’Into the Wild” film lost in woods compared to book

This week, Images showed the film adaptation (written and directed by Sean Penn) of John Krakauer”s bestseller Into the Wild. The book tells the story of Emory University graduate Christopher McCandless” fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness, and it is economically written and superbly told. With thorough research and a balanced approach to McCandless” character, Krakauer offers a portrait of McCandless that gives the reader a choice: was McCandless idealistic, courageous and morally driven, or was he naive, reckless and self-indulgent?

The film adaptation does not offer this critical choice, instead choosing to focus mostly on the rosier aspects of McCandless” personality. This questionable decision is even more dubious considering that the film is 140 minutes long – offering more than enough time to probe the intricacies of character.

Penn includes several mind-numbing montages of McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch, from The Girl Next Door) simply walking around, and the film”s storyline is as stagnant as Krakauer”s account is page-turning. Nevertheless, the soundtrack and cinematography are superb, and Hirsch does an outstanding job portraying McCandless as an attractive, intelligent and stubborn young man. Indeed, it is difficult to point to any one moment that makes Into the Wild a bad film. Rather, Into the Wild could be described as a decent movie that is an hour – that”s right, a full hour – too long.

The film, like the book, swings back and forth through time, going from McCandless” college graduation at Emory to his ultimate solitude in Alaska. McCandless, disillusioned by his parents” (Marcia Gay Harden and Williams Hurt) materialistic lives and abusive marriage, donates all his savings to charity, sets fire to his remaining pocket cash, abandons his car and hitchhikes across America. As he wanders, he meets several people, all of whom seek to mentor him and give him the parental support he lacks. There”s Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a gregarious hippie couple that gives McCandless a lift and, later, takes him in. Wayne Westerberg (played earnestly by Vince Vaughn), a wheat farmer, gives McCandless employment and shelter, while Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) provides grandfatherly perspective.

Through these generous figures, the film provides a glowing and life-affirming portrait of humanity in America. But despite the love being shown to him, McCandless feels the need to press on into the wilderness. More Jack London than Jack Kerouac, McCandless is stubbornly insistent that he just needs to get away and be by himself. His final goal is to trek into the Alaskan wilderness and discover truth and beauty in the solitude of nature. The film treads lightly on McCandless” misanthropic side, choosing to suggest that his abandonment of people who love him is not cowardice or madness, but idealism.

As anyone who has seen Grizzly Man knows, however, you have to be a little bit crazy to abandon your friends and family for the company of grizzlies and foxes. And yet, as McCandless dies a painful death in Alaska, his revelatory apotheosis (and the film”s) is that “Happiness is only real when shared.” That he had to go and die by himself in the woods to realize this, after so many wonderful people tried to help him, demonstrates, for me, the stubborn and selfish nature of McCandless” quest.

While the strength of Krakauer”s book was its compelling narrative style, the film”s greatest weakness is its inability to communicate McCandless” character through action. Most of what we learn from about McCandless is not shown to us, but rather told to us by long and over-written voice-overs by Carine (Jena Malone). Penn clearly has enough time to show McCandless” character through action (as Krakauer does), but he chooses to rely on Hirsch”s extraordinary acting talents rather than on his own script.

Into the Wild is an ultimately disappointing film. There are several beautiful and heartrending moments, and Hirsch”s expressive face carries the movie even when Penn”s script lets him down. But because of the film”s length and repetition of montages, the individual power of each of McCandless” experiences is lost in the greater whole; there are only so many times that McCandless” wandering around at sunset to slow guitar sounds is meaningful before it becomes clichéd. The film”s length, then, is directly tied to its one-sided portrayal of McCandless. In his effort to romanticize McCandless” idealism and show the tragedy of his death, Penn loses the sharp edges of McCandless” character that make the tragedy inevitable.

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