When Into the Wild came out in 2007, I didn’t run out and see the movie, though probably 3/4 of my college town did Instead, I read the book, and left it at that.
But that wasn’t my first exposure to the book. That would have been when it first came out, in 1996, when my mother read it, looked at me with my growing obsession with books like My Side of the Mountain (and its female-starring, and therefore more attractive to me still, sequel The Far Side of the Mountain) not to mention my teenage-before-its-time abject loathing of the place our family moved to that year, and became a dispenser of warnings: Do not do this. I was too young to explain rape to explicitly, but I didn’t need details to understand that when she said it would be different for me, and for any woman; that people died doing this all the time but that truly awful things would happen first–I understood that she was talking about some baaaaad shit. So when I perked up when she finished Into the Wild, asking her how it was, she told me flatly that McCandless died, alone, of starvation. When I ogled, on innumerable family road trips, at the firebreaks cutting through forests like butter, mentioning that “the girl and her dog” had followed just those trails up through Appalachia in Far Side of the Mountain, she made me swear never to do it. In my perverse childish way I of course then came up with all sorts of alternatives to compare this wish of hers against–“would you rather I swear than do that? would you rather I buy a motorcycle than do that?”–but her sincerity was unnerving and unshakeable. There is nothing worth going off into the abyss like that for, she insisted. You will get hurt, or die, or wish you’d died by the time you’re done being hurt.
Okay then. Crossing “striking off into the wild” off my preteen bucket list.
I don’t remember much of my initial reaction to Into the Wild, other than the aspects I blew up into a huffy response afterward: disdain for this kid’s arrogance, resentment on behalf of his parents (whose more violent episodes I’d completely forgotten by the time I’d watched the film; I took my privileged and safe childhood in the same geographic area and superimposed it onto his), and a general dislike for a mentality that seemed to surround me in the latter part of college–the “stick it to the man” business–and that seemed to be going nowhere.
Then, a few weeks ago, I watched the film.
I wanted to hate it. Especially after reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which remains my favorite book of this year so far and whose main character, and especially her relationship with her mother, I connected with far more than arrogant, adolescent McCandless–I wanted to hate this movie.
But I was wooed. By the country I’d seen myself, from my own car, if not in the exact spots in the movie than in places just like them. By the guitar noodling flickering like the light on the water whose montages it plays over. By Hal Holbrook, whose character’s abandonment by McCandless always filled me with a particular rage toward the boy. And by all the people I’d met since then, who could’ve easily shared McCandless’s fate had things just turned out slightly different for them. Had they cobbled the money and courage together to strike out. Had their new job or scholarship never come through. Had they never made up with their loved ones after that one big fight.
Most of all, though, McCandless’s realization–and they way they gave it to us, written out, by hand on screen by a cadaverous, living person–that “happiness is only real when shared.” I’m sure it was in the book. It’s too big not to have been. But Krakauer didn’t present it in a way that made me remember to forgive McCandless. My copy isn’t with me, and anyway I read it in the final stages of my religious avoidance of marking up books, so I doubt I’ll have any clues left as to my thought process while reading the book. But the film made me believe his conviction, and forgive his arrogance the way I forgave Cheryl Strayed’s adolescent fuck-ups almost before they occurred. Reading the book, I didn’t see a young man deserving of as much leeway and understanding as anyone else. Watching the movie made me see him.
Of note, I had a similar reaction to the book vs. film versions of both The Horse Whisperer. Maybe I’ve overdosed on descriptions of natural places to the point where I can’t be brought into them properly anymore, in text–you have to actually plant me there visually, and shut up for a second so I can appreciate them, and the characters that move within them. Or maybe Emile Hirsch and Robert Redford just make me care more than Jon Krakauer and Nicolas Evans can. Whatever the case, I take back my explosive resentment of this actual, real person who died, and whom I never met, and who yes, did hurt a lot of people by disappearing the way he did, but who didn’t mean to be gone forever and managed to get to some better emotional place than almost anyone ever reaches before he went. And who managed to leave enough proof of that to let his loved ones know. Plus the rest of us.