Getting it Right: Sean Penn’s film, Into the Wild
It’s always tough to see a movie based on a book you love. Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” was my first encounter with this writer, and I was knocked out by his careful reporting and graceful, honest prose, as well as by the story he told. Krakauer’s subject was the short life and heartbreaking death of Christopher McCandless, a young, well–educated and financially well–off man who, upon graduating from college, gave all his money to charity, changed his name, and set off across North America in search of what Krakauer calls “raw, transcendent experience.” McCandless made his way into the Alaskan wilderness, where he lived for sixteen weeks alone before dying there, of starvation, in 1992.
Many people were moved by the story of this young man and his journey, and it was probably inevitable that someone would make a film of it. Thank god Sean Penn got there first. Penn wrote the screenplay, directed the film, and even shot a good bit of it himself. He has made a beautiful movie, different but equal in power and lyricism to the book on which it is based.
Krakauer, in his writing on McCandless, reveals a good bit about himself. An accomplished outdoorsman, Krakauer writes that he was drawn to the story in part because of parallels he saw between his subject and himself; he intersperses the young man’s story with fragments of his own personal narrative, and his authorial voice, though reserved for much of the book, is still the controlling presence, the handrail that guides the reader through.
In adapting the book for film, Penn made a brilliant decision: he replaced Krakauer’s voice with that of Carine McCandless, Christopher’s younger sister, who is quoted extensively by Krakauer. In a voiceover that manages to be both strong and unobtrusive, we hear Carine, beautifully played by Jena Malone, describe the difficult domestic life that helped drive her brother into the wild, and the agony she and her family go through as they realize he isn’t coming back. By giving Carine a voice, Penn not only provides some gender balance to a story that, on the page, is quite heavily male, but offers us the same measure of comfort that Krakauer’s voice provides in the book. That is, our narrator, unlike our hero, is someone who has survived.
Some critics have talked about Emile Hirsch, the actor who plays McCandless, as a kind of younger version of Penn, but that’s not quite right. Penn gets my vote for being the finest film actor of his generation, but with the exception of his hilarious turn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” has he ever seemed truly young? His face was tense and grooved before he was out of his teens. Hirsch, on the other hand, has a wide sweet face, and a warm, uninflected gaze. And that makes him just right for the part of a young man who, as Krakauer’s multiple interviews reveal, evoked love, admiration, and a kind of protective tenderness in many of the people he met along the way.
Hirsh is surrounded by a wonderful cast: William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his parents, the aforementioned Jena Malone, and Vince Vaughn (who knew this guy could be for real?), Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, and Hal Holbrook as some of the people who befriended McCandless along his way. Holbrook is devastating as a widower who offers to adopt McCandless in an attempt to keep from heading to Alaska, and I impressed by the effortless, utterly natural performance of Dierker, for whom, it turns out, this is the first time on the screen. But it almost feels wrong to single out any one actor – everyone is terrific here.
The only false note – and it’s a small one – is a clunky sequence involving McCandless and a “love interest” he met at a kind of campground for itinerants in Arizona. In Krakauer’s book, the young woman and her unconsummated crush on McCandless rate little more than a paragraph. But this is a Hollywood movie, so we’re treated to wispy gazes across the scorching sand, culminating in a truly cringe–inducing scene where the two young people sing John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” for their fellow campers. If there is supposed to be some kind of power or irony in a sixteen–year–old girl singing, “I am an old woman,” I missed it. Mercifully, we get only one verse before the film picks up steam again.
(Poor “Angel from Montgomery,” one of those great songs that gets tossed around like a dirty dishrag. I think there ought to be a law whereby great songs can sue those who cover them shabbily. I mean, if corporations can be legal entities, why can’t songs? And why can’t they sue for abuse or defamation of character? George Harrison’s “Something” would be able to buy itself an island by now, probably a boat ride away from the one owned Elvis Costello’s “Allison.” And if you’ve caught any of Bob Dylan’s concert appearances in the past few years, you’ll understand why I say that some of his best songs should be able to sue their writer for the incoherent pain he’s capable of inflicting on them in performance. But I digress.)
I won’t kid you – this is one hard film to get through. Go with a friend, and bring kleenex. But please ignore the those reviewers, like David Denby of the New Yorker, who snidely dismiss McCandless and his quest. Indeed, Denby’s main criticism of the film – that the camerawork is too lyrical, too worshipful of the natural world – precisely misses the point. If we weren’t moved by what we see of the Big Nature McCandless loved and longed to immerse himself in, the film would undermine what he sought to achieve. That enormous beauty and the attempt to merge with it IS the point. And the soundtrack, including some beautiful songs by Eddy Vedder, serves that vision well. This is a great movie of a great book – and how often does that happen?
October 7, 2007
Matters of taste are on my mind these days, both in and out of the classroom. Say a good friend recommends a book, and though you and she are usually right in sync on literary matters, this one leaves you cold. Or a musician pal, someone you count on to help direct your CD buying, gives you the name of a singer/songwriter you find just ho–hum. If your friends are like mine (or like me), you know they’re going to follow up. And while the ensuing conversation might be lively, particularly if a good bottle of wine is involved, is there any real explanation for why Norah Jones is music to your buddy’s ears but muzak to yours?
In class, of course, the stakes are different. Last week, for example, when my seminar participants were exploring Eavan Boland’s collection of poems, “Against Love Poetry,” our focus was on gaining insight, not offering opinion. As is so often the case at The Writer’s Center, I’ve got a terrific group of readers in there – lively, smart, and adventurous thinkers and talkers – and the deeper we looked, the more we learned about the sophistication and complexity of Boland’s work. We noted that Boland will often use a deliberately clunky or foreshortened syntax to emphasize difficult, even brutal subject matter; that a deep and often discomfiting sense of history – Irish and English, women’s and men’s – permeates her poems; that while this poet can have a lovely lyric voice, she uses it sparingly. We found her to be more tender toward Ireland than toward herself, warmer in tone when addressing other thinkers and writers than when talking about marriage and family.
But even when we’re being our most intellectually sophisticated selves, our tastes give us away. What some found an admirable rigor in Boland’s work, others found cold; what some described as clear–eyed and unsentimental, others called cynical, even pessimistic. My goal as a teacher isn’t to make my students love everything we read together, but to help them see how and why good poems and good books of poems work. This is important work for serious readers, and key for those who are also writers.
Why? Well, if your reading is restricted to your own comfort zone, you run the risk of a narrowing rather than a broadening of your critical and artistic faculties. You lose the opportunity for the “ah–ha” moment where a writer – or painter, or songwriter, or filmmaker – whose work has always eluded you suddenly throws a window open on a whole new world. I had one of those moments teaching Louise GlÃ¼ck’s collection “Averno” last year. Suddenly, a poet who had always left me shrugging had me weeping. I would have missed that experience, and all the insights it offered, if I had clung to my taste and not given her work one more try.
As readers and writers, we need to be continually expanding the circle of our tastes. Reach beyond what you know you like. Don’t be afraid to take on an artist whose work you think too cold, too hot, too sloppy, too spare, too other. (How often are our reservations about a particular artist’s work really about our own fears?) At the very least, you’ll be challenging yourself. And if your goal is to be a better artist, a broad and serious knowledge of your discipline can only improve you work, by focusing your ambitions and reminding you of the many forms that great art can take. Readers and writers both might find deep and serious pleasures you didn’t know existed.
And if you end up throwing the occasional book against the wall, that’s OK, too. Our tastes can also be what we resort to for comfort on those occasions when our search for the new lets us down. You curl up with your Jane Austen, I’ll hunker down with my “Jane Eyre.”
And then, let’s open a bottle of wine and talk about it.