Into the Wild – the film

June 16, 2008 at 10:38 am (books, Film and television) ()

Last month I wrote about the book Into the Wild. We finally had a chance to see the film last night, and I feel like my heart got broken all over again.

I was angry at Chris McCandless almost the entire time I was listening to the audiobook. He seemed like an out-of-control narcissist with impossibly grand notions about his personal destiny. Only as his sad, pathetic end became imminent did my ire begin to subside. In the film, though, right from the beginning he comes across as a rather appealing person, a free spirit with a generous heart.

Generous, that is, except where is parents were concerned. It was as if cutting off all contact with them (as well as with his sister Carine, whom he professed to love) gave him the power to hurt them that he seemed to crave. But – in recompense for what injury, exactly? In the film, the McCandlesses are shown to have engaged in some knock- down- drag-out battles when Chris and Carine were young children. (This is something I don’t remember from the book.) In addition, during the summer between his high school graduation and his freshman year at Emory University, Chris found out that his father Walt had not been fully disengaged from his first wife when he began a family with Chris’s mother Billie. (She ultimately became Walt’s second wife when he finally obtained a divorce.)

“That meant we were bastards!”, or words to that effect, are uttered at that point by Carine in a voice-over narration that I found to be one of the films few weak features. As for the implication that this revelation caused Chris to reject his parents, I don’t buy it. I think he was looking to justify a rejection that was already happening; the story of the early infidelity was as good a reason as any, in his young mind, to heap contempt on the heads of two people whom he already viewed as hopelessly compromised by their bourgeous suburban existence.

And there’s one other thing. Walt McCandless was a brilliant, accomplished engineer. I think that Chris was afraid that if he chose to compete in any way with Walt, he might not measure up. As a father, Walt McCandless appears to have been somewhat judgmental and rather stern, possibly remote in his aspect – in other words, not in the mold of the touchy-feely, postfeminist Dad. ( I just re-read the last sentence and realized that I could be describing my own father. Perhaps because I was a daughter, and a somewhat sickly one at that, I managed to get enough caring from him to satisfy my needs. He and my mother were cruelly ravaged by old age, and I drew close to him at the end. It was an unexpected gift. )

Into the Wild depicts Chris McCandless’s slow, agonizing death with unsparing realism. It was hard to watch – I was riveted but at the same time wanted desperately to avert my eyes until it was finished. My husband and I both felt that Emile Hirsch, in the title role, was completely convincing.

In her review in Salon, Stephanie Zacharek informs us that Jon Krakauer ceded his book’s film rights to Chris McCandless’s parents. I believe that those rights are worth a great deal of money, and I admire Krakauer for that generous, gracious concession. Likewise, Sean Penn deserves praise for waiting patiently until Walt and Billie McCandless were ready for the story of their son’s brief life to be told on film. Penn has amply rewarded their trust with this meticulously crafted, gorgeously photographed work.

[Emile Hirsch as Christopher Johnson McCandless]

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“I now walk into the wild”: the infuriating, mystifying, ultimately harrowing story of Chris McCandless

May 31, 2008 at 10:37 pm (Book review, books) ()

I just finished listening to Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Although the book was published in 1996, the story is back in the news because of last year’s film by Sean Penn. I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie.

The audiobook consists of six discs, and I almost gave up after the first one. I was finding the company of an arrogant, self-absorbed, monumentally selfish young man well nigh unendurable. I stayed with it and I’m glad that I did, although I found it a profoundly disturbing story.

Chris McCandless’s odyssey across the West began immediately after his graduation from Emory University. He fetched up variously in the tiny town of Carthage, South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator, in the California desert, in Bullhead City, Arizona, where he worked in a MacDonald’s, and in several other out-of-the-way places before heading north to Alaska.

And the purpose of all this wandering? Well, there seem to have been several purposes, none of them very clearly articulated. One was certainly to slough off the trappings of the upper middle class existence into which Chris McCandless was born. The child of Walt and Billie McCandless, he was raised in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC. His father was an aerospace engineer of considerable eminence, having among other things designed advanced radar systems for the space shuttle. Chris had a younger sister Carine and six older step siblings from Walt’s previous marriage. (Annandale is about fifty miles southwest of where I’m sitting at the moment. I lived there for a year in the late 1960’s. It is now part of a suburban agglomeration devoid of any distinguishing features and choking on its traffic.)

From what I read in this book, the McCandlesses did not experience extraordinary friction within the family unit while Chris was growing up. But he was a complicated person, a restless, discontented soul who often seemed at odds with his environment. His relationship with Walt was somewhat touchy. I read somewhere that all boys, as they grow into men, face a reckoning with their fathers. Chris’s way of dealing with this reckoning was to flee from it, as far as he could, as soon as he could.

In fact, he vanished from the lives of all of his family members. At the time of his death, they hadn’t had word of him for several years, despite having at one point hired a private investigator to look for him. It is this willful act of disappearance that I found enraging. Chris claimed to be close to Carine, yet he froze her out of his life along with his parents, supposedly because he feared that if he contacted her, she would in turn tell their parents something that might reveal his whereabouts.

As Krakauer describes the scene, Carine was utterly desolated when she learned of her brother’s death. Chris’s parents were likewise crushed. I have to admit, I was a bit surprised by the intensity of their grief, especially where Carine was concerned. Family is family, I know, but I thought that at least one of them would have hardened his or her heart against this young narcissist who had so perversely hardened his against them.

(I am reminded of the novel The Tinderbox, in which a family man whose daughter is a runaway never stops loving her and hoping to find her; meanwhile, the mother’s heart has turned to stone where her errant daughter is concerned.)

Into the Wild is not just about Chris McCandless and his ill-fated Alaskan adventure. Krakauer also relates stories of other men whose lives followed a similar trajectory. These were actually fascinating tales. The one I particularly enjoyed was about Everett Reuss (pronounced “Royce”) whose solo traversal of the southwestern deserts culminated in his disappearance, in 1934. The last trace of him was found in Davis Gulch, a canyon of the Escalante in Utah, where he had made camp with his two burros. After several months had elapsed, a search party found the burros grazing placidly at the bottom of Davis Gulch. Of the twenty-year-old Ruess there was no sign, and never has been, up until this day.

When I first visited the California desert, I had already heard of Reuss as a result of my reading about the history of the American West. I’ve always wanted to know more about his brief life and was pleased to encounter him in Krakauer’s narrative.

Many are the speculations – some plausible, some farfetched – concerning the ultimate fate of Everett Ruess. On the other hand, we know what happened to Chris McCandless. In his case, the question is not what, but why. Jon Krakauer does not attempt to formulate a conclusive answer to this question; he presents the facts to the extent that they are known and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. But it would not be quite accurate to say that Krakauer has no particular attitude toward his subject. This is from the Author’s Note that prefaces the book:

I won’t claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless’s strange tale struck a personal note that made a disapssionate rendering of the tragedy impossible. Through most of the book, I have tried–and largely succeeded, I think–to minimize my authorial presence. But let the reader be warned: I interrupt McCandless’s story with fragments of a narrative drawn from my own youth. I do so in the hope that my experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.

( I personally found the narrative of Krakauer’s harrowing mountain climbing experience interesting but over long and therefore unnecessarily intrusive.)

In my estimation, Jon Krakauer seems somewhat in awe of Chris McCandless, believing, apparently, that the young man was in some way preternaturally gifted. Accordingly, Krakauer is bewildered, even hurt, by the vituperation heaped on McCandless in response to his story. The book Into the Wild grew out of an article Krakauer wrote for Outside Magazine: “The article…generated a large volume of mail, and not a few of the letters heaped opprobrium on McCandless–and on me, as well, the author of the story, for glorifying what some thought was a foolish, pointless death.” He goes on to quote passages from this correspondence. I’m no expert on surviving in the wilderness; still, I couldn’t help but agree with some of what was said:

‘Why would anyone intending to “live off the land for a few months” forget Boy Scout rule number one: Be Prepared? Why would any son cause his parents and family such permanent and perplexing pain?’

After I’d finished the recorded book, I got the print version out of the library. Krakauer places many wonderful, thought-provoking passages at the beginning of each chapter. Some were from the works of well known authors such as Thoreau, Jack London, and Wallace Stegner; others were by wanderer/explorers with whom I was unfamiliar, like Edward Whymper (Scrambles Amongst the Alps) and John Menlove Edwards (“Letter from a Man”). I was hoping to find a bibliography but there was none; an unfortunate omission, IMHO.

By the end of July 1992, ill and weakened by lack of food, Chris McCandless knew he faced death alone in the Alaskan wild, sheltered only by the derelict shell of Fairbanks Bus 142. Eventually he crawled into the sleeping bag his mother had made for him, and there breathed his last: “He probably died on August 18, 112 days after he’d walked into the wild, 19 days before six Alaskans would happen across the bus and discover his body inside.” He was 24 years old.

It is impossible to read the book’s concluding chapter and not feel overwhelmed by sadness. In the epilogue, Krakauer tells how he accompanied Billie and Walt McCandless to the scene of their son’s death. They placed a memorial plaque just inside the door of a bus; they also left emergency provisions under the bed at the rear of the vehicle.

I’m pondering the possibility of a post entitled “Books That Haunt Me – or that I think will haunt me.” Into the Wild will be near the top of the list.

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Here are two interesting and provocative articles about Chris McCandless: “Into the Wild: The False Being Within” by Craig Medred in Far North Science; and “The Cult of Chris McCandless” by Matthew Power in Men’s Journal. The latter piece also offers some intriguing observations concerning the film, which I still have not seen. I guess I’m a bit afraid of it, at this point…

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