed! The canal does not reach the ocean but merely peters out into a vast swamp. Alex is utterly confounded. Decides he must be close to ocean and elects to try and work way through swamp to sea. Alex becomes progressively lost to point where he must push canoe through reeds and drag it through mud. All is in despair. Finds some dry ground to camp in swamp at sundown. Next day, 12/10, Alex resumes quest for an opening to the sea, but only becomes more confused, traveling in circles. Completely demoralized and frustrated he lays in his canoe at day's end and weeps.

Instead of giving us this voice–the easily frustrated kid who just assumes everything will work out, and draws a blank when it doesn't, the film gives us the voice of his sister Carine (played by Jena Malone), who narrates his story with a dreamy melancholy that further idealizes him. She describes his flaws, but her longing tone implies that she holds him up as a sort of idol at the same time. All of which is particularly odd, since his sister Carine isn't one of the book's major interviewees. Krakauer gets her perspective, and she describes her grief over her brother, but she knew little about his adventures or what he was up to; while he described himself in letters as incredibly close to her, he shut her out of his life when he shut out their parents, and she was as baffled and lost as anyone.

Then again, perhaps this is just more life from McCandless' perspective: Of course he'd see his little sister as admiring and missing him. Penn sticks to his perspective in other ways, too, inventing a great deal of dialogue and interactions where Krakauer only has second-hand reportage that McCandless was in this place or that. Penn presents various theories of Krakauer's as fact, including the cause of McCandless' death: Where the book consciously takes a journalistic step back and mulls over theories and possibilities, raising the carefully detailed hypothesis that he didn't starve to death, he accidentally poisoned himself by eating the wrong plant, the film accepts that idea as truth, and puts us right there in the bus with him as he figures out his fatal mistake. Similarly, Krakauer sadly muses that starvation is a terrible way to die, but adds, "Some people who have been brought back from the far edge of starvation, though, report that near the end the hunger vanishes, the terrible pain dissolves, and the suffering is replaced by a sublime euphoria, a sense of calm accompanied by transcendent mental clarity. It would be nice to think McCandless experienced a similar rapture." Penn just shows us the rapture as he'd like to think McCandless experienced it: bright lights and drifting euphoria, a death as beautiful and immaculate as his life.

And in the end, it's pretty much inevitable that the Chris McCandless of the film is going to come across as a more sympathetic figure than the one in the book. Part of that is the choices Penn makes, to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. But it's also because the viewers are right there with McCandless all the way. There's a big difference between being told that he believed certain things, and seeing a beaming young man living out his dreams. And there's a big difference between considering why someone might have died, and looking into the panic-stricken eyes of his cinematic proxy. Some people have accused Penn of glossing over the truth, turning McCandless into Jesus Jr., and overromanticizing the whole story. I think he's just showing us McCandless as McCandless might have seen himself, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that.

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