Sunday, November 11, 2007


Into the Wild

I saw Into the Wild last night, Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book recounting the true story of the last two years in the life of Chris McCandless. Right after graduating from college, McCandless embarked on a "journey of self discovery," bumming around the Western half of the U.S. for two years, ultimately reaching his destination of trying to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness, where he starved to death. From the beginning, McCandless made himself untraceable and made no contact with his family, driving his parents mad with worry and grief.

Although McCandless seemed to have been exceptionally charismatic and resourceful, there is nothing particularly original about a young man dropping out of society to "find himself" -- indeed, by the time McCandless tried it in 1992, it was perhaps as quaint and passe as the aging hippies he hooked up with for a time.

But that's why Krakauer's book was so brilliant: taking a well-worn story line of youthful angst and grandiosity, where we know the unpleasant outcome from the beginning, Krakauer spun a compelling, page-turning narrative.

Movie adaptations of books can go two different ways: either try to stay close to the source material, or else use the book as a mere point of departure for something different. Most go the latter route, since sticking close to the original book is difficult to pull off. Penn goes for the "faithful adaptation" and has made the best film rendition of a book I've ever seen.

I read a particularly galling and stupid review of Into the Wild, regrettably by eminent New Yorker critic David Denby, that attacked Penn for failing to see "the egocentricity in a revolt that is as naïve as it is grandly self-destructive." But both Penn and Krakauer understand and convey McCandless's egocentricity perfectly. Denby's critique is simply his own baggage -- that of a middle-aged fogy who can only deal with youthful angst by minimizing and denigrating it. Denby might as well could easily say the same thing about Hamlet -- whose quest for meaning, likewise triggered by rage at his parents, was just as egocentric, grandiose and cruelly heedless of others as that of McCandless. Isn't Into the Wild a retelling of the Hamlet story, with the backdrop changed from Elsinore Castle to the American west?

There are certain times when the soul opens a window into the bottomless question of whether our lives have meaning. One is when, as teenagers or a bit later (college graduation for McCandless), we stand on the threshold of adulthood and realize with resentment or outrage, that our parents will not in fact take care of us our whole lives. The next is when, on reaching middle age, we first truly understand that we are going to die.

These open windows are terrible and frightening. Egocentricity and neurosis probably distort whatever glimpses of "the truth" may be found by those who, like McCandless, take these moments seriously. The rest of us deal with our fear and anxiety by laughing at the foolishness of "teen angst" and "mid-life crisis." Shakespeare's gift to our culture was that, in Hamlet, he took that window of "teen angst" very seriously and told us that we can learn something from those who are willing to stare out into the void. I'm not saying Sean Penn or Jon Krakauer are Shakespeare, but like Shakespeare, they get it.

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