Saturday, January 10, 2009

Krakauer, Penn, McCandless, and me

Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild is a pastiched account of the life of Chris McCandless, a headstrong young man who leaves his family after graduating from college, then heads west. McCandless eventually ends up in the Alaskan wilderness and starves to death there. Krakauer first brought McCandless into the public eye when he wrote an article about the youth that appeared in January of 1993, barely five months after McCandless's body was found lying in an abandoned bus-- ironically, only a few miles from the ragged edge of civilization-- in August of 1992.

I read Into the Wild and Peter Jenkins's A Walk Across America before heading out to begin my own trans-American walk. They are fundamentally different narratives, with only the most superficial elements in common. Whereas Jenkins was out to reconnect with American people in an attempt to restore his faith in his country, McCandless was essentially trying to leave humanity behind. He did accept help, and might even be said to have befriended people along the way, but the overall impression one gets is that McCandless wasn't deeply interested in relationships.

In fact, the cinematic version of Krakauer's book, directed by Sean Penn and also titled "Into the Wild," includes a line of dialogue, spoken by McCandless to Ron Franz (this is an alias), an elderly gentleman who takes Chris under his wing: "I will miss you too, but you're wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships." (In Krakauer's book, the line is from one of McCandless's letters.) Where Peter Jenkins found God in people, McCandless found God almost everywhere else, and only grudgingly in people.

I'd like to spend some time, now, comparing Krakauer's and Penn's often similar-- but equally often different-- visions of Chris McCandless, and later on I'd like to indulge in what I know will be an apples-and-oranges comparison of McCandless's and my respective personalities and projects. For those unfamiliar with Into the Wild the book and/or "Into the Wild" the movie, a decent Wikipedia entry can be found here. While I will discuss elements of both works, I won't be spending much space recapping them. What follows is written on the assumption that the reader is at least casually familiar with McCandless's story as told by Krakauer, and as retold by Penn.

1. the book and the movie

Krakauer's 1997 book, essentially an expansion of his January 1993 Outside article "Death of an Innocent," is the culmination of a massive amount of research into the life and death of Chris McCandless. Krakauer managed to track down many of the people who had encountered McCandless, and was eventually able to piece together a sketch of McCandless's life after his 1990 graduation from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. McCandless himself was of little help; he effectively broke contact with his family, and everything that was discovered about what later transpired arrived through third-party sources. Krakauer also worked extensively with the McCandless family members, a process that must have been painful for them.

Into the Wild begins with McCandless's death and tells the young man's story by means of (1) a series of speculative third-person flashbacks based on the testimony of the people Krakauer interviewed, and (2) a series of narratives about men who, like McCandless, experienced a similar "call of the wild." Each chapter begins with a quote or set of quotes, often from writers that McCandless would have either known or appreciated: Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others.

While Krakauer doesn't romanticize McCandless's life and death, he does make clear where his own sympathies lie. As he writes in his book's preface:

I was haunted by the particulars of the boy's starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those in my own....In trying to understand McCandless, I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: the grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons. [...]

I won't claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless's strange tale struck a personal note that made dispassionate rendering of the tragedy impossible. Through most of the book, I have tried-- and largely succeeded, I think-- to minimize my authorial presence. But let the reader be warned: I interrupt McCandless's story with fragments of a narrative drawn from my own youth. I do so in the hope that my experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.

As becomes obvious, Krakauer is extremely-- if not completely-- sympathetic to McCandless. His chapter about his own youthful climb along the Stikine Ice Cap to reach the tip of the Devil's Thumb provides the reader with an interiority that Krakauer hopes can be at least partially transferred to McCandless, to fill the first-person void left by McCandless's inability to tell his own tale.

Krakauer isn't out to write a hagiography of McCandless. In his book, he often agrees with experts who think that McCandless made some foolhardy choices as well as some truly stupid mistakes. Krakauer also unflinchingly explores McCandless's rocky relationship with his parents, especially with his father, Walt McCandless. Those whom Krakauer directly quotes in his book often voice mixed or even wholly negative opinions of the boy. But even as Krakauer shows us McCandless's imperfections, he also points out that McCandless wasn't the romantic greenhorn that some critics made him out to be: he accomplished the rare feat of surviving three months in the Alaskan bush, despite having brought in very little food. McCandless had no illusions about what he was getting into; as Krakauer notes, "peril, adversity, and Tolstoyan renunciation were precisely what he was seeking."

If Krakauer's book has a message, it's that we should step back a moment before judging the adventurers among us. That some people are driven to live at the margins of civilization, to experience harsh extremes, to measure themselves against nature, is no sin in itself. They are who they are in part because of their past, but there is also something more that drives them to go out into the wild, something not easily explainable. For this reason if for no other, it is best to withhold judgment. More specifically, Krakauer wants to defend McCandless from the charge that he was simply a clueless youth, another in a long series of idealistic idiots who heedlessly tromp into the Alaskan wild, some never to return.

By contrast, Sean Penn seems fine with lionizing McCandless. His film "Into the Wild" captures the disordered, paratactic manner in which Krakauer first told McCandless's story: Penn starts his narrative in Alaska (though not with McCandless's death), then presents us with moments, scrapbook-style, from Chris's past, eventually bringing us to the film's climax, which is quite literally Chris's thready heartbeat followed by the outrush of the boy's final breath, and a beautiful pullback from Chris's dead face and into the air, putting us in the position of the boy's spirit ascending to heaven. "Into the Wild" is divided into chapters; these divisions, along with the non-linear narrative, might remind some viewers of a Quentin Tarantino film. The effect mirrors the fractured feel of Krakauer's book, and one leaves the movie with a strong sense that we have only barely scratched the surface of Chris McCandless's mind and heart.

Penn seems personally invested in McCandless's life and wants to put his own distinct stamp on it. Like Krakauer, upon whose work Penn's film is parasitic, Penn spoke at length with the McCandless family, and seems to have relied heavily on the testimony (real or fictionalized) of McCandless's sister Carine. Carine (played by Jena Malone in the film) offers, in voiceover, her thoughts on both family strife before Chris's departure, and Chris's lifelong wanderlust; she also gives us some indication of the deep hurt and confusion the family must have experienced as months and then years went by without any word from Chris.

But because Penn isn't a career outdoorsman, whatever empathy he feels for McCandless is, I think, strained through a Hollywood filter. Penn makes a crucial directorial decision not to include either Krakauer's voice or the parallel experiences of the adventurers Krakauer described in his book: the film's narrative focuses solely on the boy. This may have been a wise decision, given the film's already-ponderous two hour and twenty-minute running time, but it strips the story of a crucial dimension: instead of giving us some way to compare Chris's character to that of similar adventurers, we are left only with Penn's version of Chris.

None of which is to say that Penn botches the job. "Into the Wild" succeeds on its own terms. It takes some liberties with the young man's story; the unconvincing* addition of a potential love interest stands out as one of the more egregious fictions-- but shapes the narrative into something that is both touching and uplifting. It does so, however, at the expense of the pragmatism that infuses Krakauer's book. Krakauer can respect Chris, perhaps even empathize with him, but he also judges Chris from the point of view of an experienced outdoorsman; Penn loves the boy's wildness unquestioningly, and he turns McCandless's life into a paean for the soul's freedom.

Penn's McCandless frequently breaks the fourth wall: we often catch him staring into the camera, sometimes during an Eddie Vedder-saturated montage. The first time this happens is perhaps the best: Chris is seated on the sidewalk of a bridge, eating an apple, and as he eats the apple, he showers it with lavish praise.** The scene ends with Chris (ably played by Emile Hirsch, a.k.a. Speed Racer) gawking at us, grinning, and thrusting his face playfully toward us. Breaking the fourth wall can work well or be disastrous; in this film, I think the technique succeeds in bringing the viewer closer to Chris as a living presence. It does feel strange, however, that Penn is inviting us to be Chris's travel companions. Chris himself would have rejected us, or would have abandoned us after a while.

Penn also sprinkles shots of the sky into his picture, and in almost every case the sky is not pristine: one or more jets can be seen, leaving contrails and marring nature. Penn succeeds at getting us to see the sky the way McCandless would have seen it. The imagery becomes a bit heavy-handed toward the end, but Penn cleverly contrasts it with Chris's dying view of the sky: it's contrail-free when he expires.

Penn's own "authorial presence" is most visible in how he handles a moment in Krakauer's book. Krakauer writes that McCandless wrote in the books he had taken along with him, underlining passages and scribbling marginalia. In McCandless's copy of Dr. Zhivago, he had written, in all-caps, "HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED." Penn the filmmaker treats this as one of Chris's ultimate epiphanies, a belated realization that the people he had been rejecting (in his family's case) or abandoning (as in the case of everyone he had "befriended" on the road) were the ones with whom he would have found true happiness. It's a poignant realization but, as Krakauer writes, we'll never know whether Chris's emphatic note was meant in this spirit-- if he truly regretted his decision to divorce himself from society, and was finally ready to embrace it. Penn decides that yes, Chris had finally understood that you can't divorce happiness from others.

I recommend Penn's film because he manages to capture, through his portrayal of soaring vistas and fantastic panoramas, the natural beauty that can set an adventurer's soul aflame. Penn's cinematography provides a wordless justification for what drives Chris McCandless; like Krakauer, Penn wants us to know that McCandless was not merely the product of his personal demons. But I also advise the viewer to approach Penn's film with caution: McCandless bears a whiff of the saintly by the end of the movie, and Krakauer makes clear that the boy was no saint. That beautiful pullback from Chris's dead face, that soul-ascension into the sky, is deeply touching, but it's also pure treacle.

2. the personal angle: McCandless and me

As someone who had been planning his own long-distance adventure, I couldn't help but be drawn to McCandless's story. Before I had read Krakauer's book, I already knew the highlights: young guy leaves home, gives away his money and possessions, and heads for Alaska in search of... well, I was fuzzy on what, exactly, McCandless had been searching for.

It turns out that McCandless grew up in Annandale, Virginia, placing him near or within Koreatown, and he went to Lake Braddock Secondary School, one of my high school's competitors (Mount Vernon and Annandale are both part of Fairfax County, separated by a thirty-minute drive). McCandless was one year my senior, being born in 1968. We both share a love of quiet solitude, though I suspect McCandless had more voices in his head than I harbor.

It might be cute to find more commonalities between us, but I have no desire to mythologize McCandless any further than Hollywood already has. I know I can be stubborn sometimes, as McCandless was stubborn, but it would never occur to me to abandon my family in search of intense experience or ultimate truth. During this walk of mine, I've been in more or less constant touch with my folks, largely thanks to their parting gift: my BlackBerry. Even when I was in Korea, I could expect frequent emails from my brother David, and often spoke with Mom and Dad on the weekends (I usually griped that they should save the long-distance charges and just email me, but getting Mom to write anything at length is like pulling teeth).

While I've never experienced an attraction to nature and the simple life as acutely as McCandless did, I've always preferred mountains, rivers, and lakes to big cities. Living in Seoul has changed me somewhat in that respect; I can tolerate a big-city existence now, but still prefer the quiet that one finds just beyond the suburbs. As I've grown older, I've lost my romantic view of rustic life and now know it can be just as complex and stressful as city life, but the problems you encounter in the country are more straightforward and less about people playing their petty head-games. That's exactly the sort of human static that McCandless was trying to escape.

When I lived in Switzerland, I never skied. I did, however, hike all over the place, learning all about Fribourg et les alentours, visiting the nearby towns of Marly and Villars-sur-Glâne, tromping forever up and down, up and down the mountains that the Swiss blithely call their "plateau." I camped, I practiced camp cooking, I went out rain or shine. I did the typical American college student thing, backpacking around Western Europe on a Eurailpass for five weeks between semesters during my junior year in college. I've always enjoyed exploring; when I travel alone, I normally prefer to get myself lost, to spend all day feeling my way around a new location, really learning it inside and out.

The travel bug is something you never lose once you catch it, but it's also not the same as whatever was driving McCandless. Chris appears to have resented his status and privilege; he insisted on doing everything the hard way, and according to Krakauer, this sometimes meant going as far as to ignore sage advice in favor of reinventing the wheel. To some extent, any man can understand this particular urge: there comes a point in one's life when one wishes to test oneself, to make one's own mistakes, to accomplish something and to bask in the knowledge that it was done without anyone's help. As one gets older, one starts to see how much the ego permeates this way of thinking, and the wiser among us learn to accept that we were never as free or independent as we had thought.

Even Chris McCandless needed help to reach the Stampede Trail in Alaska, and after giving away $24,000 to Oxfam and burning the rest of his cash when he arrived in Nevada, he ended up doing odd jobs to earn more cash. Most significantly, while McCandless was starving in the Alaskan wild, he wrote the following note, which was conspicuously absent from Sean Penn's version of events:


Whatever independent streak McCandless might have had, he knew he was a goner without outside help. I mention the above note not to gloat (what sane person wouldn't write such a note when in desperate straits?), but to show that McCandless was still very much a part of the civilization he thought he could escape.

Buddhist monasteries that have the luxury of large grounds often have one or several hermitages. Hyeon Gak sunim, an American monk in the Kwaneum order, has talked about spending months in seclusion. The tradition harks back to the dosa, the Taoist mountain hermit-sages, and also to the samnyassin, the Indian forest ascetics. These people lived lives far removed from the madding crowd, but at no point were they ever truly separate from their culture. Buddhist hermits were and remain part of the system. Chris McCandless was part of modern America: he lived in the age of the cluttered sky.

So what's my personal opinion of Chris McCandless? I think McCandless was fundamentally foolish on several fronts: first, you can't run away from the voices in your head; second, it's not a good idea to march into the wilderness insufficiently supplied and equipped; third, you shouldn't be too quick to admire literary heroes who were, in reality, fat drunkards with barely a single season's experience in the wild (I speak here of Jack London, as described by Krakauer); and finally, the pursuit of wisdom-- if that's really what one is attempting-- doesn't have to occur at the emotional expense of those who love us despite our selfish desire to pull away from the circle of care.

But I think Krakauer's book succeeded in gentling my attitude toward McCandless. Krakauer makes a strong case, in Into the Wild, that McCandless cannot simply be written off as a crackpot idealist lacking in common sense. I admire how driven Chris was. I admire how far he took his stubbornness. I admire his lack of timidity, and envy the depth of feeling of which he was apparently capable. He and I could never have been friends, I'm sure: despite our mutual love of reading, I would have been too content, too sedentary to have been a partner in Chris's adventures.

The specter of Chris McCandless hovers over my own journey, like a watchful angel. His voice is now part of the throng in my head, but I'm glad it's there, both warning me away from danger and spurring me onward to the discovery of new things. My own journey was never intended to take me into the wild, but McCandless would have understood my need to stand facing a long, empty stretch of open road and big sky. And perhaps in the end, McCandless might have understood that part of what my own journey is about is making new friends along the way. I'll walk this walk and make my own discoveries, but I fully intend to return to the embrace of home.

*'s Stephanie Zacharek, on whom you can always count for a catty review, says this about Chris's apparent asexuality:

"Into the Wild" is essentially humorless: Chris' encounter with a couple of Swedish tourists, one of them a curvy beauty who lounges boldly on a Colorado riverbank sans bikini top, is one of the few places the movie even flirts with levity. But even then, Chris seems only slightly amused by these amazing Swedish breasts; there's something inert, almost neuter, about him. In a hippie trailer town, he also meets up with a very young singer-songwriter (played by Kristen Stewart, in a sturdy, sensitive performance) who offers herself freely; he nobly declines on the grounds that she's too young, but you get the feeling he's not that interested anyway.

[NB: Zacharek gets it wrong: the young couple say they're from Copenhagen.]

Jon Krakauer says this about Chris and his asexuality:

In high school McCandless had enjoyed a close rapport with two or three members of the opposite sex, and Carine recalls one instance when he got drunk and tried to bring a girl up to his bedroom in the middle of the night (they made so much noise stumbling up the stairs that Billie [Chris's mother] was awakened and sent the girl home). But there is little evidence to suggest that he was sexually active as a teenager and even less to suggest that he slept with any woman after graduating from high school. (Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that he was sexually intimate with a man.) It seems that McCandless was drawn to women but remained largely or entirely celibate, as chaste as a monk.

Chastity and moral purity were qualities McCandless mulled over long and often. Indeed, one of the books found in the bus with his remains was a collection of stories that included Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata," in which the nobleman-turned-ascetic denounces "the demands of the flesh." Several such passages are starred and highlighted in the dog-eared text, the margins filled with cryptic notes printed in McCandless's distinctive hand. And in the chapter on "Higher Laws" in Thoreau's Walden, a copy of which was also discovered in the bus, McCandless circled "Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it."

We Americans are titillated by sex, obsessed by it, horrified by it. When an apparently healthy person, especially a healthy young man, elects to forgo the enticements of the flesh, it shocks us, and we leer. Suspicions are aroused.

McCandless's apparent sexual innocence, however, is a corollary of a personality type that our culture purports to admire, at least in the case of its more famous adherents. His ambivalence toward sex echoes that of celebrated others who embraced wilderness with singleminded passion-- Thoreau (who was a lifelong virgin) and the naturalist John Muir, most prominently-- to say nothing of countless lesser-known pilgrims, seekers, misfits, and adventurers. Like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire. His yearning, in a sense, was too powerful to be quenched by human contact.

UPDATE: I should note that Krakauer's book does refer to a certain Tracy (sixteen in the movie; seventeen in the book) who apparently did make moon-eyes at McCandless while the latter was staying with Jan Burress at a "rubber tramp" colony. The book says little more than that about Tracy; Sean Penn seems to have filled in the rest.

**I'm reminded of the fellow who said, "Don't just eat that hamburger-- eat the hell out of it!"



Anonymous said...

Basically, Chris McCandless wasn't far removed from the hundreds of thousands of homeless people except that his story could be made into a Hollywood movie because he cleaned up a lot better and it didn't focus on his obvious mental problems. Judging by the lack-luster box office, most “normal” people couldn't relate to someone with a decent up-bringing and a college education who basically threw away their life. I know I was one who walked out of the theatre mystified as to why this movie was made. We all have inner voices, conflicts, and demons, but I did not see anything particularly special about his. I would much rather have found out about those of a subject of another film and book who lived out on the edge--Albert Johnson. “Death Hunt” featured an all-star cast and the best of the James Bond directors. He never said a word during a man-hunt through some of the roughest and coldest terrain on the planet and took his numerous secrets with him to his grave.

By the way, an ingenious solution to replacing land lines with a local U.S. number that can follow you all over the world and allow anyone to call you for free on it can be found here ( For $20 a year, and the one-time $20 cost of the invention, the service gives you a U.S. or Canadian phone number with voicemail as well. You just plug a corded phone into the jack and into a computer with high speed internet and dial the numbers. I did have to set up the jack back in the U.S. though. It has really come in handy for my older relatives who can don’t use e-mail to stay in touch with me.

John from Daejeon

ttuface said...

When you first mentioned the movie I had just seen it for the first time one day earlier. I loved the film.
Saw The Wrestler this morning, Mickey Rourke was great. I think he'll get the Golden Globe and Oscar for best actor.

Justin said...

The soundtrack is excellent, too. It's the best stuff Eddie Vedder's put out for a long, long time.

Lorianne said...

Nice review, Kevin. I completely agree with you when you say Penn lionized Chris in a way Krakauer did not. Krakauer is obviously enamored with Chris...but he at least tries to show another side of Chris when he interviews the McCandless family, talks about Chris's childhood, etc. The film lacked (imo) this other perspective, only offering the "Chris as romanticized hero" perspective.

The main thing that bugged me about the film was how it depicted Chris's parents. In the book, Krakauer waits until relatively late into the narrative to introduce Walt, Billie, and Carine McCandless. For the entire first half of the book, we know that Chris didn't get along well with his parents, but we don't know why. Given Chris's statements about wanting to "divorce" his parents, we as readers have to imagine what kind of rotten people would drive a young man to shut them completely out of his life (and in my case, I imagined a pretty wretched domestic scenario).

Then, in the second half of the book, we MEET the McCandlesses...and they aren't as horrible as we might have envisioned! They aren't vile, abusive monsters. Yes, they have some "issues," as all families do...but it becomes clear that Chris's childhood wasn't all that bad, so the simple equation of "bad parents = antisocial or reclusive tendencies" doesn't exactly fit. In Krakauer's book, I felt great sympathy for Walt & Billie McCandless while still admiring Chris: I didn't feel like I had to "choose sides."

I felt the film depicted Chris's parents in a cartoonish, caricatured fashion: their characters don't have much depth, so it's very hard to relate to or sympathize with them. Walt and Billie are present in the story from the very beginning, but they seem to serve simply as villainous foils to Chris's saintly character, giving the impression that Chris is running away from home because his parents are superficial materialists. The film also plays up the idea that Walt was physically abusive when this wasn't apparent in Krakauer's account.

This simplistic reading of the story, imo, cheapens Chris's story: instead of running TO the wild because he had a positive vision of how he wanted to live his life, he's running AWAY from his family because they're bad people. Instead of giving Chris credit for what he did, the film in effect blames his parents for his behavior.

All of this might reflect Sean Penn's genuine reading of the book...or it might reflect his (apparently accurate) sense of how young people would react to Chris's story. In my lit classes where we read Into the Wild, many of my students come into the class having seen the film...and they universally love it. They don't have the problems with the film that I do, in part because they haven't (yet) read and talked about the book, and in part because it seems perfectly natural to them (I think) to take Chris's side "against" his parents, society, and other authority figures. What I try to do in class is complicate their response a bit--we read Krakauer's book at the end of the semester, and I intend it as a "corrective" to other books that praise wanderlust without fully counting its cost. But given so many students' unabashed adoration for Chris McCandless, this kind of critical analysis isn't easy to achieve.

palisadesk said...

You would probably also enjoy a documentary made about Chris McCandless by Ron Lamothe, entitled The Call of the Wild

It takes a different, but empathic, look at McCandless' story, uncovers some facts that weren't known before (different people interviewed, etc.), shows where Chris grew up, interviews his coach in high school (Woodson High), neighbors, ex-roommate, etc.

The film is very well done; it is a road trip film, but interprets Chris's story in terms of his time and generation, and contrasts them somewhat with the present. Lamothe, like Chris, was born in 1968 and graduated from college in 1990.

The film has been shown at film festivals, but you can buy the DVD online atTerra Incognita Films. It was worth the money and bears repeated viewing. I found it both insightful and moving. It complements Krakauer and Penn very well.