MOVIE: Into the Wild (2007)

Both my mom and I read the Jon Krakauer book upon which this movie was based recently — I read it for the second time last November (read my review here — it’s the second one from the top), and she just finished her first reading of it a couple of weeks ago.  So, we were both eager to see the film — and to see it together.  Happily, we finally got our chance to this past weekend.

For those that don’t know, the movie (and Krakauer’s book, of course) is based on a true story about a young man named Chris McCandless who, after graduating from college, donated all his money to charity, hopped in his car, and headed for parts West.  His idols, Jack London, Henry Thoreau, etc. inspired him to slip the surly bonds of everyday life and to live free from responsibilities to anyone but himself.  Part of this was a rejection of his parents — rich and miserable — and part of it was just the typical wanderlust and idealism of youth.

As he traveled, he met a variety of people — two hippies (Catherine Keener and newcomer Brian Dierker), a farmer/criminal named Wayne (Vince Vaughn), a teenaged girl who falls in love with him (Kristin Stewart), and an elderly man who, until meeting Chris, had pretty much given up on life (Hal Holbrook, in an Academy Award-nominated performance). 

Though he’s clearly a social guy, Chris believes that he doesn’t need people in order to be happy.  And so his ultimate goal becomes to travel into the Alaskan wild, alone, and spend some time living off the land.  Unfortunately, he makes a series of either naive or careless (or both) mistakes, like refusing to take a map or proper gear with him.  And, ultimately, those mistakes  cost him his life.

First things first, I thought this film was absolutely stunning.  Visually, it’s just gorgeous.  It’s been a while since I saw a movie that was so pretty it made me wish I’d seen it in the theater — actually, I think the last one was Hero in 2002 — but this was certainly one of those kinds of films for me.  And it’s a very well-organized movie as well.  I felt like it did a great job at laying out Chris’s story, as well as at demonstrating the impact that he had on the people he met — not to mention the impact they had on him, an impact Chris didn’t realize the value of until it was too late.

But I also had a problem with this film, and that was that it tells a very, very selective version of Chris’s story.   When you turn a book into a movie, of course you have to pick and choose the pieces that work best for the two-hour version you want to share, and that’s what Sean Penn did here.  But it’s also QUITE obvious that Penn didn’t just select those pieces because they worked best in the film, but also because he saw Chris in a very specific light (modern-day prophet/Jesus, would be my guess, based on a couple of scenes in the movie) and rejected the parts of the book that didn’t perfectly fit in with that interpretation or ideal.  I love Sean Penn and I think the man is a genius, but I also think he can be passionate to the point of being unable to see alternative points of view (as can we all, of course), and this movie is a pretty good example of that. 

You should also probably know that the way Chris dies in the movie is only one of about four possibilities — nobody knows for sure what killed him, only that that whatever it was (wrong plant, right plant but contaminated, stupidity, etc.) led to his gradual starvation and demise.  Penn also greatly expands the role of the teenaged girl in the movie — for very “cinematic” reasons — and leaves out a lot of stuff that I really think could have, and should have, been included. 

Say, for example, the OTHER note found at the bus after Chris’s death — the one in which he was clearly terrified of dying and was begging whomever found his note to please stay at the bus until he came back from picking berries because he so, so, SO did not want to die there alone.  Instead, Penn only shows one of the two notes found — the one in which Chris seems at peace with his death and thanks God for his wonderful life.  Do you see what gets lost in that omission?  Frankly, I don’t even know that I can say that was a good cinematic choice, as I can tell you I’ve read the book twice and I didn’t even remember the “hooray for my awesome life, God!” note.  The note I DID remember — the one that made such a heartbreaking impression on me — was the one in which it was so evident that poor kid was terrified to die.

However, regardless of my sense of uneasiness with the way the movie Chris differs from the book Chris, I still thought this film was excellent.  Yes, it has a very sad ending and I will confess I found it extremely hard to watch Chris’s demise (for the record, Emile Hersch is incredible in this and I was surprised when I looked him up to find I’d seen him in several other things and never noticed him), but this is a film well worth watching even if you don’t like unhappy endings.  Tough it out and rent it anyway, okay?  Just make sure you ALSO read the book (which too is excellent), so you can have all the pieces of the story when you’re done.

By the way, great soundtrack by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, though I think it was a bit obtrusive in places. 


[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Vince Vaughn, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook


7 Responses to “MOVIE: Into the Wild (2007)”

  1. Kerri Says:

    I have not seen the movie yet, but the book is fantastic. I hope to see it soon.

    I have been a fan of Emile Hirsch for quite a while. If you haven’t seen it, you should definitely watch ‘Lords of Dogtown’.

  2. megwood Says:

    Thanks for the tip on “Dogtown,” Kerri — I just put it in my Netflix queue! Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the movie once you see it, especially since you’ve also read the book!

  3. Ellen Says:

    Damn you Meg, you just spoiled the ending of this film for me!… Kiddng!
    I’ve got my little Netflix envelope right here & plan to watch this tomorrow.
    I’ll report back on my findings…

    And yeah, I agree with you on Sean Penn’s directing style, which also applies to his acting.

  4. Marni Says:

    Just watched this with Eddie two nights ago. I was sobbing. For the loss that all of those people suffered. For William Hurt in the middle of the street. For Hal Holbrook asking if he could adopt him to be his grandson. For him playing in the waves with Katherine Keener. I don’t know how much of the story was embellished for the movie, but I liked what you said about him definitely being such a social guy. He knew what those people needed — how to make them feel more whole, more valuable. I wish he could have found out how to do that for himself without it causing the world to lose him. But oh, his parents and sister. They didn’t deserve that pain. Was it accurate that he tried to leave but the river was too full? This was heartbreaking. Especially as an overly hormonal new mom again. Oh the loss of your child. Or even worse — not knowing for years whether he was alive or dead. I will borrow your book and read it. Really heartbreaking that note that he left, though you could see that about him. He was just too young to realize that he WAS such a social person. It’s too bad he didn’t make it home, because he would have figured it out. That’s just such a lost age for so many people, you know? Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough. Great movie.

  5. megwood Says:

    I’ll loan you the book in ten days when you’re up, Marn! I think you’ll really like it (and it’s short, so good for a new mom in that respect as well).

    Yes, it’s true he tried to leave but the river was too full. Even worse, had he packed a map, he would’ve learned that just a mile or two UP the river there was a place where he could’ve crossed safely. And also that there were two cabins not that far from where he was, where he might’ve encountered hunters or found some supplies (though later on, they found that both cabins had been looted, so he might not have found much there to eat). 😦

  6. patrick Says:

    It was tragic that McCandless died out there in the wilderness; but then again, so many people have benefited from his story… a couple of years of hitchhiking led to his story challenging thousands (millions?) of people to reexamine their lives

  7. megwood Says:

    An excellent point, Patrick! It definitely had that effect on me, that’s for sure.

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