Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Into the Wild

We watched the film 'Into the Wild' last night. It is the story of Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old would-be Harvard School of Law student who decided to drop out of society and try living rough in Alaska for a time. He was inspired to do this by his lifelong love of reading Thoreau, Emerson, Jack London, and other idealistic American writers/thinkers with a love of nature and introspection. It is based on a true story, of sorts. There really was a Chris McCandless, but whether his story was much like what is depicted in this film is debatable. The film is based on a book called 'Into the Wild' by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer's version of Chris McCandless is also debatable!

To put it briefly, Chris McCandless was from a well-to-do family, but apparently found his parents hypocritical because of their materialism and constant fighting. The movie suggests that their marriage resulted from an affair--his mother was his father's mistress at the time of his conception. These things cause him to be troubled, and he decides to drop out of society, dub himself 'Alexander Supertramp' and become a homeless wanderer for two years, during which time he was preparing himself mentally and physically for an epic sojourn to Alaska where apparently he intends to find 'THE TRUTH'. Along the way, he touches many lives with his Buddha-like observations and emotional detachment.

You would think this happened in the 70s, when college kids were meant to 'tune in, turn on, and drop out', but no, McCandless missed the counterculture. He dropped out of society in 1990, and made his way to Alaska in 1992, carrying many books, a machete, a few odds and ends, a mixed up and naive head full of ideas, and a 10-lb bag of rice. He was lucky enough to find an abandoned bus in which he made his makeshift home. He survived 113 days.

The book by Jon Krakauer claims that he died by ingesting seeds of the wild potato plant, which led his body to shut down and cause him to starve to death, but lab tests reveal that the seeds are harmless. The fact, is Chris McCandless simply starved to death because he was an idealistic dreamer who was way out of his depth in the Alaskan wilderness. He tried to walk out on the 79th day, having realised that it's human company that provides true happiness (and also about the time he ran out of rice!), but could not cross the raging river that had been frozen over when he crossed it months before. For unknown reasons, rather than walking along the river to find another crossing, he returned to the bus, where he starved to death 33 days later. Perhaps he was afraid if he didn't follow the exact same 20-mile route back to the road, which he had marked as he went, he would get lost. This in spite of the fact that he had a map, showing a manual tram crossing one mile down the river, and another road 10 miles in the opposite direction from which he came. None of this is depicted in the movie. The movie shows him reaching his spiritual epiphany, being thwarted by the power of the river, then accidentally poisoning himself in a valiant attempt to live off the land.

It might sound as if I disliked the film. On the contrary, it is a wonderful film, riveting really. I didn't even dislike Chris McCandless, but I did find him frustratingly immature and idealistic. I agreed with so much of what he thought and said, admired a lot of his notions and observations, but I also wanted to just give him a shake and tell him to wake up. A character played by Vince Vaughan tries to do this, saying, 'You're a hell of a young boy, a hell of a young boy. It doesn't pay to get too deep into that shit.' Which I guess is as good a way as any to say it. I was unsure why every person he encounters is entranced with him and is crushed when he moves on. And I was left unsure why I should care that this privileged but wooly-headed boy managed to off himself in the most ridiculously misguided way since Timothy Treadwell ('Grizzly Man').

Good links, worth a read:

This one is from Men's Journal and is a real attempt to have an objective look at the story.
The Cult of Chris McCandless

And this one is just hilarious.
Ten True Facts about Chris McCandless, OR Alaska Scores Another Point for Natural Selection

If you have a chance to get this movie on DVD, I recommend it. It might even be fun to watch it as a double feature with 'Grizzly Man', if you're a cynical old thing like me!


Morandia said...

I don't know if you get the discovery channel over there, but...
Although I haven't noticed any spiritual revelations in the episodes I've seen, it's a very interesting show.

Derek said...

I liked the film, it was very well made, but I agree, he was rather immature in his outlook on life, and he was callous to never contact his parents or sister again, and some of his actions were insane (the river rapids for instance.) I never got to empathise with the character - he dies at the end in an old bus, big whup.

Fat-Free Vegan said...

You've piqued my interest, I never heard of this movie (or him) but maybe I'll have to look for it.

Fat-Free Vegan said...

So hubby and I have just watched the movie and we basically agreed with you on it. It was good, but we couldn't have much sympathy for him being as he didn't put much thought or preparation into the Alaskan part of the journey. We couldn't figure out why it wasn't enough to stay with some of the people he met on his journey, that would have been an interesting enough life and still separate from his family and the 'society life' he wanted to escape. Why go so far off alone?

I'm inclined to think he was schizophrenic as one site claimed, because he tended to write in the third person in his journal, and taking on the separate identity of Alex Supertramp. Maybe part of him, this alter-ego, wanted to kill of that part of him that was still Chris? In any case, it was an interesting movie. Thanks for turning us on to it.