Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Books and Films, Into the Wild

I picked up two of my library reservations this afternoon. Both titles have been adapted into films and I'm the sort of person who keeps an eye out for film tie-ins all the time.

The first was Nightwatch -- the Russian vampire-supernatural thriller by Sergei Lukyanenko. I saw the teaser posters for Daywatch at the local cinemas last weekend and I decided to throw Nightwatch into my R.I.P. II Challenge.
Movie poster for 'Into the Wild'

The other was Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. The recent interest was piqued when I was browsing a recent issue of Outside magazine, which was running a feature on the upcoming film adaptation of Krakauer's book. (Outside also run the original 1993 story Jon Krakauer wrote on Christopher McCandless for the magazine, available here)

Sean Penn wrote and directed the film. (The film is scheduled for a September release in the US.) There's some big names attached to the film: Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener.

I admit I was drawn to the romance of the subject. On September 1992, a decomposed body was found in an abandoned bus on a disused mining trail. The deceased had apparently died of starvation. He had no identification with him, and his journal chronicled a descent into sickness and slow death after 112 days alone in the wilderness.

When they finally identified the body, it revealed that he was Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old Honours graduate, star athlete, and beloved brother and son from a wealthy but dysfunctional East Coast family. He was something of a romantic, fond of Leo Tolstoy, Jack London and Thoreau. McCandless rechristened himself "Alexander Supertramp," cut all ties with his family, gave his trust fund to charity, and embarked on a two-year odyssey that brought him to Alaska, where he hoped to find his true self by renouncing society and living off the land. When he was found dead, his tale became something of a legend, an inspirational tale of an American solitary hero.

If you're interested in the film, here's the Into the Wild movie site

I was surfing the net earlier and via Worldhum, I came across a Men's Journal article by Matthew Power which doesn't quite buy into the romance of McCandless. Perhaps in our desire for a hero, some clever editing has been done to the real story.

From almost the moment he was found, the meaning of Chris McCandless's life and lonely death has been fiercely argued. The debate falls into two camps: Krakauer's visionary seeker, the tragic hero who dared to live the unmediated life he had dreamed of and died trying; or, as many Alaskans see it, the unprepared fool, a greenhorn who had fundamentally misjudged the wilderness he'd wanted so desperately to commune with. If the cult that has grown up around McCandless is any indication, we want the romantic portrait to be true: that he made a series of small mistakes that compounded in disaster. But the truth doesn't always conform to Hollywood's ideals.

Part of the argument against mythologizing McCandless was that the young man's death was essentially due to inadequate knowledge of living long-term in the wilderness and bad luck. As the native Alaskans know it: "the Alaska wilderness is a good place to test yourself. The Alaska wilderness is a bad place to find yourself." There were some who even suggested that McCandless might not have been in his right mind.

Powers also highlighted the difference between Sean Penn's film adaptation and Jon Krakauer's book:

But whereas Krakauer showed both sides of McCandless -- the hapless tenderfoot and the enlightened eternal seeker -- Penn presents only the latter version. His McCandless is almost Christlike. It is a deeply mythic take on a character who is largely a cipher. Clearly, in Sean Penn's eyes, Into the Wild is a story about something profound and universal in the human spirit, a longing for freedom and a pure connection to the natural world that's been lost.

There's obviously conflicting versions of the McCandless story in both book and film. From Matthew Powers' article, Sean Penn seems out to create a cult-hero, perhaps at the expense of objectivity. Or perhaps Penn just chooses to tell the story the way he read it. Each time a story is told, we add a bit of ourselves in the re-telling. One of the reasons I read travelogue is because it fulfills a yearning within myself. Like McCandless, and like Sean Penn, we look towards a wilderness that we believe calls out to us. It is real enough for us.

All these have not yet dampened my interest in the book or the film, but it does help remind me that non-fiction need not always be the truth, nor stories need to be true to be real. Meanwhile, I will see what meaning I can find from the pages of Into the Wild.

8 comments:

Carl V. said...

Nightwatch was such a great movie and Daywatch, unfortunately, only lasted one week in theatres here and Jeff and I missed it. Can't wait until it comes out on DVD.

stefanie said...

I read Into the Wild several years ago and really enjoyed it. Read it after the harrowing Into Thin Air (that's his one about Everest right?). Can't wait to hear what you think.

Dark Orpheus said...

Carl How come it only runs for 1 week? What a pity. After Nightwatch I just had to watch Daywatch and Twilight Watch.

Stefanie I brought "Into the Wild" to work today, and it's one of those books that people who has read it wants to talk about it. I was discussing the book with colleagues during lunch today. This book really made an impression on people - along with "Into Thin Air" - which most of them preferred. (Was it Everest or the Himalayas? I was told to avoid the B-grade film adaption of Into Thin Air)

danielle said...

I had no idea that they were making Into the Wild into a movie. I read the book and thought it was quite good. I don't read a lot of nature-ish books, but I have really enjoyed Krakauer's writing. I'll have to watch for the movie.

stefanie said...

It was Everest. Fascinating and horrible and told so well. I have not seen the movie. I liked Into Thin Air better than Into the Wild, maybe because Into Thin Air was a first person account.

jean pierre said...

ooh! this sounds very cool.

i'd also be interested to see what you make of "night watch" 'cause i enjoyed the film.

Matt said...

I haven't decided if I'll participate this challenge, although this would make a good incentive for reading Gone with the Wind. :)

If you're interested in Maugham, The Painted Veil is a good choice for this tie-in challenge.

Another book I have wanted to read for ages is Ben Hur.

Dark Orpheus said...

Danielle Hmm, I should just keep recommending movies on this blog. :)

Stefanie I think everyone is telling me Into Thin Air is better. I will have to get to it soon.

Matt I'm not going for the Book to Movie challenge. Don't think I can afford the time for more challenges. Er - Gone with the Wind? Ben-Hur? Really?