Thursday, October 25, 2007

into the wild (book & movie review)

Into The Wild
By Tim Beck
Published: October 24, 2007

Christopher Johnson McCandless needed something more. Maybe it was a quest for adventure or some sort of obligation to seek and overcome any and all obstacles. Maybe it was that manly desire to embrace challenge head on. Or maybe it was an act of rebellion and a desire to be anything but ‘normal.’ Regardless, He wasted no time after graduating from Emory University in 1990 to embark on a journey of self-discovery with nothing more than the clothes on his back, but little did he know that his journey would lead to the discovery of something greater… the slow, painful demise of his humanity… and thus he greeted death in the Alaskan wilderness two years later.

The story of McCandless was first documented in an article for Outside Magazine and later developed into a national best selling book titled Into the Wild by author Jon Krakauer. Now it has been made into a major motion picture, directed by Sean Penn. Into the Wild (in theatres nationwide October 19th) tells the mysterious story of McCandless and his two year cross-country voyage that took him from Emory’s campus in Atlanta to Houston, down the Detrital Wash into Mexico, back north to Grand Junction, Colorado and Carthage, South Dakota, south and west to the Salton Sea in California and up the Pacific coastline to Washington state and into Canada. He eventually wound up in a place that has drawn many a man as he followed a blind pursuit to conquer the great outdoors in the massive Alaskan outback. The tragedy of his death is nothing short of mysterious, surrounded by clouds of ignorance and innocence meshed with intelligence and candor making his story very compelling and worthy of one’s time.

A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to the trailer to Into the Wild, starring Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door, Lords of Dogtown). It was persuasive enough to make me curious. Then, about a month ago, I began to hear and read more about the movie and the book that it was based upon. When I saw that Eddie Vedder was recording the music for the soundtrack, I thought I needed to investigate further. This led me into a furious pursuit to find anything and everything that had to do with Christopher McCandless and his puzzling story. Of all things, I came home from work one day and Oprah was on the TV. It showed clips for the next days show. Penn, Krakauer, Hirsch and the McCandless family were to be featured. I DVR’d the show, watched it and immediately set out to buy the book. From the opening paragraph, I was hooked.

In April of 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter…

This compelling story can be discovered further through multiple means. Allow me to elaborate and perhaps you’ll be drawn in as well.


Krakauer went to great lengths to tell McCandless’ story, and from the start it is a difficult story to tell. The greatest challenge with Into the Wild is telling a story about a traveling vagabond who disappeared for upwards of two years, ridding himself of any and all identification (burning his social security card, cutting up his credit cards, abandoning his car, etc.) But Krakauer investigates deeply into the people and places where Christopher left his mark. The author seems to have done his homework and shies away from speculation, unless necessary. He digs deeper and deeper and carefully unwraps the many layers that is Christopher Johnson McCandless. Although a shroud of mystery still remains, Chris seemed to have left his mark in many places, mainly because his persona was attractive. He was drawn to people and they were drawn to him. I found it interesting that everywhere he went, whether cross country or cross continent, Chris made it a point to reach out, thank and communicate with those who had helped him along on his journey, mostly through letters or postcards.

It is revealed quickly that McCandless was leaving behind more than just family, lifestyle and the possibility of a successful career, Chris was leaving behind his identity. Thus he commissioned himself a new name: Alexander Supertramp. Krakauer unpeeled one thick layer that may have led to Chris/Alex’s decision to escape to a new, alternate reality. A few years before his final journey began, he took a summer trip to California. While there he met up with some of his extended family. In the process, he discovered ugly truths about his parents and his childhood, truths that painted a different picture… truths that brought about pain, resentment and near hatred for his parents. Chris kept that knowledge a secret (only sharing it with his sister) which left his parents even more perplexed over years of coldness leading to his eventual disappearance.

Many chapters reveal meaningful relationships that ‘Alex’ shared with rubber tramps Jan and Rainey (hippies living in the wrong decade), Wayne Westerburg (who worked the grain fields, harvesting wheat and barley in South Dakota), Ron Franz (an elderly gentleman who took him under his wing and cared for him so much that he wanted to adopt him as a son) and Jim Gallein (who drove him halfway into the Alaskan outback and was the last person to see him alive) as well as countless others. Ironically, Alex was on a journey that was leading to seclusion. Perhaps he didn’t realize how important people were to him. Perhaps his distrust of his parents had led to those feelings. We’ll never know for sure – but we do know that one of the last things recorded, written in capital letters in the margin of his journal went something like this: HAPPINESS ONLY REAL IF SHARED WITH OTHERS. Maybe in his time of dying, McCandless had an epiphany of sorts. And thus his journey of self-discovery was completed… albeit tragically. He died of starvation days later curled up in the sleeping bag his mother made him, on a mattress in the back of an abandoned bus that had become his shelter, his escape… his home.


The movie doesn’t stray far from the book, however from the opening sequence captured on film I realized that it would be very difficult to summarize the essence of such a complex and yet mystifying story. The biggest challenge for director Sean Penn appeared to be what to do with a story that has the main character alone for three months in Alaska as the crutch, a la Tom Hanks stranded on an island in Cast Away. The second biggest challenge was condensing all the happenings of McCandless (a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp) into two plus hours – and still making a cohesive, true-to-the-book film. But as the movie progressed I became more and more intrigued.

According to Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch did most of his own stunts and braved the sometimes treacherous filming conditions with honor. In fact, Penn and the Wild film crew shot reels of film in all 35 known spots from which McCandless tramped across the country. Rough waters, hot deserts and snow covered arctic regions seemed to be greeted warmly by Hirsch, who on screen appears to channel McCandless’ spirit as if the story was his own.

Final chapter scenes between McCandless and Ron Franz (played brilliantly by Hal Holbrook) make the film worth-while. Catherine Keener is a gem as Jan Burres, but Vince Vaughn is underused as close friend Wayne Westerburg. Westerburg seemed to have more of a prominent role in the book. Alex sent his last post card to Wayne, mailed from Fairbanks, Alaska, in which he shared that he was about to go ‘into the wild’ and feared he might not make it out alive, but was pressing on to achieve his goal.


Eddie Vedder’s first attempt at a solo album is a nice addition to his mighty fine catalog of music, although one listen will remind you more of Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan rather than Pearl Jam. This sometimes folksy album is easy to swallow mostly because of the raw emotion that lies within. Riddled with acoustic guitars, ukuleles, banjos and the like, the motion picture soundtrack of Into the Wild is special because of the sentiment and connection Vedder brings forth. The music is sometimes inspiring, sometimes chilling and sometimes haunting. Brooding vocals threaten to lead the listener to that lonely bus north of Mt. McKinley in the middle of Alaska. Hard Sun is the key track and features Sleeter-Kinney vocalist Corin Tucker. Society could be the swan song of McCandless, unnerving to the core, and means more after reading the book and seeing the movie. With lyrics that sing ‘Society, have mercy on me. Hope you’re not angry if I disagree. Society, crazy in deed, hope you’re not lonely without me.’

It’s a simple album that stands alone as a solo effort – but means more as a backdrop to a peculiar story and a wonderful film.

After all the reading, watching, listening and investigating, the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless is still a puzzle, only not all the pieces are there. Thus the complete story will never be known. Maybe that is what draws many to him. After all, we have the freedom to fill in the blanks and to speculate. None the less, he has been immortalized by so many because of one simple thing: he lived free. He lived in the wild… sometimes amidst concrete and asphalt, other times in dry and desolate lands. But he did what he wanted to do. He lived life and was bound by nothing other than the laws of nature. Maybe deep down inside of us all there is a person yearning for the simplicity discovered in McCandless. The book and the movie just might inspire us to live our dreams and to be liberated from the things that bind us. Or if nothing else, it may just provide us a momentary escape from the mundane. Who knows where that escape might lead?

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