Saturday, May 09, 2009


I watched Into the Wild earlier this week.  I had never seen it before, nor had I read the book.  I'm usually pretty good about reading books before seeing movies based on them - the books are almost always better.  I think I may have to go back and read Krakauer's book - but not because I liked the movie.

It was a very interesting movie, but I found it frustrating.  Not the movie itself, but the story it tells.  As a technical exercise, the movie is very good - Sean Penn directed it and does a good job of giving the movie the visual scope it deserves, since so much of it takes place in the great wide spaces of the American West.  My trouble is one that many others have - the young man in the movie, Chris McCandless, was gifted and willful and capable and foolish.  He essentially walked away from his life and tramped for two years, ending up in the hinterlands near Denali National Park, where he eventually starved to death.  My reaction, over and over in the movie, was that almost every choice reflected staggering hubris and egotism.  From his surviving letters and journals, plus the recollections of the many people he met and befriended, McCandless was looking for a latter-day Walden experience, to live as Thoreau did.  This does not align with the spirit of Walden in some ways - Walden was basically a suburb of Boston, even when Thoreau was there, just out by Lynn, inside route 128.  He would often leave the cabin and visit town.

Though perhaps McCandless was more right than he knew; he benefited from the kindness of those he met on the road many times, and Thoreau was actually living on his friend Emerson's property.  Yet he still thought he could walk out into some of the harshest country known and survive on his own.  Even if he had the skills and wherewithal to do so, I think I may have a fundamental issue with his desire to isolate himself.  I prefer Donne to Thoreau:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee
Krakauer himself has argued in McCandless' favor, saying that he didn't take a map so he could "create" a blank place on the map to explore.  I don't find self-deception sympathetic.  Others who agree with Krakauer argue that McCandless was trying to live in harmony with nature, and acted out of respect.  Nature is one mean mother, and respect first means you never forget that she is trying to kill you (and eventually will).  I feel like his actions were fundamentally disrespectful - he acted as one trying to impose their will on nature, to live as they see fit rather than as they can.  And lastly, for someone who has been described as being so personable and friendly, his willingness to walk away from so many people strikes me as cold.  Even in the movie's depiction of him, I found him selfish.

I have to admit, all I have to go on is the movie.  I have not educated myself on the facts.  So I will definitely read the book.  My real point is that the movie, whether or not you enjoy the story, is very good, because it forces you to form an opinion, to think about what you've seen.  I enjoyed that, and look forward to learning more.

1 comment:

Just a dreamer said...

There's a huge difference between naivete and egotism. I always thought Into The Wild was much more about the former. Maybe because that's the way the book is framed. If I recollect, Krakauer bookends the book with relevant experiences of his own. One in particular really hammers the theme of "naive".

Grizzly Man might also be a parallel.

So yes, read Krakauer, he's good. Maybe I'll see the movie eventually.