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Film Review: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild

Into the Wild (2007), directed by Sean Penn, presents a different Chris McCandless than appears in the book on which the film is based.  Whereas in the book McCandless does not display any particular literary skill, in the film, Emile Hirsch’s Christopher McCandless is a veritable poet.  But this facility with language is an invention of the film.   

Furthermore, there is a marked difference in McCandless’ temperament as portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch.  Hirsch conveys optimism and a pure joy of nature in the film.  In the book Into the Wild, McCandless seems frankly more angry.  That anger may have been rooted in a simmering resentment and conflict with his parents.  The source of this conflict is elucidated briefly in the film.  Nonetheless, the real McCandless was quite distinct from the wide-eyed, upbeat performance by Hirsch. 

The Real McCandless was Not This Literary  

In the book, McCandless’ literary efforts amount to his underlining passages in his books, with minimal exclamatory remarks scribbled in the margins.  Otherwise, there are his self-aggrandizing letters to friends and family.  The McCandless in the film, however, is a much more prolific wordsmith, not to mention Hirsch’s attractive physical appearance and romantic bearing.  (SEE ALSO: Into the Wild Book Review)

McCandless the guru is an invention for the film, which surely does not represent the real McCandless. 

This is not meant as criticism of the film: it was a perfectly logical decision by Penn.  After all, we want to root for our protagonist, and that can only be effected by portraying him sympathetically.  In Jon Krakauer’s book, however, which is nonfiction, he is not portrayed as a particularly likable character.   

What we hear in the film Into the Wild that strikes us as literary is either put into McCandless’ mouth or it’s McCandless quoting the literature of someone else.  One shouldn’t mistake the profound narration and voiceovers of McCandless in the film with anything McCandless actually said or wrote. 

Hirsch’s McCandless narrates:  

“It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape.  And history, and oppression, and law, and irksome obligations. Absolute freedom, the road has always led West.” 

There is no evidence in the book Into the Wild that McCandless ever wrote or said anything approaching that level of poetry or inspiration.  

At least he understood great literature.  Perhaps it was Jack London that inspired him to make his voyage to Alaska: 

“Mesmerized by London’s turgid portrayal of life in Alaska and the Yukon, McCandless read and reread The Call of the Wild [...] He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he semed to forget that they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness” (44).  

McCandless’ Presumption 

Even Hirsch’s McCandless comes off as sanctimonious at times.  He gives unsolicited advice, telling Kirsten Stewart’s character Tracy Tatro:

“You’re pretty magic.  Hey, just remember, if you want something in life, reach out and grab it.” 

McCandless then advises Ron Franz:

“You got to get back out into the world…Get back onto the road.”

This is how he addresses the people who are trying to help him. McCandless presumes to be a kind of prophet.  

“Some people feel like they don’t deserve love,” McCandless advises Rainey.  When McCandless offers Rainey profound relationship advice, Rainey asks him facetiously, “You’re not Jesus, are you?”  Implied is that McCandless has solved their relationship woes by virtue of his zen, seize-the-day spirit.  But it is doubtful McCandless would have any such relationship advice, given that he himself had not had any intimate relationships with women.  McCandless the guru is an invention for the film. 

He styles himself as “Alexander Supertramp.” From this created persona, he presumes to instruct others, though he himself hardly had it all figured out. 

A Surrogate Son 

A theme which emerges in Into the Wild is that those who try to help McCandless often see him as a substitute for someone they lost in their own life, typically their child.  Given his young age and lack of paternal attachment, McCandless was a good candidate for such a surrogate relationship.   

At least McCandless was a good listener. This was part of his attraction for the people who helped and befriended him along the way.  Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) is an eighty-year-old man whose wife and son were killed by a drunk driver.  He took a paternal delight in his time with McCandless, what Krakauer describes as a “long dormant paternal impulse” (50).  He tried to lecture McCandless about doing something with his life.  Yet Franz didn’t know who he was dealing with, because McCandless in turn lectured him.  

It only shows McCandless’ hubris that he should advise an 80 year-old-man to sell his belongings, leave his apartment, and live on the road.  It’s clear that Franz valued McCandless’ company.  In the book, however, McCandless appears ungrateful for Franz’s assistance. 

When McCandless slips away, as he always does, Franz finds himself “deeply and unexpectedly hurt” (56).  Hal Holbrook wonderfully portrays the kind but solitary elderly man, who was so generous with McCandless and asked so little in return. 

Likewise, Jan Burres saw something of her estranged son in Christopher.  Hence, broken people sometimes connect by displacing family members who are not around. Finally, Wayne Westerberg also takes a paternal shine to McCandless.

A Different Tone in the Film vs. the Book

In the film of Into the Wild, McCandless’ journey living outside of society seems triumphant, a celebration of the human spirit.  In the book, however, it is more an act of petulance.  It is true that those who met and helped McCandless generally liked him.  But he seemed more driven by spite than openness.  In the film, Hirsch’s McCandless, while professing a detached philosophy, nonetheless is characterized by a bright attractive smile and a winning way.  This is not the McCandless which Krakauer presents in the book Into the Wild.  

Hirsch’s McCandless is animated by an openness to humanity and a spirit of optimism.  In the book, McCandless demonstrates a feeling of superiority to his fellow man.  Hirsch’s McCandless does also show the demons that McCandless was struggling through, yet is more or less on a road to redemption.  The real McCandless, conversely, was on a road of negation, only deferring to the wisdom in his books, but despising almost everything else. In other words, Hirsch’s McCandless is charming, and Krakauer’s McCandless is not. 

For example, in the film, McCandless rejects his parents’ offer of a new car as a graduation present.  As they sit at a restaurant after McCandless’ graduation from Emory University, Hirsch’s McCandless gives his father an intense glare and is adamant that he does not want a new car.  It is a principled stance against materialism.  He doesn’t want things, more things

Yet despite his professed love for his old 1982 yellow Datsun, he abandoned the car in a desert, though it could have been easily fixed.  He left a note to whoever might find the car: 

“This piece of shit has been abandoned.  Whoever can get it out of here can have it” (26).  

National Park Rangers simply jump started the car when they found it and it drove fine, and they continued to use it for years.  This incident reveals McCandless as petulant.  He did not appreciate the value of his own things, and so it was up to the adults to clean up the mess after him.  He professed to love his Datsun, but as soon as it became inconvenient, he cursed and abandoned it. 

In the film, we see Hirsch’s McCandless remove the license plates, and then simply walk away from the Datsun, as he burns his money triumphantly.  “I don’t need money,” he declares later in the film, “it makes people cautious.”  He has a zen, above-it-all demeanor.  We don’t see any of the childish temper in the film which is evident in the note which the real McCandless left behind on his car.  


The film gives one an appreciation for the breadth of McCandless’ travels vividly.  In this sense, the book translates well to film if only for the variety of setting, showing many aspects of the physical beauty of different regions of the United States. This includes Lake Mead, Arizona, Las Vegas, Pacific Crest Trail, Northern California,  and of course, Alaska. 


In the film, the peripheral characters of Into the Wild come more to life.  One doesn’t necessarily think of Vince Vaughn playing a rural character, but he triumphs as Wayne Westerberg, a business owner in South Dakota who harvests grain and intermittenly employs McCandless.  Vaughn is a great fit for this role because Westerberg is a bad boy, but also has a big heart. Indeed, he goes out of his way to help McCandless, having picked him up as a hitchhiker, and then employed him in his grain elevator.  

Vince Vaughn plays Wayne Westerberg

In the book Westerberg is described as follows: 

“A Renaissance man of the plains, he is a farmer, welder, businessman, machinist, ace-mechanic, commodities speculator, licensed airplane pilot, computer programmer, electronics trouble shooter, video-game repairman.”  (19)

Westerberg’s illicit business with black boxes (illegal cable) got him four months in prison.  The FBI raid is depicted in the film, Into the Wild.   Vaughn’s Westerberg is blithely urinating in his front yard when he is ambushed by several swerving FBI cars.  “You got me,” he says simply, putting up his hands in a sleeveless t-shirt. 


The film benefits from having a more logical structure than the book.  We begin with McCandless in Alaska, and then flashbacks reveal how he got there.  First, McCandless graduates college, then his parents learn that he has disappeared when they decide to surprise him with a visit to his apartment in Georgia (McCandless had no phone).  Next he is in the company of Jan and Rainey Burres, living out of their hippie van.  

Throughout the film, whether he is with Westerberg, Jan Burres, or Franz, McCandless grandly states “Alaska” as his ultimate destination to whomever will listen.  Almost every interaction he has concludes with this word, like an invocation, Alaska.  The name and place was a child-like belief that all would be better…somewhere else.  One begins to suspect that this destination cannot fulfill its promise for McCandless.  “This is a bad idea,” Vaughn’s Westerberg warns him.  

The book, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any logical sequence to speak of. Midway through the book the chronology breaks down confusingly.  Only by skipping through Krakauer’s frustrating digressions does one eventually return to McCandless’ story.  


The music for the film was (mostly) performed by Eddie Vedder, the singer for Pearl Jam.  This was a thoughtful decision by director Sean Penn on several levels.  First, the events of the film take place in 1992, the hey-day of grunge.  With this in mind, Vedder’s voice holds a connotation to that angst-ridden and contemplative time, which McCandless is both a symbol and a symptom of.  

Grunge music was all about sanctimonious disavowals of mainstream society…

Pearl Jam’s music always struck me as strangely intense and self-important.  Yet in the context of scoring this film with his folky songs, Eddie Vedder’s creative vision made a lot more sense and resonated meaningfully.  He musically explicated the ruminations of McCandless himself. 

There is something effortless and natural about Vedder’s acoustic numbers.  Sometimes he uses an acoustic guitar, sometimes a ukelele.  The arrangements are bare, with Vedder occasionally overdubbing his voice to add more texture, occasionally percussion, but otherwise minimal production.   His voice sounds a little gravely, but otherwise as fine as in his prime.  The tone of Vedder’s voice is both resolute and pensive, just the qualities that define McCandless. 

As NME put it, Vedder’s ideological orientation also makes him well-suited as the composer for this film: 

“...due to Vedder’s interest in all things anti-corporate, McCandless’ renouncement of materialism is celebrated rather than the fact that he eventually tragically died.”

Grunge music was all about sanctimonious disavowals of mainstream society.  It’s a music about looking inward and brooding.  Well, that’s Chris McCandless in a nutshell. 

The most powerful song from the soundtrack, “Society,” expands on the theme of anti-materialism.  The chorus is a defiant mantra: 

It’s a mystery to me

We have a greed with which we have agreed

And you think you have to want more than you need

Until you have it all, you won’t be free

Society, you’re a crazy breed

I hope you’re not lonely without me

We are missing this type of music nowadays, and so it is refreshing to hear from Mr. Vedder once again. 


The film takes some creative liberties: McCandless is aware of having eaten the wrong kinds of wild potato seeds, and then reads about the deadly effects in one of his books.  This is a theory of how he came to die.  The film takes the view that he died of this poisoning rather than just by starving.  In his stupor after consuming the poison, McCandless seems to have a revelation which he scribbles into the margins of a book: 

“Happiness only real when shared.”  

It contrasts with his earlier philosophy, that there is an overemphasis on relationships with other people.  But it seems he has learned this too late; because now he is quite alone and starving.  

Grade: A 

Works Cited

Into the Wild. Directed by Sean Penn. Performances by Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, and Hal Holbrook. Paramount Vantage, 2007.

Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. NY: Anchor Books, 1996.

Read my review of Krakauer’s Into the Wild

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