Friday, May 23, 2008

Into the Wild

I read the book by Jon Krakauer when it first came out and I found it to be very disturbing. It is the true story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a promising young college graduate, who, instead of going to Harvard Law School as he suggested he might to his parents, heads West, with his ultimate goal being to live off the land in Alaska. The movie is very like the book: at least as much as a movie can be without running 12 hours. Emile Hirsch is great as McCandless. He has a friendliness and innocence about him that is necessary for this role. After leaving home and surviving a flash flood he destroys all identifying objects, i.e. driver’s license, social security card, license plate, family pictures, thereby destroying Christopher Johnson McCandless. He then adopts the name Alexander Supertramp. As Alex, he sets out on his journey meeting odd and interesting characters along the way. This portion of the story is very picaresque, reminding me of Huckleberry Finn. Alex is someone whom you can’t have as an acquaintance; he is someone whom people bond to automatically. He becomes quite close to everyone he meets and they all attempt to take care of him in their own way, but they also recognize that they have no claim on him and must let him continue his quest to reach Alaska. (***spoiler***don’t read on if you haven’t already seen the movie!) Although he is very bright, an avid reader, and has picked up some tips along the way, he is no match for nature. As a city kid, he just doesn’t have the skills he needs to survive in the wilderness and therefore his dream ends badly.
I responded to this film, this story, in a very personal way. Being the mother of a new college grad I look on McCandless’ story with horror. The scene where his father sits down in the middle of the street completely overcome with sadness touched me deeply. But then I think: how is what McCandless did different from those kids who drown themselves in alcohol and drugs? Those stories are much more familiar to me, much more common but equally as sad. I know that Krakauer writes about adventure and the people who crave adventure, but I didn’t see McCandless as an adventure seeker. I saw him as a na├»ve idealist wanting to simplify life, get back to the basics and mostly to separate him from society and what it represented to him:
“Society, man! You know, society! Cause, you know what I don't understand? I don't understand why people, why every fucking person is so bad to each other so fucking often. It doesn't make sense to me. Judgment. Control. All that, the whole spectrum. Well, it just...”
Maybe his quest was a better solution than to lose oneself in drugs and alcohol, maybe it is nobler, but for a city kid it is equally as dangerous. I suppose there was a chance that he could have survived in the wilderness. Maybe he could have survived, matured and gone on to be a healthy, functioning adult who may or may not have elected to participate in society. But he didn’t. This is the source of my trouble with the story. I want a happy ending. I don’t want to be reminded that even noble choices can be so wrong they are fatal. I don’t want to be reminded that we are so removed from nature that we can’t survive outside of the society we may despise. I don’t like facing the truth. It’s hard and it hurts. Of course that doesn’t mean that this is a bad story and it sure doesn’t mean it’s a bad film—it’s a great film! It’s just not a happy one.

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