Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Books Into Movies: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Books Into Movies

(Blogger note: This article was previously published in LamLight, physician newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine)

Into the Wild
By Jon Krakauer

“Into the Wild” – the Movie
Screenplay and Directed by Sean Penn

“Climbing the Sphinx”
By Fred Bahnson
From “Fugue” Magazine and The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007, Philip Zaleski, Editor

“Solitude” by Lord Byron

To sit on rocks, to muse o'er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest's shady scene,
Where things that own not man's dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne'er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o'er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, 'tis but to hold
Converse with Nature's charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world's tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!

Into the Wild is the story of Chris McAndless, an Emory University honors graduate who gave away the remainder of his college fund, packed his belongings into an ancient Datsun B-210 and departed on a “magnificent adventure,” purposefully neglecting to tell anyone where he was headed or why.  Jon Krakauer is a well-respected adventure writer.  The book, as well as the movie, are outgrowths of an article he wrote in 1991 for “Outdoor” magazine after Chris’ body was found in an abandoned bus in the wilds of Alaska.  The author has done a masterful job of tracking Chris’ two year odyssey through Arizona, California, Mexico, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota and, finally and fatally, Alaska.  He has interviewed many people whom Chris befriended on the road: employers, co-workers and fellow vagabonds.  Through these interviews and observations, the picture of a complex personality evolves. 

Chris McAndless appears to be a walking contradiction.  He wanted to live off of the land and survive on his own instincts (in the manner of his hero Henry David Thoreau) but dove into all of his quests completely unprepared.  Krakauer points out that his death was totally preventable if he had just taken a topographical map with him.  He had a strained relationship with his parents for reasons that are well enumerated in the book, but had a wonderful, caring and loving relationship with his younger sister.  Once he departed Atlanta he did not communicate with any of his family, even his sister who he had communicated with dutifully over the years.  He seems somewhat slovenly and unkempt but is described by employers (a MacDonald’s manager and the owner of a grain elevator in North Dakota) as diligent and extremely hard-working.  He proclaimed this personal philosophy of simplicity and humility, yet renamed himself “Alexander Supertramp.”  He introduced himself by that name on the road and left graffiti here and there over that signature.

The author spends a good deal of the narrative trying to justify Chris McAndless’ wanderlust and convince the reader that the youngster was not just completely off his rocker.  Read from a parents’ point of view, this book is a horror story.  The family did make an attempt to locate Chris through the use of a private investigator, but he had hidden his tracks too well.  Into the Wild also contains some of the author’s own experiences with mountain climbing and wilderness exploration.  He also includes stories of other ill-fated expeditions. 

In summary, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is an entertaining but disturbing read.  The reader never really gets a grip on the motivations of Chris McAndless, but certainly comes away from this with a true sense of tragedy. 

“Into the Wild” (The Movie)
Screenplay and Directed by Sean Penn

This movie made it to Lynchburg over two months after its release and therefore my wife and I made a road trip to the Vinegar Hill Theater in Charlottesville to see it sooner.  It was well worth the trip.  Vinegar Hill Theater is a small arts cinema on one end of the downtown pedestrian Mall.  The movie is really quite stunning.  The cinematography is magnificent.  The outdoor scenes, especially in Alaska, are breathtaking.  The film makers use odd camera angles and unusual lighting to great effect.  The soaring bald eagles, roaming moose and antelope and even bear make you feel like you are watching a “National Geographic” or Discovery Channel special.  I was curious as to how anyone could make a movie out of a book with such little dialogue, but Sean Penn has made good use of some of the written messages from Chris McAndless printed over some scenes to make the story move along.  The atmosphere and “feel” of the movie is aided dramatically by a surreal soundtrack written and recorded by former Pearl Jam vocalist/guitarist Eddie Vedder.  The sound track album is exceptional by itself, but even more so after having seen “Into the Wild”.
The movie succeeds in several areas where the book falters.  First, Sean Penn makes Chris McAndless a very likable character.    The book spends most of the time trying to convince the reader that Chris just isn’t crazy.  The movie fleshes out the character and this version of Chris McAndless is really a terrific young man.   He comes across as the ultimate idealist and hater of hypocrisy.  The minor characters emerge as very sympathetic characters as well.  In the book, these characters are treated in a very journalistic or reportorial way, whereas in the movie they come to life.  It seems that peace and harmony follow Chris everywhere he goes.  Peace and harmony follows for everyone, that is, except for Chris McAndless.    In one memorable scene at Big Sur in California, Rainey, one half of a hippie couple who Chris helps resolve relationship problems, asks Chris: “Are you Jesus?”  He helps an old man (Mr. Frantz, played marvelously by octogenarian Hal Holbrook) come to grips with his loneliness and despair over being the last one of his family still living.  Mr. Frantz is so taken with Chris that he tries to adopt him.  Chris even helps a vagabond teenager deal with parental control issues.  This idealistic movie version of Chris helps everyone cope with their own demons even as he searches for the understanding of his own. The tragic death scene at the end of the movie is as haunting an experience as I’ve ever experienced in a movie.  I think it will stay with me forever.

“Climbing the Sphinx”
By Fred Bahnson

In contrast to the Chris McAndless story is the story “Climbing the Sphinx” by Fred Bahnson.  This was originally published in “Fugue” magazine and reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing of 2007 edited by Philip Zaleski.  This is an account of the author and his best friend’s climb of The Sphinx, a mountain adjacent to the Ennis Valley in southwestern Montana.  There is no doubt about Fred Bahnson’s motivation for mountain climbing.  He describes the area of Ennis Pass in the opening paragraph thus: “All that remains (after tourist season) is a comforting emptiness that broods over the bent world of mountain and valley like the Holy Ghost.”  These two decide to become the first to climb the icy slope without a rope.  This is a riveting description of a harrowing and near fatal trip.  The author describes one portion of the climb: “The passage upward was a passage through , a vertical portal into Meaning.”  Further along: “Flow dissolves self-awareness.  Gone are my flatland pedestrian worries about jobs and girlfriends – or lack thereof.  Gone my doubts and fears, even my joys and elations.  Those feelings will return, all of them magnified, but in flow I just am. Both climbers survive despite a broken ice ax and a sudden snow squall and return.  The author then asks the ultimate question: “This climbing business, this search for flow, for spiritual meaning – isn’t it just glorified selfishness?”  The author recounts a friend who died mountain climbing in Peru, leaving behind his new bride to grieve as a young widow.  “Where was Rob’s wife now?  How had she benefited from the risks he took?”  These are the questions that Jon Krakauer never answers in his examination of Chris McAndless in Into the Wild.  Sean Penn never really answers these questions either, although he does portray the anguish of Chris’ parents and sister quite dramatically.    Fred Bahnson eventually stops his high adventures while his companion on the Sphinx has an “Alexander Supertramp” type experience suffering a fatal fall while downhill skiing Mont Blanc in France.  Mr. Bahnson admits that even though  “from the mountains comes a welling up of deep-down things, a profound sense of life’s inherent majesty” that “the Sphinx and her pyramids had become idols.  Their loosening grip on me was being supplanted by the unshakable grip of God.  Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God, but my Great Wanting was not so much a wanting to find as a wanting to be found.” 

Nowhere in the book Into the Wild is there a hint of a spiritual awakening.  The Chris McAndless story portrayed by Jon Krakauer seems like an aimless wandering, a wasted life.  Sean Penn does give more meaning to the “magnificent adventure” of Chris McAndless, scripting the last eighteen months of Chris’ life as an attempt to deal with the hypocrisy and lies of his father.  In the movie, just as Chris comes to an epiphany of sorts, he is betrayed by his lack of preparation and the cruelty and severity of the wild.  Therein resides the real tragedy of Chris McAndless. 

From “Guaranteed” by Eddie Vedder (Soundtrack to “Into the Wild”)

On bended knee is no way to be free
Lifting up an empty cup I ask silently
That all my destinations will accept the one that’s me
So I can breathe

Leave it to me as I find a way to be
Consider me a satellite forever orbiting
I knew all the rules but the rules did not know me

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