The month of August marks the 25th anniversary of Christopher McCandless’ mysterious death. We look back at the big screen adaptation of his life’s adventures.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
The Stampede Trail, located in the U.S state of Alaska, is an old mining road that is only partly paved. The remainder of the trail is a primitive and dangerous hiking route through the tundra. Today, millions of travellers from around the world visit the Stampede trail.
The long and tedious Alaskan trail leads to the dilapidated Fairbanks City Transit System Bus 142 aka the ‘Magic Bus’, where Christopher McCandless lived for several months –from April until August in the year of 1992 when he is believed to have starved to death.
Christopher McCandless who also went by the name Alexander Supertramp, after graduating from college in 1990, gave up his law school fund to Oxfam, abandoned all possessions and hiked off into the wilderness, in search of a better way to live. Away from society, away from the rat race, away from a life owned and controlled by money.
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”
Following McCandless’ death, Jon Krakauer wrote a piece in the 1993 January issue of the Outside, which he followed up with a non-fiction book in 1997; ten years later, Sean Penn reimagined it for the big screen under the same name, Into the Wild.
Ten years have passed since it premiered at the Rome Festival, and it is now considered to be among the cult classics of the early 2000s. The movie certainly made sure that McCandless’ life story rose up to the stature of that of a modern myth so much so that one of the more famous websites – among the many created by those inspired by his story – has an entire section for the many creative and inspiring papers submitted by people about his life and his adventures.
Despite studies done about his psyche and the poetic subtext of his life, he still remains an ever-so-polarising figure and so does the debate over the cause of his death. Recognised by his fans as an inspirational romantic figure for his free-spirited idealism, his detractors and critics describe him as a foolhardy greenhorn who wasn’t prepared for the Northern wilderness. Whatever the judgement, McCandless’ life certainly struck a chord. Like the Eddie Vedder song from the movie: “Society/You’re a crazy breed/I hope you’re not lonely/Without me”.
It is clearly visible from Sean Penn’s big screen adaptation of the young man’s voyage –across America, to Alaska, and to the depths of his young soul – that the actor-director respects the subject he is handling. Penn has directed Into the Wild with a spellbinding prowess that elevates the story of what is a young naive youth, as many would argue, to a true revolutionary who challenged the status quo.
“Don’t hesitate or allow yourself to make excuses. Just get out and do it. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did.”
Penn stays close to the source material. Similar to the book, the actor-director traces McCandless’ journey through the memories of the people who he encountered: Rainey and Jan Buress (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener) who are leftover hippies still happily rejecting society, Wayne (Vince Vaughn), a hard-drinking friendly farmer, and Ron (Hal Holbrook), an older man who begins to think of him as a wayward grandson.
“You’re wrong if you think the joy of life comes from human relationships,” is one of the last things he says to Ron before he disappears into the unforgiving wilderness of Alaska. McCandless blissfully embraces nature as he gives up on humanity entirely, which makes one wonder that such strong animosity has to come from a place of deep aversion. Maybe from his feelings towards his parents and the unconscious need within him to punish them for their treatment of his sister and himself when they were kids.
“No phone. No pool. No pets. No cigarettes. Ultimate freedom… No longer to be poisoned by civilization, he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become Lost in the Wild.”
Alaska was everything he had ever dreamed of. McCandless finds an abandoned bus out in the tundra and makes it his home, hunts like a caveman and lives off the land.
But the Alaskan landscape is a zero-tolerance system, and McCandless managed to only survive for 100 days before his decomposing body weighing just 30 kilograms was found by hunters in Bus 142. The last few weeks are reconstructed by Penn based on the journals, pictures and other evidence left behind by McCandless. And, Emile Hirsch, who plays him, soars as he embodies the dying 24-year old, turning skeletal with a sunken ashen face and eyes that burn with an ironic fervour.
The last bit of note McCandless supposedly scribbled on his journal said, “Happiness is only real when shared,” a contradiction to what he had previously believed in – that joy cannot come from human relationships. This gives the audience a searing realisation that our truths may vary in different stages of our lives, and even if this is so, we must nevertheless value and honour our decisions – good or bad.
Whatever your takeaway may be of Christopher McCandless, one cannot but agree that Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a movie of real beauty. We all have elements of McCandless in all of us and this cinematic re-imagination of his life strongly pushes us to explore it a bit more.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with the desire to explore life through the stories he chases. He currently works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.