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Into the Wild: Notes on a Tragic Return to Nature  

 




In September of 1992 Chris McCandless was found dead in an abandoned bus in Denali National Park, Alaska. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) is a sombre and serene film that reconstructs Chris’s story, the story of a young man who decides to give up a comfortable life to live outside of modern society. Over the course of his journey he explores America, meeting and befriending flawed, lovable characters. In a return to nature, Chris (Emile Hirsch) undertakes a self-imposed odyssey that I understand as a search for contentment. While he breaks away from civilisation in order to reconnect with a wild state of nature, there is more nuance here. Through its cinematography and Chris’s apparent idealism, the film drives us outdoors into large landscapes and reminds us to immerse ourselves in the flow of life. But it also reminds us of the importance of community. In this light, I see the film as addressing one of the most universal questions: how does one live a good life? Though compelling, its answer is descriptive rather than prescriptive; Chris’s case is his own and, though we may resonate with it, his circumstances are unique.  

  

After graduating from Emory University, Chris leaves a middle-class life in Atlanta in search of “that other and dimly remembered world […] [with] the unpacked earth underfoot, the wide sky overhead” (The Call of the Wild, 1903, a book Chris carries with him throughout the film). Chris begins by donating his $24,000 law school fund to Oxfam, before driving away in a Datsun he soon abandons after getting caught in a flash flood. Chris is left on his own two feet, with no money and no civilisation between him and the environment around him. He is footloose.  

  

As he wanders Chris meets other wayward souls whom he affects deeply. He finds himself as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, but ultimately reaches the endpoint the film shows us repeatedly with its nonlinear structure – Alaska. Penn’s choice to construct the film in this way, constantly flashing back and forth between Chris’s time in Alaska and his journey through America, contrasts the transitory relationships he forms and leaves behind with his seclusion in vast Alaskan landscapes. 




  

The source book (adapted from Chris’s diary entries by Jon Krakauer) and the film itself are admittedly romanticised. Penn constructs a 150-minute film from Krakauer’s interpretation of Chris’s notes and others’ anecdotes. Chris’s diary was kept in the blank pages at the back of a book of local plantlore. His entries are at most a couple of statements long and often consist of only one or two words (“Goose!”, “Phantom hawk day” and “Must revamp my soul + re-gain deliberate consciousness. Trying to salvage what can of moose, but henceforth will learn to accept my errors however great they be” are some of my favourites). With such limited information left to create a narrative, Penn, following Krakauer, takes creative licence, weaving the story into cinematic form. In his act of construction, however, Penn does not lose the written roots of Chris’s story. Into the Wild is laden with literary influences; authors referenced include Tolstoy, Jack London, Primo Levi and Henry David Thoreau.  

  

I find a passage from Thoreau to be most revealing of Chris’s ideas. Writing in the 19th century Thoreau was an American transcendentalist who believed in nature’s spiritual significance. He alleged that we might understand ourselves best as a part of the living world. Nature, for Thoreau, provided us with meaning beyond ourselves which external, synthetic things (like possessions) could not. We must live simply and maintain ourselves in nature. This view is outlined in his text Walden as Thoreau describes his self-sufficient life by a lake in Massachusetts, 

  

  

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (Thoreau, 1854) 

  

  

Unsurprisingly, this passage is quoted in the film and Thoreau’s writing helps us to gauge Chris’s own attitude: to confront the natural world in the most bare, naked form, to live deliberately. In his naturalisation, Chris reaches for a spiritual existence beyond himself, he blends into his environment and escapes from the confines of a life in a city. Into the Wild opens up rural America as a living space, a beautiful landscape where Chris can seek his contentment. In the boundless regions the film shows us with broad shots of mountain ranges and canyons, fields and deserts, Chris can escape his past and forge his own future, and his own identity, as he adopts the name Alexander Supertramp. I name him as Chris rather than Alex because he signed his final message with his given name. I interpret this as an ultimate embrace of humanity and an unfulfilled desire to re-join the social world; this message was left carved into the abandoned bus he had found and made his home.  

 

Chris’s death is natural, incidental and would have been wholly preventable had he not been alone in the wild. First theorised by Ronald Hamilton, it’s believed that he died of starvation after ingesting the poisonous grass pea plant. His death is a tragedy that comes after he tries to leave Alaska behind, failing to cross a glacial river. Before he leaves, he writes in a copy of Dr Zhivago: “happiness is only real when shared”. This statement marks a change of heart. While Into the Wild shows us happiness in solitude, the film’s narrative heavily revolves around Chris meeting others on his journey into seclusion. Ironically, it’s only once he achieves this seclusion that he realises the great meaning that can be found in human relationships. 

  




In Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, the book Chris carries with him, the protagonist, a St. Bernard called Buck, leaves a human world behind, thriving in the wilderness by the novel’s close whereas Chris finds himself trapped in Alaska and unable to return to the human world. This is drawn out by Emile Hirsch’s bleak acting during a nauseating sequence where he realises that he’s been poisoned and stumbles – choking – about the bus, desperately trying to make himself vomit. We then watch as Chris trembles half-naked up a hillside and comes face to face with a brown bear. The shots of a gaunt, starving, shirtless man staring absently as the bear inspects him foreshadow the film’s ending. Chris is trapped, he is at the mercy of the wild just as he is at the mercy of the bear. Eventually the bear turns away dismissively, leaving him to his solitude. Both Buck and the enormous bear, apex predators in their respective environments, are everything Chris is not. Penn is showing us this here. Chris is just one man, he is no apex predator, and he will die in the wild, alone. 

  

Chris’s drive to solitude is rooted in a painful childhood. This is significant as it allows us to understand his motivation to leave Atlanta: his parents’ fractured relationship. The film depicts the void left by this in a grotesque scene which takes place on his dad’s birthday. We watch as Chris’s father flaunts his gifts to the applause of a group of friends gathered below, overlayed with Chris’s sister narrating the reality of their parents’ “blindness” and failed attempts at a divorce. At another point Chris imagines an honest conversation with his parents the day they themselves graduated  

  


“You are going to do bad things to children. You are going to suffer in ways you haven’t heard of. You are going to want to die” 

  

  

This is the source of his alienation, a family trauma that seals him off from the intimacy and trust of permanent human relationships. Deeper than his Thoreau-inspired ethics of a natural life, Chris is hurt, and chooses to retreat from the people and the environment that hurt him. The characters we meet along Chris’s journey reveal this solemn side of his drive to disappear. But, at the same time we’re shown the beauty of human connection and the potential for benevolence, even if Chris treats this with an impermanence, as if relationships are unremarkable – perhaps they are to him. The interactions Chris has with characters like Jan (Catherine Keener), Rainey (Brian H. Dierker), and Ron (Hal Holbrook) reveal feelings of pain and guilt that he and they harbour. Yet in these passing connections Chris forms, the possibility to heal is also present. 

  

On his journey, the first characters we’re introduced to are Jan and Rainey, an itinerant couple who pick up Chris on the road. After a flashback about Chris’s parents’ painful marriage, Rainey and Chris sit on the beach and discuss Jan’s estranged son who is a similar age to Chris. He then runs to Jan who is walking alone, and takes her to the sea to swim, something Chris fears himself and yet he’s willing to do with her. Chris and Jan’s grief is reflected in the other, shared without words and transformed into a moment of healing. When the two run back to Rainey from the sea, the couple embrace, and we’re shown an intimate moment of reconnection as the sun sets. Placing together a scene of Chris’s childhood memories and one which shows the possibility for healing lays the foundation for Chris’s realisation that happiness requires, on some level, others to share it with.  

  



  

“Where’s your family? 

  

Don’t have one anymore. 

  

That’s a shame.” 

  

  

In the film’s final act entitled “The Getting of Wisdom”, Chris is picked up by Ron Franz, an elderly man who lives alone. His wife and son had passed away in a car accident decades before the pair meet. He forms a loving, caring relationship with Chris. They bond over Ron’s leather-working practices, Ron asks Chris about his family, and what he’s running from, and Chris encourages Ron to live again and get back out into the world. Chris and Ron provide the space for each to mourn and speak honestly. In some ways their relationship seems paternal, like Ron is the loving father that was so absent from Chris’s life. Perhaps the most parental moment comes when Chris swears: 

  

  

“Holy shit! – 

  

I told you about that language” 

  

  

But the pair’s relationship is more nuanced than merely fulfilling the roles of a surrogate father and son. There is a wonderful sense of equality which seems to transcend a traditional father-son bond, they are true friends. So when Ron drives Chris 100 miles north and offers to adopt him as a grandfather, Chris simply suggests that they discuss it when he returns. He thanks him and opens the door, walking onwards to Alaska. This is probably the most emotional scene in the film, seeing Chris’s casual ability to leave as tears roll down Ron’s face is very difficult to watch. In this moment, Chris rejects the opportunity to form an enduring bond, and takes his leave to finish his journey into isolation. We are shown the potential for connection throughout the film by so many characters: in Jan and Rainey, and most tragically in Ron, but ultimately Chris rejects this. The characterisation of Chris is stubborn and flawed, determined to reach his halcyonic Alaska and “measure [him]self at least once, to find [him]self at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone” (Levi, 2007).  

  




Chris’s humanity is fundamentally defined by his relations to others, even if he doesn’t realise it. This is why we can compare Chris and Buck – human and dog. Chris’s rejection of society is reflected by Buck's narrative journey in Jack London’s book. Upon finding the only human he had ever loved murdered, Buck abandons a life and follows an ancestral call into the wild. Yet where Buck thrives in the wild and his story ends as he joins a pack of wolves as a “wild brother”, Chris is not able to make such a home out of the wilderness. This is made most clear when comparing the act and impact of killing a moose on each character. Chris and Buck react very differently to this event. Whilst the dog’s hunt is “tireless [and] persistent as life itself”, Chris impulsively shoots the great animal. He is unable to take the advice afforded to him earlier in the film and squanders the carcass as it quickly becomes infested. Ultimately, he deems the death and waste of the moose “one of the greatest tragedies of [his] life”. Chris’s inability to deal with his kill is diametric to Buck’s natural competence; he stalks his prey for four days before finally overwhelming it. By contrast, whether in his reality or in his head, the film shows us a pack of wolves who scavenge the moose carcass after Chris finally abandons it. While he is overcome by the wild, Buck prevails. Buck can fully immerse himself in the natural world, shedding his domesticated skin, whereas by the end of the film – typified by his failure with the moose as opposed to Buck’s instinctive competence – Chris cannot shake his humanity. 

  

Into the Wild uses Chris’s story to remind us to embrace and seek out nature, but it also reminds us that love and community are possible in a society you find corrupt, and one which has hurt you. While his story is remarkable and very poignant, Chris’s case is unique and Into the Wild is not a tutorial. It is a tragedy on many levels. The film is appealing, aesthetically beautiful, and its soundtrack compliments the sentimental mood well (although there are a few too many Eddie Vedder songs thrown in there). It’s not surprising to me that Into the Wild resonates with so many. The instinct to withdraw is natural and we all feel it. Moreover, the book is taught widely in schools, and I think the romantic idea of leaving everything behind particularly resonates with young people who might see themselves in the naïve and passionate character that Emile Hirsch plays so convincingly – I certainly did when I first watched it. As a rough description of how we might live more fully, the film reminds us to turn to the beauty of the outdoors, but also to turn to those around us and appreciate the beauty of our relationships. We are tapestries, parts of something bigger than a self in our connections with others and our connections with nature. 

  

  

Words by Max Knowles 

Illustration by Katya Perry 

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