World Hum Travel Movie Club: ‘Into The Wild’

Travel Blog  •  Eli Ellison, Eva Holland  •  03.04.08 | 11:44 AM ET

By now, you know the story. In 1990, a 22-year-old college grad named Christopher McCandless renounced his privileged upbringing, adopted the nom de drifter Alexander Supertramp, and turned to a new life of vagabonding. Two years later, Alaskan moose hunters found his corpse in an abandoned Fairbanks city bus outside Denali National Park. Jon Krakauer pieced together Chris’s odyssey and wrote the bestseller Into the Wild. Sean Penn‘s movie version of the book, which hit theaters last fall, arrives today on DVD. Eva Holland and Eli Ellison gave the disc a spin, exchanged e-mails and debated Hollywood’s adaptation of Into the Wild in the debut of the World Hum Travel Movie Club.

From: Eli
To: Eva
Subject: Into The Wild? Or Into The Wastebasket?

Two hours and 10 minutes into Penn’s overlong love letter to Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, a grizzly bear wanders into Chris’s camp. By this time, a starving Chris is too weak to speak. Good thing. At full strength, this self-righteous twerp surely would’ve lectured the bear on Emersonian idealism. The nicknames (Chris McClueless, Alexander Stupidtramp, and, of course, Jesus Christ McCandless) came easy. Setting aside my ambivalence about our hero and judging the quality of the film itself, did not.

Fresh off of seeing the movie, I read Krakauer’s excellent book. Have you, Eva? Penn is both this film’s best friend and worst enemy. While he’s stayed mostly faithful to the source material, the man just can’t help himself when it comes to over-the-top hagiography. Is that McCandless on a mountaintop striking yet another spinning Christ-like pose? Cue the Eddie Vedder soundtrack and put this baby in slow-mo.

Don’t get me wrong. I thought Emile Hirsch (as McCandless) did a nice job with a script that was poetic and soulful at times. As Chris zigzags his way through the American West, seeking truth and beauty, he befriends an RV hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) that become a sort-of surrogate family. The scenes with Hirsch and a brokenhearted Keener are subtle and seem true to life. But later, Penn is up to his heavy-handed tricks as McCandless dispenses Hallmark card wisdom to the surrogate father figures he meets (Vince Vaughn as Wayne; the great Hal Holbrook as a sad-eyed old man). 

Though Penn’s adaptation has its flaws and I’m conflicted about McCandless, I did ultimately enjoy the movie because it’s about something I can’t resist: wild eyed wanderlust and the call of the open road. Can’t wait to hear your take.

From: Eva
To: Eli
Subject: Penn’s parental monsters

I know exactly what you mean—separating what I thought of the movie from what I think of McCandless himself involved some heavy lifting.

into the wild book coverI, too, have read the book, and the first thought that struck me when I was watching the movie last night was this: Is Penn playing out some “Daddy issues” of his own? Because it seemed to me the biggest difference between the book and the movie—apart from some logistical tightening and shortening, obviously—is the way Chris’s parents are portrayed. In Penn’s version, they’re almost unrelentingly awful. I felt as though the movie was trying to suck away any sympathy that I might have for them, to make me feel that they deserved the pain they got. Which makes sense, in a way, because as you said, Penn is setting McCandless up for sainthood (or Messiah-dom) here, and the easiest criticism to launch at the kid—aside from a good zinger about how only a moron walks into the Alaskan wilderness with a pair of rubber boots and a 10-lb bag of rice—is a line about how selfish he was to leave his family wondering and grieving and probably blaming themselves. It makes me a little sick just thinking about what they must have gone through.

Maternal instincts aside, there was a lot to like. Sure, Penn overdid the slow-mo and the super-imposed images and fade-outs—and while we’re at it, I was sick of the bright yellow font spelling out Chris’s postcards across the screen before the opening credits were through. You mentioned Keener—I thought she was fantastic, and all the other supporting characters nailed their parts, too. I’m a big Hirsch fan, and I thought he did a good job, especially in the scenes where he was forced to carry things alone. (Quick, somebody get the kid a volleyball!)

But the real stars, for me, were the landscapes. Alaska actually didn’t turn my crank as much as I expected (maybe because I’ve got all the snow and ice I need right now here at home), but who knew South Dakota would be so appealing? And the American Southwest—that’s your stomping grounds, Eli. Is it that pretty in real life?

I’ll give Penn major props for one thing—he could have jumped straight to the Alaskan tragedy, wallowed in the bus a lot longer and cut loose most of McCandless’s earlier wanderings. But he didn’t, and the scenes in Arizona, California and Nevada were some of my favorites in the movie. In those scenes, Hirsch made his character really come alive, and I could feel (and relate to) the joy he took from just soaking up the world. It’s like you said: “I liked the movie because it’s about something I can’t resist: wild eyed wanderlust and the call of the open road.”

Speaking of being able to relate—I’m going to end this round on a mildly provocative note. This movie (and the book, for that matter) seems like one of those cult things where if I come down too hard on it, or argue too strongly about McCandless being McClueless, it’s only a matter of time before some mountain man hopped up on oxygen tells me that I just don’t understand, because it’s, you know, a guy thing. What do you think? Does “Into the Wild” resonate with the most secret part of your male soul? Does it touch on the essence of manhood in America?

From: Eli
To: Eva
Subject: You sound like my shrink

Oh, no. I thought we were gonna have a fun little Sean Penn hate-fest, and now you’re talking Daddy issues and asking me about my male soul? Ok, Doctor Holland, I’ll bite.

But before I address manhood in America, let’s talk more Penn. Where did this man go to film school? YouTube University? He’s got absolutely gorgeous footage shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), yet insists on using his own ham-handed camera work as well. The result is a weird mish-mash of styles. One minute you’re soaring over the Alaskan wilderness in a classically composed shot. And the next you’re watching a shaky hand-held documentary, followed by annoying jump cuts. I know he’s aiming to make an anti-Hollywood modern day Easy Rider, but Sean, you’re no Laszlo Kovaks.

You’re right, Eva, the scenery is the star of the show. And yes, the Southwest is even more mind-blowing in person (try southern Utah sometime). But I have to disagree with you on Hirsch. I thought the kid did best when acting with the supporting cast. Alone, in the wild, I don’t know. I didn’t think he had much presence. On the other hand, I wasn’t looking for Tom Hanks hamming it up with a volleyball.

Does the story resonate with my male soul? Yes and no. Like Krakauer, I see some of my younger self in Chris. In college, I was a bit of a harebrained hippie with a VW bus and a passion for the great outdoors. These days, and I hate to quote Pete Townsend here, I’m what you’d call “an air conditioned gypsy.” Last fall in Canyonlands National Park, I found the most remote hiking trail I could, walked from sun-up to sun-down, cursed consumer culture and jotted profundities in a notebook. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t wait to get out of the wild and into the motel hot tub with a cold beer. Guess I’m missing the Boy Scout survivalist gene. As for your essence of manhood theory, yeah, I think there’s a little Jeremiah Johnson in many American males. But most of us don’t have the time to figure ourselves out in the Alaskan bush. We’re too busy trying to figure out women.

From: Eva
To: Eli
Subject: Tolstoy and travel porn

In my first year of college, I thought it was pretty wild that there were dudes in this world who sit around highlighting passages in old literary classics and then try to model their lives on them (in this case, there seems to be a whole lot of Thoreau and Byron and Tolstoy involved), but I got over it pretty fast. The problem with McCandless—or at least, Penn’s version of McCandless—is that he’s an ideologue. He’s so convinced that his way of living is the right way that it becomes an excuse to treat non-believers (namely, his parents) like shit. Were we supposed to be sympathetic while he was tearing his parents a new one for offering to buy him a car? Seriously? Fine, kid, you don’t want the car. Let me introduce you to the concept of declining graciously.

One thing I found interesting in the book—and that doesn’t come through in the movie—is Krakauer’s idea that McCandless fits into a sort of tradition of young men finding themselves (and losing themselves) in the American wilderness, that he followed a well-traveled path in some ways. I guess it would have been pretty hard to work in some of those other examples Krakauer provided, but I think doing so might have helped show that there’s more going on with McCandless than just an angry rebellion against his parents and, like, conformity and stuff. I think Penn’s emphasis on the “Daddy issues,” as we’ve dubbed them, robs McCandless of a little credit. It’s clear from the book that he was a unique, charismatic and driven individual—I can’t help but feel that in his efforts to beatify McCandless (and I’m totally with you on the uneven-ness of those efforts, cinematographically speaking), Penn has actually let him down.

It’s clear we’re both torn on the overall quality of the film, and on the character of McCandless himself. I’m also torn on the “travel porn” factor—did this movie make you want to hit the road, or does it wind up being more of a cautionary tale?

From: Eli
To: Eva
Subject: The Supertramp Show

christopher mccandlessPhoto of Christopher McCandless at Fairbanks City Bus 142 via Wikipedia

Chris’s ideologue issues lead to what I think you’ll agree is the film’s main problem. The parents are one thing, but the people Chris meets on the road aren’t exactly cubicle drones. They live on the fringe. But that doesn’t stop Chris from lettin’ them have it anyway. Oh, Penn makes half-hearted stabs at having these characters question Chris, but mostly they’re just passive observers at the Supertramp Show. While Penn doesn’t shy away from Chris’s screw-ups (the swollen river, the maggot-infested moose meat, etc.), I don’t think he ever believes for one second that Chris might just be a bit of a loon. According to the humorless Penn, the great big bad world is exactly as McCandless perceives it to be.

Let’s talk travel porn. I rate this picture high on the wanderlust scale. We’ve bashed Penn endlessly, and now it’s time to give him his due for actually shooting in all the real locations. As I said before, the movie is soulful at times (did I really say that?). And as a celebration of the American West, it exceeded my expectations. When the credits rolled, I wanted to kill my TV and hit the highway.

I didn’t see the movie as a cautionary tale. Did you? I think most of us already know you don’t head out into the Alaskan wild with a bag of rice and a copy of Walden unless you’re willing to risk paying the ultimate price.     

I know you’re about to hit the road for a long spell. Has the movie inspired you to torch your cash and turn to a life of vagabonding?

From: Eva
To: Eli
Subject: Materialism and wanderlust

Cautionary tale? I guess what I meant by that was, there’s a risk inherent in the mindset of someone like McCandless. We all know about the physical dangers he ran into, but I think there’s some danger built into his attitude, too. I guess that’s why I object to the idea of young men emulating him—cutting yourself loose from the “yoke” of materialism and conformity and society, to the extent that he did, is almost always going to end badly, I think. There’s a scene in the movie when McCandless tells Holbrook’s character that there’s more to life than human interaction; that was the moment when the character really lost me. Trees and rivers over family and friends? Really?

But enough of the emotional stuff. You’re right, Eli. It’s always fun to poke holes (especially where Penn is concerned—the guy might as well have a bull’s eye on him) but the movie was a visual treat. I think if I’d been watching it on a big screen, I might not even have noticed half the flaws—I’d have been too busy taking in those big skies and open roads.

And yes, the movie definitely upped my wanderlust level, just in time, too. I’ll be spending the next month on the road in the Southern U.S., and though I won’t be setting my cash on fire anytime soon, I’ll hope to take a little bit of Christopher McCandless’ sense of adventure with me.

Eli Ellison

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

10 Comments for World Hum Travel Movie Club: ‘Into The Wild’

craig of 03.04.08 | 10:35 PM ET

No one is going to mention how the movie casually omitted his inability to find that bridge not to far from his bus (that would’ve easily allowed him to cross the stream / save his life)?

Walk down stream and find another place to cross, buddy. (if not a town in the process)

Michael Yessis 03.05.08 | 10:32 AM ET

I would have liked to have seen that addressed, too, Craig.

I think the movie suffered without one of the more intriguing parts of Krakauer’s book, namely the presence of Krakauer. For me, a key part of the book was Krakauer’s retelling of his climb up Devil’s Thumb. He almost died, recklessly, and that experience colored his take on McCandless. By filtering McCandless’s experiences through his own similar experiences, Krakauer, a writer I love, helped me see him as more than “Alexander Stupidtramp.” I didn’t get that same feeling with Penn.

I’m wondering, though, if I’m asking too much of Penn. Would it have been possible to craft a coherent narrative with that sort of third-party reflection, or is that kind of thing better left to documentaries and books?

One more thing: You both praise Keener. I had a tough time getting past some of the stiff dialogue that she had to deliver, particularly the scene where she’s talking about the leather tramps.

Eli 03.05.08 | 3:52 PM ET

I was trying to stay away from movie vs book comparisons. But I hear you, Craig. Question for you. I’m not trying to defend Penn (see indictment above), but cinematically, how do you address the bridge (it was actually a pulley/basket suspended over the river)? Penn has you in the moment with Chris, which I liked. Now, do you suddenly break from that, pan down the river and show the escape route? I suppose the fact could’ve been mentioned in the sister’s narration or the epilogue. On second thought, you’re right. Penn is playing games with us by ignoring a key part of the story. Penn’s “pot” seed theory also differs from the book.

What’s the matter Mike? You didn’t like the sister’s sappy narration? Of course Krakauer’s POV is missed. This is a bad example, but why not do parallel story lines, ala Godfather Part II? In one, we follow Chris. In the other, we see a series of vignettes: Devil’s Thumb, Everett Ruess in Utah, Gene Rosselini in Alaska, Chris’ parents, etc. Tie it all together with Krakauer’s narration and boom: instant classic. Of course, we’re talking an exact copy of the book here. Penn’s ego would never allow it.

If you’re looking for an Into The Wild doc, Mike. There was one released last year: Ron Lamothe’s (who?) Call of the Wild:
I haven’t seen it.

As for Keener. Yeah, some of the dialogue is a little stiff. But I felt a connection between her and Hirsch.

Eva Holland 03.05.08 | 11:10 PM ET

“Would it have been possible to craft a coherent narrative with that sort of third-party reflection, or is that kind of thing better left to documentaries and books?”

It would have been a gamble, but I think it could have been really cool if it worked - you’re right, having Krakauer’s story layered with Supertramp’s really helped in the book.

I dunno, I guess it’s always tough with beloved books. But I think taking more risks with the script, like the ideas Eli described, really could have paid off.

Tim Patterson 03.06.08 | 1:12 AM ET

I’m with Michael - Krakauer’s confessional about his climb up Devil’s Thumb with a cross of curtain rods on his back was my favorite part of Into The Wild, the book. 

Haven’t seen the movie yet.

Michael 03.08.08 | 12:16 PM ET

I agree with many of the arguments about the movie compared to the book.  I feel the focus was on more of the relationship with the parents instead of the journey.  My main complaint that I have about people putting down Chris McCandless is that we next put down men like John Muir who had a very similar expedition out into the world.  The difference is that McCandless’s destination was Alaska and Muir’s ended up being California.  I don’t mean to compare the two directly because nobody knows what may have become of McCandless’s life if he survived, but we have to remember that the only way to change things is to go outside of them.  Either way a well done book and a good movie to entice the viewer to head out on the road.

Mitch Jones 03.10.08 | 10:47 PM ET

I agree with many of the comments here, but i must say… i enjoyed the movie and i commend Penn for creating a product that at the very least is thought provoking and fresh.  I love movies and especially films that present a sense of adventure.  I guess i will go against the heard here and say i enjoyed the film and felt Penn did a great job. 
I also felt that the focus on the parents was uncomfortable, but…McCandless was clearly detached from reality and that is often a symptom of someone who feels this “Godlike” quality that McCandless owned.  In his mind he was justified in every action, does not make it right, just is what it is.
Thanks to everyone who wrote a review… i have enjoyed reading them.

Eli 03.11.08 | 9:40 PM ET

Muir is best known for his Sierra Nevada adventures. But he also took a few Alaska trips. Michael, check out “Travels In Alaska.”

victor barriera 03.12.08 | 9:00 PM ET

Visually, the film is breathtaking. I do agree Emile did portray McCandless’ “human” side better with the supporting cast. One scene quickly comes to mind, where he’s at the bar with Vince Vaughns’s character. They trade back and forth “SOCIETY!!!” I found his portrayal of McCandless’ social angst to be particularly convincing. Beforehand all I knew was that it was a true story, but was not up to date on Supertramp’s horrid fate. I have to admit that the story grabbed me like none other, and I found myself in the following days Googling everything I could about his journey. I was borderline-obssessive on all things McCandless. After the magic faded, my objectivity slowly returned and I began looking at his amazing story with new eyes. Did Sean Penn look to make him seem larger-than-life, canonic, if you would?? I honestly don’t think he did. We may never know for sure the exact details, but his story is definitely larger than life and I see how many people can relate to it. Ultimately his overconfidence (some say stupidity), I would say did him in. Nonetheless, it takes a huge set of knockers to do what he did. I fully agree a postcard to the family was way overdue, i mean come on, he took time to writeto Wayne Westerberg, he he just met!!! He definitely had his issues, but i doubt he was suicidal. MAYBE, he didn’t mind dying in his own Alaskan paradise of starvation. That’s barely suicidal in my opinion. If it’s true that the pictures of him sitting in front of the bus and of him holding up his farewell letter were taken a mere 2 weeks before his death, he looks pretty contempt and serene for a person knowing he’s going to die. And I think his biggest discovery was that society somehow strips us of that serenity and peace; yet he found a way to take it all back on his own terms. For that I salute him. Did Hollywood twist his image in favor of a more Messiah-like persona in order to cash in on his tragedy?? Most definitely. The truth is we’ve all undoubtedly by now read all the interviews and articles. All who met him agree on him being an exceptional human being, even magical. That essence is what Sean Penn captured brilliantly. Excellent review!!!! Very funny!!!

PS. Give ol’ Sean Penn a break, will ya??? He’s brilliant!!!

Michelle 03.31.08 | 4:03 PM ET

I just watched the movie last night and have yet to read the book (although it’s 2nd on my list after I fulfill my bookclub obligations).

In response to whether or not the movie is a cautionary tale I would have to say yes. At the end - the final quote he writes (which I have no idea if it was purely movie scriptor not) “happiness if only real when shared” shows me that he’s realized the cost of adventures.

Of course there are going to be those who think they can do a journey like this on their own with the same or less experience/supplies. There will always be those people regardless of whether or not Chris had done this. I don’t begrudge them or think them to be stupid - to each his own.

I found the movie to be extremely moving and really loved it (although it was a bit long). I’m not a movie critic but thought it was done beautifully!

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