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The Escape Artist

The desire to escape that lives in each of us, and the consequences of acting on that desire, is what makes us care for Chris McCandless (Into the Wild), and what makes his short life such a compelling story.

Into the Wild

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780385486804
Author: Jon Krakauer
Price: $13.95
Length: 224
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 1997-02

Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild is, of course, the well known, best selling nonfiction account of the mystery surrounding Chris McCandless, an honor student from Emory University who gave away all his worldly possessions, broke all ties from his wealthy family, changed his named to Alexander Supertramp, and took off for wilderness with little more than some dog-eared Jack London and Tolstoy novels in his possession. Roughly two years later, he was found dead in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan Wilderness.

Originally, Krakauer wrote the story of McCandless as an article entitled “Death of an Innocent” for a 1993 issue of Outside magazine, but later developed it into a 224-page book. The author spent three years researching his subject and pieced the story together using the journal McCandless kept while away, along with interviews with his family and those he had spent time with while “tramping”.

Krakauer is no stranger to the call of nature. In fact he’s visited and hiked the wilds of Alaska 20 times and this, I imagine, is the reason he was first attracted to McCandless’s story. This is also probably why he is present in much of the book. Krakauer fills many pages with his opinions and accounts of experiencing the wilds alone. He also includes the thoughts of nature enthusiasts John Muri and John Menlove Edwards.

It’s obvious that Krakauer feels a strong connection to McCandless, having experienced similar acts of defiance as a young man himself. He writes some harrowing recollections of his challenges with 'the wild', including a vivid account of his attempts to climb Devil’s Thumb in Alaska.

Unlike McCandless, however, Krakauer understood the need to return to society. His subject, however, itched to abandon civilization altogether. McCandless abhorred the love of money and was repelled by his parents’ social status. In addition, there was ongoing tension between him and his father, Walt.

This familial strain could be the reason he felt the need to run from personal relationships. While on the road, he formed friendships, but only stayed a short time with the people he befriended before taking off for the road again. The only person he was ever truly close to was his sister, Carine.

Gone for two years, McCandless wandered through a lot of North America including Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, California, South Dakota, and Mexico. Along the way, he developed brief relationships with other free spirits and occasionally worked odd jobs such as an operator in a grain elevator and a cook at Burger King.

McCandless never stayed in one place for long and always had his eye on the prize: Alaska. He talked about Alaska, the most dangerous and primitive of American landscapes, as if it were paradise. When he finally did make it there, he set up camp in an abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail where he lived off the land for 112 days. Not terribly succesful at hunting (but for rodents), he survived mostly on a 15-pound bag of rice, wild berries and plant life.

At one point he planned to leave the bus for winter, but found it impossible to cross the now raging Teklanika River, and he was forced to turn back. Two weeks after returning to the bus, moose hunters found his body, accompanied by the final page of Louis L'Amour's memoir, Education of a Wandering Man and a note that read "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!"

Krakauer contemplates what actually killed McCandless. The cause of death was officially cited as starvation, but Krakauer suggests that McCandless may have accidentally poisoned himself by eating the seeds of wild potatoes.

If after reading Into the Wild, you think of McCandless as an idiot kid whose view of life was romantic and naïve, then Penn’s film adaptation might rub you the wrong way. Penn, who also wrote the screenplay as well as directed the film, is sympathetic toward McCandless, much like Krakauer was. He treats his subject with respect and invokes admiration for the boy's tenacity and desire to shed the ills of modern society. It’s frustrating, however, to learn that McCandless never took a map on his journey and had been only miles away from cabins stocked with emergency supplies when he died.

In the film, Emile Hirsch gives a spellbinding performance as McCandless. I must say I’m surprised with his performance, here. The only time I’ve seen him act is in the lowbrow comedy The Girl Next Door. Apparently he was in The Secret Lives of Alter Boys, which I saw, but I don’t remember him. In this film, Hirsch induces empathy, frustration, tears, and laughter. He even looks like McCandless, whose self-portrait, taken while at the bus, is shown at the end of the film.

Jena Malone is spot-on as McCandless’s compassionate sister, Carine, and also does the voice-over for a lot of the film. William Hurt is superb as McCandless’s austere father and Marcia Gay Harden is wonderful as his clueless mom.

Other distinguished actors round out the cast of characters that he meets on his journey: Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker are convincing as the hippie couple who repair their relationship after McCandless joins them for a short time; Vince Vaughn is wonderfully cast as his merry boss at the grain silo; and Hal Holbrook (whose performance earned him an Academy Award nomination) plays Ronald Franz, a widower who takes McCandless in and treats him like a son. I was also delighted to see one of my favorite comedians, Zach Galifianakis, cast as a worker at the grain elevator, who gives McCandless information on prepping fresh-killed game and some edible plants that can be found in the wild.

Penn lends authenticity to the movie by filming near the actual sites where McCandless set up camp. The crew reportedly made four trips to the Alaskan backwoods to shoot during different seasons. The shots of the wilderness are enhanced by a lovely and quiet soundtrack by Eddie Vedder.

A change in translation from print to film that can’t be overlooked is the order of events. In the book, we learn right away that McCandless died in the wilderness and the book opens with the discovery of his body in the bus. The first scene in the film, however, shows Marcia Gay Harden waking with a start from a dream about her missing son. It isn’t until the end of the film, that we see McCandless’s final breath – a beautifully filmed scene interlaced with sunlight and Hirsch’s awed expression. Here we see McCandless truly becoming one with nature.

Whether you think of McCandless a fool or a modern day Thoreau, in the end, no one can doubt that his quest was a mostly noble one. Both Krakauer and Penn relay McCandless’s story with care and respect, and both are deserving of the praise that has been heaped upon them.

It’s nice to have McCandless’s story in the entertainment mainstream during a time when materialism is at an all time high and reality shows like Keeping up With the Kardashians are clogging the airwaves. Surely we’ve all wondered what it would be like to shed our obligations and responsibilities. My best friend says she wants to eventually live on a sheep farm in Scotland. My run-away place is in the middle of the Sonoran desert.

If nothing else, the desire to escape that lives in each of us is what makes McCandless a relatable character. It’s what makes us care for him and what makes his short life such a compelling story.

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