What does Into the Wild say about the state of wildness?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 19 2007 12:16 PM

Into the "Wild"

How a film and an essay reflect our changed ideas about nature.

Into the Wild. Click image to expand.
Emile Hirsch as Chris McCandless in Into the Wild

Tires crunch snow, molars crunch popcorn, and I think: Doesn't look so wild to me.

The italics and teeth are mine; the tires belong to the pickup that drops off Chris McCandless at the end of the road at the start of Into the Wild.

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Sean Penn's powerful film is based on John Krakauer's 1996 best seller of the same name, which brilliantly pieced together the puzzle of a young man who walked into the Alaskan wilderness and (no spoiler alert necessary, I think) never walked out. Harrowing in spots, the book nonetheless came as balm to a nation eager to believe that its newly revived interest in nature was overdone and it should probably just kick back with a six-pack and relax. Equally soothing, for some, was an essay by historian William Cronon published the year before in the New York Times Magazine. Titled "The Trouble With Wilderness," it argued that wilderness is "a human creation," and a recent one; in the wild, there is no such thing. Nearly every hectare of nature has a human history; to idealize untouched nature is to evade that history. "As we gaze into the mirror [wilderness] holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires."

Both Krakauer's book and Cronon's essay put a spike in the romantic notion of wilderness, but the spikes pointed in very different directions. Cronon said wilderness was not real. Krakauer said it was so real that it could kill you. The political upshot (with Newt Gingrich doing much of the shooting) was the same: Neither a mirage nor a monster needs protection. Neither is worth seeking out. Consign Muir, Thoreau, and Jack London if not to the flames then to the upper shelves, where they are less likely to lead environmentalists to foolish zeal or youngsters to a cold doom.

Close readings of Krakauer and Cronon would not yield such conclusions, but we are not a nation of close readers. We are a nation of watchers, which is why Penn's take on Into the Wild requires scrutiny. (We'll come back to Cronon later.) For Penn, the story is rich but fairly simple: a tale of heroic folly. Fleeing a bourgeois life that he feels (since learning of his father's bigamy) is a lie, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) takes to the road, lives on the edge, and finally walks into the Alaskan wild, all in search of his "true" life. In the wild, he discovers that life is with people; but then, by a trick of fate and hydrology, it is too late.

With tight close-ups of well-cast faces, Penn's film lets us feel both the disgust that drove McCandless away from society and (for a far longer span) the love that, belatedly, calls him back. Penn fares less well with landscape. We see the southwestern desert, the rapids of the Colorado, the foothills of Denali, places that enraptured McCandless; but in place of rapture we have establishing shots or travel footage of the sort that may beckon from the edge of this Web page. Even the Grand Canyon seems unremarkable until we meet a couple of backpackers from Copenhagen gleefully dispensing hot dogs. They are the scenic highlights, and not just because they're nearly naked.

Facescapes, by contrast, are traced as lovingly as if by a blind man's fingers. We walk out of the theater prepared to draw a topographical map of Hal Holbrook or Catherine Keener or even, God help us, Vince Vaughn. We walk out, strange to say, with our love of our neighbors restored. Borat, groping for America's dark netherparts, instead revealed its open hand and patient heart. McCandless, fleeing his family, finds surrogate fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. He turns up saints under every rock, on every concrete slab.

Penn is reasonably faithful to his source but his few infidelities are telling. In the book, a 16-year-old gamine throws herself at McCandless but is mostly dodged. In the movie, the incident is inflated into a nascent romance, though a chaste one. This is done, I guess, partly for the obvious Hollywood reasons and partly to make the finish more conventionally tragic: not just a lost life (those are a dime a dozen) but a lost love. Penn also twists the knife by adopting the earliest, and first discarded, of Krakauer's three theories of how the young man died: the one that makes him seem most like a chump.

Krakauer, from his own experience as a rock climber, knows that wilderness can offer an escape from oppressive family relations. But he doesn't think that this makes the wilderness quest any less real. Transcendence is, by definition, transcendence of something; if that something happens to be tawdry, so much the better. McCandless embarked on a mythic quest in more or less the prescribed manner. He walked into the wild armed with gifts given him by mages encountered along the way. Of the many "uses" of wilderness, this is not the least. Theoutcome was tragic, but if that outcome had not been possible—had it not been possible for the dragon to slay him—the quest would have been a joke.

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