I saw a movie trailer for Sean Penn’s new film, Into the Wild last month for the first time. My friend hopped out of his seat the moment he recognized the film and immediately commented that it was the adaptation of the Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book Into the Wild. He encouraged me to pick up a copy of the book and we both agreed that the movie looked fantastic and would be a “must see” this fall when it comes out late September.
I did grab the book and recently completed it. Into the Wild is the true story of the actual and existential journey of Chris McCandless who, in 1992, trudged in to the Alaska wilderness and subsequently died of a combination of starvation and poison just over 100 days later (there isn’t a surprise element to the ending–it’s even noted on the front cover of the book.) Chris was an intelligent, passionate, young man from a well-off Washington DC suburban family who graduated at the top of his class from Emory in 1990 and then sold all his possessions, gave away $25,000 in cash and commenced a two-year voyage. The journey, which included virtually no communication with friends or family from his previous life, took him to Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and South Dakota primarily. His vagabond lifestyle included several meaningful encounters with people along the way who admired his intellectualism and strong personality. After spending a portion of the early spring of 1992 with a new friend in South Dakota, McCandless headed north to Alaska in April of that year. In a Thoreau type manner, Chris intended to “live off the land” of the great Alaska wilderness for that summer before, potentially, ending his several year journey and returning to the mainland.
The underlying story of Into the Wild is powerful and gripping. As a reader, I was intrigued and perplexed by Chris’ complicated personality, his ambitions and his passions. He struck me as, at once, oddly idealistic yet grounded. And, the complete dismissal of his family was both sad and confusing. He left his family tortured, both in his absence and then eventual death, and it appears as if they’ve only discovered consolation in working with Krakauer and now Sean Penn to recount his life and journey.
As much as I wanted to be, I wasn’t a huge fan of Krakauer’s book as a whole. The book became a national bestseller in the late ‘90s and was described, in some senses, as a nonfictional Catcher in the Rye but I didn’t get much of that sense. The non-linear style of writing read more like a continuation of Krakauer’s original Outside magazine article than an extended book. I also would have preferred more narration or story of Chris’ journey as compared to the choice of frequent playback and speculation on what Chris might have been thinking at various points. There was also too much recollection of the author’s similar and personal life experience for my taste.
That said, I liked much of the prose in the book and will likely read another one of the author’s books in the future—most probably Into Thin Air, the story of an amazing Mt. Everest experience in 1996. I also appreciated and found meaning in much of the author’s recount of Chris’ youthfulness. In one place, Krakauer talks about similar Alaskan journies during his own youth and comments that he was, like McCandless, “a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic.” (155.) I also loved this quote, which was found within the abandoned bus where McCandless lived and dived in Alaska, and is the basis for the book’s title:
“And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climatic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution.” (163.)
I am fairly certain this is Sean Penn’s directorial film debut. The film was many years in the making but never officially commenced until the McCandless family was ready to put it on the screen. Penn, whose brother Chris died just a few months before this movie began filming, was said to have committed two years of his life to making this project. He’s certainly put together a stellar cast for the film: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener among others. Eddie Vedder reportedly composed much of the music for the film which should also be a nice addition. Typically, books pale in comparison to movies but, in this case, I have a feeling the opposite may occur. The underlying story of McCandless’ journey seems almost made for the big screen and, when combined, with a potentially great director and strong cast, may make for a powerful movie this fall that tells the story even better than Jon Krakauer’s book did one decade ago.