Nice Try: Lost Nuance in Sean Penn’s Adaptation of ‘Into the Wild’
Timothy Treadwell, best known as the subject for Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, shunned society and left it behind, subsequently falling victim to his own convictions out in the wilderness. Treadwell, an American bear enthusiast, was mauled after 13 years of wildlife integration, in Alaska by a bear. This tragic story is reiterated throughout Krakauer’s novel, however takes the form in the story of Chris McCandless. This escape from societal norms is parasitic to Chris, and is shown throughout both media forms. Krakauer’s book is an examination of McCandless’ life and death, illustrated in such manner to evoke a feeling of caution and danger; while Penn’s film captures a jovial and emotionally shallow style, diluting Krakauer’s initial inflection of the story.
Initially, one is able to see throughout the film, the constant convivial attempt in Chris’ journey, not previously demonstrated in the novel. For instance when Chris is talking to Jan Burres about her estranged son, Chris puts up an emotional barrier in order to create a separation between his purpose and the purpose for others. However the impact Chris makes on Rainey and his wife is far to strong in the movie and none of what Krakauer had appropriated was exhibited in this scene. For example, “He’d successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arms length” (Krakauer 55). The passage illuminates McCandless’ deep problems with intimacy, which, however are essential in his ultimately fatal two year quest for peace and meaning. Penn destroys this idea by allowing Chris to become connected with Jan in a very sentimental manner, so much so that Chris almost becomes the son that Burres never had. Penn’s attempts at character development is diminished through this scene due to a lack of validity with Krakauer’s work.
Moreover, another aspect that is indispensable to the story is Krakauer’s ability to connect with Chris on a level met only by the shared desire to explore well beyond societal boundaries. Krakauer does not believe that McCandless is as naive or arrogant as he is understood to be. One could argue that Penn’s adaptation of the film, especially during Chris’ travels, is too childish or jovial. This however is countered by Krakauer’s deep relation to McCandless, and the youth they both once shared. Krakauer, “like Chris McCandless, [I] was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic” (Krakauer 155). The implication of this passage is that, had Chris survived, he likely would have matured; learning to gain intimacy, and to forgive flaws in those he loved. Penn, however, suggests throughout the film that Chris travels to escape his past through shadows covering only half of McCandless’ face, such as the scene when Chris reads, perched on top of a mountain overlooking the ocean. Without Krakauer’s fundamental role through personal experience, the film loses its validity.
Furthermore, one argument that can be made about Chris’ journey, is the over complication of the purpose of the escapade. Krakauer implies that Chris may have gone into the wilderness to die; an extreme method of revitalization only countered through Krakauer’s matured experience, through with Penn decides to cut. McCandless writes, “An extremist. An aesthetic voyager…Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shall not return” (Krakauer 163). The implication of this quote is to prove Chris’ complete deterrence from society, ultimately resulting in his predetermined death. Penn’s decision to purify the meaning of the escape, only to note that it is over when Chris finishes his revolution, is preposterous. McCandless will never finish his journey because it is an ongoing search for purpose and peace, counteracted by the savageness of nature.
Ultimately, Penn’s adaptation of the tragic love story between Chris McCandless and nature is ebbed throughout the film, losing Krakauer’s subtle, but important, timbre the audience deserves. Krakauer’s ability to associate with Chris while maintaining an unbiased perception allows the audience to appreciate and understand the volatility of his message. This cautionary tale is coherent with many memoirs of non-fiction events, however the sustained proficiency within Krakauer’s directive proves to be constructive to the story, while Penn loses this accessibility through a benevolent viewpoint. Chris’ adventure proves to be an insightful approach to the escape from everyday life and will continue to be, so long as nature stands in the way of man. “No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild” (Alexander Supertramp 163).
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