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Portraying Nonfictional Tragedy: Krakauer’s "Into the Wild" and Its Filmic Adaptation - REVIEW

At the young age of twenty-four, Chris McCandless sought the adventure of a lifetime, which culminated into a trip to the Alaskan wilderness alone, with little food rations. Unfortunately, his adventure turned into a complete tragedy once his inexperience proved deadly, the story rapidly making headlines in 1992.

After writing an article on Chris, the journalist Jon Krakauer also wrote a novel in 1996, which focuses on Chris’s Alaskan adventure and on the people he left behind. It discloses interviews with the people who knew McCandless (in present tense) and even includes Chris’s hand notes which help Krakauer speculate on whom he might have been (appropriately in past tense). Overall, I enjoyed Krakauer’s at times surprisingly beautiful writing style and the back and forth between what are clearly interview transcripts and the formed narrative. The novel’s adaptation, however, drops the ball.

Into the Wild (2007) the movie was directed and co-written by Sean Penn, and it portrays the side of the story that is not directly present in the novel, that of Chris himself. In the movie, the viewers follow his adventure alongside him, in an adaptation that stays close to the source material. However, one of the biggest problems with the movie is in the protagonist’s character consistency: Chris (Emil Hirsch) sometimes appears mature and collected (giving his college funds to charity, providing great life advice) while other times he acts more like a clueless boy than anything else (burning what money he did not need but could have also given away; laughing all the time without reason). This inconsistency turns him into a caricature most times, Emil’s portrayal ultimately feeling empty since it lacks focus. Joined with great (and consistent) performances from Catherine Keener (Jan), Hal Holbrook (Ron Franz), and Vince Vaughn (Wayne), the protagonist is utterly outshined. Chris remains the enigma from the novel, but not in the way that produces more personal identification.

Regarding the movie’s style, while there were some great moments, there were just as many poorly-made ones where the lack of story and tonal consistency this time dim the overall experience. The numerous zoom-ins/-outs, the too many songs put over scenes where silence would have sufficed, the unmotivated drop in frame rate all meshed into an unfocused, chaotic ride. If we consider the tragic story at the heart of it all, then we also encounter the problem of glorification. Not once in the movie does the story condemn Chris’s actions, but, on the contrary, it almost idolizes his ideology: when Chris talks to Rainey, the latter makes a joke of Chris being Jesus, which is later reinforced visually by Chris’s naked body floating in the crucified position. Even his death is filmed to depict a martyr of pure freedom: the soft light brushes Chris’s features, one ray hitting his eye as he slowly dies in bus 142. Portraying real-life tragedy has its inherent responsibility of staying truthful, but it becomes even more serious when it can send the wrong message to impressionable audiences; caution can still be added to an exciting (and dangerous) journey.

While not so overtly, there is some glorification in the novel too, mostly emerging from the open identification between Krakauer and Chris: “That’s what was great about him. He tried. Not many do.” Toward the end, Krakauer stops Chris’s narrative to share his story about climbing the Devil’s Thumb (a dangerous mountain in Alaska) and surviving by a thread; it comes out of nowhere. Even if he believed the part necessary so that people would understand what he believes is his connection with Chris, it is still narratively unmotivated. Additionally, it excuses Chris’s actions and, unsurprisingly, many young people who read Into the Wild tried to survive in Alaska on the same bus and died or got injured. Still, I appreciated the novel more than the movie because the tragedy feels more acute. Also, it partly redeems itself with the factual information that would help readers learn from Chris’s mistakes, which is all that anyone can ask for from a tragedy: to not have it repeated.

Into the Wild the movie and novel present different sides to Chris McCandless’s real-life tragedy and enigmatic character. While I consider the book to have grasped its purpose better than the movie, they both deal with nonfictional tragedy according to their medium. The movie has some phenomenal performances and magnificently rich landscapes, while the book beautifully describes those young emotions of figuring someone’s purpose in life: “It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it.” Ultimately, it all boils down to the responsibility someone must take when attempting to write (or film) a real-life tragedy, making sure that their work will not encourage people in the wrong way.


“Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon.” - J. Krakauer

My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (from both the book and movie combined)



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