When Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction international bestseller was published in 1996, it became an instant hit, seamlessly integrating itself into high school and college curricula, and remains exceedingly popular in the genre of survival literature. The 2007 film adaptation, written, directed, and co-produced by Sean Penn, is a re-telling of Christopher McCandless’s astonishing story.
Set in the 1990s, bright-eyed, charismatic Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, graduates at the top of his class from Emory College with the intent to earn a law degree from Harvard. Despite his seemingly idyllic life as an upper-middle-class white male, Christopher struggles immensely with finding “his place” in the world. Having everything (money, college education, a “stable” job lined up) feels like having nothing for Christopher McCandless: he has fallen victim to the vicious cycle of materialism and cannot escape even with his awards and accolades. Frustrated with both society’s expectations and his family’s materialistic nature, Chris makes a rash decision to cut up his credit cards, donate the majority of his life savings to charity, and burn any spare dollar bills. After Chris destroys every remnant of his consumer-driven lifestyle, he resolves to leave his friends, family, and worldly possessions behind in pursuit of a more minimal lifestyle.
Christopher McCandless aspires to lead a life away from materialism. This glorification of McCandless’s transition to the hitchhiker life is particularly striking when one recognizes the privilege that lies behind being able to own decadent belongings, let alone make the choice to live without them. As the film progresses, McCandless encounters people along the way who explain they are not looking to make a social statement about the superficial tendencies accompanying American society, but have no other option than to live the way Christopher dreams to live. Chris has the world in his hands, yet his travel acquaintances see the world as just out of reach. Here is where I believe Krakauer and subsequently Penn so perfectly capture an “adventurous spirit.” Krakauer’s and Penn’s depictions of spontaneity and desire are relative to the spirit’s personal experience. The juxtaposition of McCandless, who can decide his fate, those other travellers, who have their fate decided for them, adds a sense of depth and complexity to a concept like adventure. I have always imagined going on expeditions throughout the world and staying at the world’s most beautiful areas, all of which requires exorbitant amounts of money. Into the Wild contradicts my original belief by showing how, despite the fact Christopher had the money to take all these grand vacations, no amount of money allowed him to satisfy his hunger for happiness and freedom.
Throughout the course of the next two years, Chris attempts to stitch together a makeshift family out of the people he meets, and this patchwork family really made me reflect on my own goals and experiences. As a junior in high school, I have been obsessing over college and how to be successful once I graduate, but I have ignored the fact that I go to school with some of the most fascinating people I will ever encounter. There are so many adventures that I might be missing out on because I am caught up in planning for the future, as opposed to living in the present. We live in a society where an enormous amount of emphasis is placed on money, and success is measured by the number of digits on our paychecks; however, Chris’s story showed me that success means different things to different people. Chris was once miserable because he only went through the motions of what society deemed would and should make someone happy. Once Christopher chooses to do something that he thinks will help him thrive, he feels more “successful.” In other words, society has always told Chris that if he has a ton of money he will prosper, but in the end, it is turning away from money and doing things he loves (i.e. meeting new people and exploring the wilderness) that makes him happiest.
Overall, I gave this film 4 out of 5 stars. Visually, the individual shots have beautiful angles and perfect lighting, but I feel that the choppy cuts from scene to scene force viewers to arrange the timeline of the film in their heads. The lack of fluidity with transitions takes away from the build up to the story’s ending. With cinematography being the only drawback, the movie as a whole is a one-of-a-kind story with a motivating meaning that forces us to consider our definitions of happiness and contentment. Chris is neither villain nor hero, reminding the audience how no human is an angel or a devil. This multi-dimensionality of Chris’s character made me feel a personal connection to his situation: all he is really trying to do is find the appropriate balance between happiness and attachment to monetary success. Emile Hirsch (Christopher McCandless) is incredibly convincing; his commitment to mastering this complex role using subtle body language and conveying visceral reactions truly brought me along on Christopher’s rollercoaster of emotion.
Hirsch’s astonishing performance, coupled with the dramatic Alaskan setting, humanizes the film, allowing the raw intensity of the story to come to life. Although the profound, vivid content may be intended for mature audiences, I firmly believe that showing young kids that no amount of money can buy happiness has the power to open youth’s eyes to the positivity and passion we want to be cultivating but usually aren’t. Adventure is out there and has the potential to show us who we are and who we want to become; all we have to do is be courageous enough to look for it.
Megan Kelleher is currently a junior at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California. Megan's hobbies include playing water polo, thrift-shopping, collecting postcards, and baking. She has a strong passion for writing and hopes to become an international journalist one day.
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