In 2008 I posted a review of a movie called Into the Wild. It was a Sean Penn directed film dramatizing the last couple of years in the life of Chris McCandless who hiked alone into the Alaskan wilderness, became stranded, and starved to death sometime in the late summer of 1992. The movie was certainly engaging. Penn – his radical leftist nuttery aside – did a good job detailing this young man’s life and death.
At the time, I stated in my review how I was bothered by Penn’s portrayal of McCandless as some anti-traditionalist, leftist tramp who found the true meaning of life as a transient freegan. Penn painted him as a hero we should emulate.
I, on the other hand, saw a selfish, ungrateful young man who didn’t respect his parents, and his voyage into the wilderness was his way of running from his bitterness. While this movie was oddly compelling as a biographical story, it didn’t stir in me any sympathy for this McCandless character and his plight. He was foolish and naive about the danger of living in the Alaskan wilderness, and in a way, had it coming when he got stranded in the middle of nowhere. It made me wonder why there was a need to even make a movie about him.
A volunteer friend of mine knew I had watched the movie, so she loaned me her copy of the John Krakauer book to read. I did, and I have to say my opinion of the young man has change a bit.
Books rarely translate into movies well. Anytime you see a movie that has been made from a popular novel, without fail, you’ll come across that one person who gushes on and on how the book is so much better than the movie. For my wife and I, neither of us have read any of the Harry Potter novels. I just started listening to them in audio format. All of our understanding of Harry Potter’s world has been shaped by the movie series. Each time a new one comes out, we have to shield ourselves from those Potter purists or have our movie going experience ruined.
But I digress.
Obviously, Penn and his production company are limited with the amount of material they can cover in order to make this movie. I expected as much; but in the case of the book and the movie, Penn’s version of Into the Wild lacked some important details about McCandless that made his portrayal of him a tad incomplete. At least I don’t recall any of these details discussed in the film. Having seen the movie and then read the book, intentionally or not, it actually irritates me Penn overlooked mentioning one significant family issue that shaped this young man’s motivation.
I’ll get to that in the moment.
I think many of my readers are familiar with the story. Upon graduating from Emory University, Chris McCandless, a bright young man from a well-to-do family, gave away his life savings, abandoned his possessions, and dropped out of life. For two years or so, none of his family or friends knew where he was or what became of him. Then, in September of 1992, his body was found in a junked out bus near the border of the Denali National Park in Alaska.
The author, Jon Krakauer, traces the last two years of his life leading up to his demise in Alaska. He locates the people McCandless knew during those two years and from their testimony about his life, sketches out what happened to him after he disappeared in the spring of 1990.
Rather than being a homeless advocating folk hero that was depicted in Penn’s movie, Krakauer’s version of McCandless is a more admirable character, even though I personally think he was seriously unwise to travel across the American Southwest by himself.
Overall there are few areas where Krakauer’s book fills in detail surrounding this young man’s life that Penn’s movie left out.
First, the book provides much more information about the people McCandless encountered. The one person I was intrigued by was the pseudonymous “Ron Franz,” a lonely widower in his 80s. McCandless met him near the Salton Sea in Southern California and the two became fast friends, a relationship the movie presents well with Hal Holbrook as Franz.
After losing his wife and son in an automobile accident, Franz remained unmarried the remainder of his life and spent a lot of his time as a mentor to several local kids from hard backgrounds, even helping two of them through college and medical school. When he met McCandless, his “paternal” interest were stirred once again, and Franz befriended him, helping out financially and even teaching him leather work.
What is missed in the movie, but recorded in the book, is McCandless’s influence upon Franz. After McCandless left for Alaska, he wrote to Franz suggesting he experience life out-of-doors as it were. When Franz received his letter, he did just that: He bought a camper, moved near the Salton Sea, and lived out under the stars for several months.
Kraukuer makes a point to describe how Franz was a “devout Christian,” though he doesn’t provide any specifics as to where he attended church. Eight months after McCandless had left for Alaska, on Dec. 26th, Franz picked up a couple of young hitchhikers near Salton City. As they got to talking, Franz told them about his friendship with McCandless and his trip to Alaska. The description happened to “click” with one of the young guys and he sadly informed Franz that he had just read about his death in an issue of Outdoor magazine.
Kraukuer writes that upon hearing that news, Franz instantly became an atheist, renounced the Lord, and removed his name from church membership. According to Franz, when his friend left on his Alaskan trip, he had prayed for God to watch after him, but obviously, at least to Franz, God didn’t hear his prayer.
As a Christian, I already know the answer to my own question, but when I hear stories like this one, I am always left wondering, why would a person abandon all belief in God just because his personal expectations were not met? I wish I could have had the opportunity to talk to the guy when he heard the tragic news of his friend.
A second area where the book fills in more detail than what the movie offers is the significant family matter I noted previously. From what I got from the movie, McCandless came from a typical, upper-middle class, well-to-do family. The stereotypical east coast family where all the kids are stunningly beautiful, attend ivy league schools, and play lacrosse.
The movie was meant to suggest how McCandless threw off the shackles of his boring, middle class prison to become a man of the true world. He is pictured as the enlightened, environmental socialist do-gooder who had transcended his intellectual and emotionally stifling world of suburbia.
His parents were shown to be nice, loving people, but aloof to what really mattered in life, especially those things in the life of their son. Even though they were good to him, they were overbearing, wanting to mold Chris into their cookie-cutter WASPy life. Whereas the director, Penn, held up McCandless as an archetype of what true freedom is, I saw the character Penn painted as selfish, bitter, brash, and ultimately receiving the comeuppance of his own foolishness.
The book reveals to us, however, that there was a few more layers of complexity between Chris and his parents that were ignored by the movie. The most significant is that after his father separated from his first wife and married the woman who would be Chris’s mother, he maintained a double-life by continuing a relationship with his first wife, even producing a child, a situation Chris never knew about until after high school. When this unseemly part of his father’s life came to light, Chris, feeling betrayed, withdrew emotionally from his parents.
That little detail framed his perspective much better for me. I can understand how a worldly, idealistic, and strong-headed young man would be troubled by such revelations. So much so that he would feel the need to “get away,” strike out on his own and find his place in the world. Yet his reaction was to a sinful indiscretion and personal let-down that he doesn’t wish to deal with, and regrettably, he paid for it with his life.
A third detail is where McCandless died. The movie gave the impression, at least to me, that he was deep into the Alaskan wilderness away from any known civilization. When he realized he was trapped by a raging river, McCandless might as well have been on the moon, because he was miles and miles from possible rescue.
In reality, however, he was only 20 miles or so west of the small town of Healy, AK, on a well known trail that is traveled frequently by hunters and hikers, that after reading Krakauer’s description of his location, I am actually surprised McCandless didn’t encounter anyone else the time he was alone in the wilderness.
Additionally, once he realized the river he needed to cross was impassible, if he had invested in a detailed, topographical map, rather than the simple one he had with him, he could have walked north about a half mile from his position at the bus and found a park ranger gauging station with a basket suspended on a cable over the river. Krakauer ironically notes that when he found the gauging station a year or so after McCandless’s death, the basket was on his side of the river. It would had been nothing for McCandless to have pulled himself across and walk out back to town.
Moreover, south of the bus about 6 miles were some ranger cabins well stocked with food, and only 4 miles south, a privately owned cabin with similar supplies. In fact, the privately owned cabin was vandalized the summer when McCandless was in the wild, and the owner believes he is the prime suspect for the damage, suggesting that McCandless found the cabin shortly after he arrived in the area and thrashed the place as his way of getting retribution against a piece of “civilization” intruding into his wilderness adventure.
Yet, all of that is hindsight now. At points, Krakauer tries to make elaborate excuses for McCandless’s apparent lack of preparation for wilderness living. But let’s be honest: It doesn’t matter how smart and industrious McCandless may have been as a young man, he demonstrated a serious failure in wisdom walking into unknown wilderness without the proper clothing and basic survival needs, like a compass. A 5 pound bag of rice and a .22 rifle ain’t gonna be enough.
One last bit of information Krakauer provides in his book is his discussion of other similar young men who have been lost in the wild. One Alaska park ranger dubbed it “the McCandless Phenomenon:” The bizarre fascination misty-eyed, romantic-minded, 20-somethings have with trying to conquer the wilderness. Krakauer gives a biographical sketch of similar guys like McCandless. For instance, Everett Ruess who disappeared in the southern Utah desert in the 1930s, the eccentric John Waterman who also died in Alaska during the 70s, and Texan, Carl McCunn, who moved to Alaska, went on a summer long camping trip, only to commit suicide before dying of starvation because he forgot to arrange for a bush pilot to pick him up at summer’s end.
Sketching out these stories also allows Krakauer to reminisces about his climb of Devil’s Thumb peak in southern Alaska. The retelling of his story takes up two chapters in the book, and I thought it slowed down the pace. It felt narcissistic; as if he just wanted to insert himself into the theme of oddball men attempting to conquer the wild. A reader can skip it and pick up with his journey to the so-called “magic school bus” where McCandless’s body was found.
And, as strange as it is, the school bus has become something of a tourist attraction since the publication of Krakauer’s book, in some cases, a shrine of pilgrimage for many folks. A web search for “Chris McCandless,” “Into the Wild” and “school bus” will pull together a host of personal blogs, websites, and Youtube videos of people chronicling their trek down the Stampede trail and to the abandoned bus where McCandless’s body was found.
Krakauer’s book is certainly a fascinating read, and like I noted at the outset, his record of Chris McCandless makes me more sympathetic to him by giving me a clearer perspective of the young man than what Penn’s movie did. Yet I still agree with the Alaskan locals that McCandless isn’t the anti-traditionalist hero who should be imitated. At least the hero many of the college aged tourists who pilgrimage to that bus make him out to be. I tend to agree with park ranger, Peter Christian, who wrote about McCandless, “When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic and inconsiderate.”
One interesting footnote is a documentary that came out around the time of Penn’s theatrically released film that attempts to debunk the Krakauer/Penn interpretation of McCandless’s demise of poisoning himself with wild plants. What this documentary purportedly does is to show that McCandless died of starvation because, as he wrote in a note to potential hikers who may had come to that bus, he was injured and didn’t have the strength to leave.