There are films that seem to have received their share of the attention of critics, and at the same time are underestimated. These, no doubt, include “Into the Wild” – the fifth film directed by S. Penn, released in screens in 2007. He hit the top ten films of the year, was nominated for a bunch of awards, critics unanimously gave the highest score to the leading actor E. Hirsch. And at the same time, the film about a guy who had everything and who gave up everything was never considered as the masterpiece of modern cinema as it really is. But it is not so often that a story is told in an extremely simple film language that makes you think about a lot: from the price you have to pay for gaining freedom, to the relationship between man and nature.
What became the literary basis of the film?
Seann Penn never concealed that he would not have filmed Into the Wild if not for the documentary book by D. Krakauer of the same name. Krakauer, himself an experienced climber, wrote it hot on the heels in 1996, four years after the death of Christopher McCandless. The story became a bestseller, it was translated into other languages (2.5 million copies were sold in total), and McCandless became a cult hero for some young nonconformists.
Among the readers of the 1996 bestseller was Sean Penn: he “swallowed” the book overnight, got the idea to make a film – and for 10 years persuaded McCandless’s parents to give permission to film adaptation.
What is the difference between a film and a book?
Considering the impression made by D. Krakauer’s documentary investigation on S. Penn, it is not surprising that in terms of events, the film is very close to the book. Moreover, just like Krakauer, Penn seeks to present McCandless’s story from different angles, giving the floor to the protagonist’s sister. By and large, the main difference between Krakauer’s book and the film is that the journalist immediately opens the cards, starting the book from the finale, that is, with the discovery of McCandless’s corpse (while in the film we see only the alarming awakening of the main character’s mother, who is tormented by nightmares about the fate of his son). This beginning sets a certain tone for the entire narrative: the author, for over 350 pages, has been trying to find an answer to the question “Why did this happen?” This is not to say that Penn does not care about this issue at all, but the film is about something else.
What is the movie about?
For all the colorful and conscientious reproduction of facts from the life of a real person, Into the Wild is more than a biographical film. Those critics are right who classify it as a road movie genre, that is, films whose heroes spend almost all of their screen time on the road. But to get to the deep meaning of “Into the Wild”, you need to understand why the standard examples of this genre were created by American cinema.
The main myth of America, contrary to popular belief, is not the story of Cinderella, but the story of a wanderer, lonely cowboy or traveler. And it’s not just that Americans as a nation are made up of descendants of immigrants. The road in any form – be it a trail in the middle of the Texas prairie of the 19th century or an ultra-modern highway – appears in American culture as a metaphor for the spiritual path. In other words, the hero does not just move from point A to point B: he grows as a person, meets people who are important to him, begins to better understand the world around him, and ideally acquires a new “I”.
The story of McCandless as interpreted by S. Penn is just the last case. As Chris-Alexander himself says: “The development of the human spirit is impossible without new experience. <…> People just need to look at the world differently. ” The film is not about a boy from a wealthy family who read a lot of books and decided to run away from everyone, but about a man who chose an unusual way to know himself and the world. Having abandoned all the benefits of a well-to-do life, McCandless “dies” to his former life, and it is no coincidence that he changes his name: the change of name marks the birth of a new personality. His journey is both a kind of initiation and a way of gaining freedom. You always have to pay for freedom, and therefore it is not so important how the long journey ended: “I have lived a happy life and thank the Lord.”
Could the film end with a happy ending?
But was Alexander Supertramp’s tragic ending inevitable? Objectively – no, because the hunters survived in no less wild conditions. If he had prepared properly, talked with experienced survivalists in Alaska, stocked up on everything he needed, etc., then at least he would have lasted until the moment he was discovered. But the fact of the matter is that the technical side was secondary to him: McCandless viewed Odyssey to Alaska as a test of his spiritual and physical capabilities, and, like all idealists, somewhat overestimated these capabilities. He wanted to enter into a constructive dialogue with nature and find unprecedented freedom, but the reality was not the same as in his favorite books. Nature exists by itself, and a person, if he wants to survive in it, must adapt to it, learn to play by its rules.
Thoreau, Tolstoy and a reference book of plants
For a film with much of the action taking place in nature, Into the Wild has a lot of focus on books. McCandless reads something all the time: if not classics, then a reference book of plants. And if everything is clear with the reference book, then its favorite authors: L. Tolstoy, J. London and G. Toro deserve more careful consideration.
Since Into the Wild was filmed in the era of postmodernism with its obligatory quotation and inner play of meanings, McCandless’s personal “golden shelf” is not only a reflection of his true literary passions, but also the key to the whole story. Like Thoreau, he seeks to experiment on himself; like the heroes of London, he goes to Alaska, and, like Tolstoy, who also decided to break with his family and his former life, he dies. This overlap of meanings is obvious for the director and the educated viewer, but not for the hero who wants to see only the positive side of the rejection of civilization and its benefits and associates himself with heroes who survive.
The “book” motive can be viewed in another context. Nature is also a huge book, even a multivolume book, the reading of which will not be enough for the longest human life. If Chris-Alexander had spent as much time studying this book as he had spent on fiction, then, you see, the result would have been different.
If McCandless’s parents had blessed Penn’s project in 1996, we could see DiCaprio in the title role, and M. Brando in the role of Ron Franz. But by the beginning of filming, DiCaprio had matured a lot, and Brando had died, and the film was a breakthrough in Emil Hirsch’s acting career. The actor reacted responsibly to the chance that fell to him: he lost 18 kg and studied the book of Krakauer. By the way, outwardly, he looks more like the real McCandless than DiCaprio.
All of the Alaskan episodes of the film were filmed in the same places where the true story unfolded, so the crew had to fly to Alaska 4 times to film the fall, winter, spring and summer.
The fate of McCandless inspired more than just Krakauer and Penn: the documentary The Call of the Wild was made about him and several songs were written.