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“Happiness is only real when shared.”
— Alexander Supertramp

Christopher McCandless would have had a better story if he had lived to tell it. Instead, Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, an exhilarating true story of life and death on Mount Everest, became Christopher’s posthumous scribe. Now Sean Penn has brought his questionable adventures to the big screen.

Into the Simple Life

McCandless is egged on by the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Jack London
McCandless is egged on by the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Jack London

Like most college kids at one point or another, Christopher McCandless held a righteous rage. An underlying current of idealism flowed through him with all the torrential unpredictability of the Colorado River.

It is unfortunate most college grads rapidly lose their idealism after meeting the harsh face of reality and monthly bills. McCandless was an exception, an extreme one at that. His idealism would turn out to be his undoing.

Rebelling against his well-to-do parents and figuratively choking on the silver spoon of a well-heeled lifestyle that paid his way through Emory University with 24 grand left to spare, McCandless was driven to disappear on his parents and sister Carine. Egged on by the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Jack London, young McCandless took off in his dog-eared Datsun on a cross-country trek to Alaska in a quest for his idea of ultimate freedom.

McCandless has been described as having a “fiercely rigorous moral code,” which flies in the face of an unfaithful father whose wicked ways led to the birth of two bastard children, Christopher and Carine. Loads of divorce talk and abuse between Mom and Dad certainly didn’t contribute to a happy, healthy home.

McCandless detested his father’s behavior and his family’s wealth (dad was a NASA genius who started up his own company). Upon graduation, Mom and Dad offered to buy him a new car, to which he railed against “things, things, things.” And they offered to pay the balance of a Harvard Law School tab after Chris’s $24,000 slush fund ran dry.

No thanks. Instead, Chris donated all the money to Oxfam, abandoned his Datsun after a flash flood, and burned his last bit of cash and his Social Security card, which no doubt led to some sort of symbolic satisfaction.

Thank goodness he kept his gold watch until nearly the bitter end. He would always be able to tell time until his time was almost up.

Into the Imagination

Buoyed by the movie’s lush cinematography and a raft of new songs from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, it’s easy to romanticize McCandless and his misguided vision quest that takes him from urban Georgia to the prairies, down to Mexico, through California and on into the wild of Alaska.

The biggest problem with Into the Wild, though, is that Christopher was not a particularly sympathetic person. He befriended people left and right who were willing to help him, take him in, and supply him with food and shelter. Heck, one old man even wanted to adopt him. Even in the face of all that generosity, he repeatedly shunned people in favor of his Alaskan adventure, even leaving his sister — who by all accounts seemed to be his best friend — in the dark regarding his whereabouts.

There’s a word for people like that: moocher. And they’re a dime a dozen when you’re on the road or riding the rails; they’ll talk of how great it is to meet people and how great the world is, but they ultimately accomplish precious little. Christopher was, quite simply, stinkin” selfish, particularly when he congratulated himself on the achievement of complete freedom in Alaska and the utter abandonment of “nuisance obligations.”

Nonetheless, Carine found enough sympathy for her brother to sum up the situation by saying his life was a story he’d have to tell his way.

As part of his endeavor to tell that story and recreate a lost, romantic world where men lived off the land, pondered the meaning of life, and wrote navel-gazing journals, Chris created a whole new identity for himself and adopted the moniker “Alexander Supertramp.”

Into the Magic Bus

Perhaps it’s simply an unfortunate misinterpretation to write off Christopher McCandless / Alexander Supertramp as merely a freeloader and a flake. He did get good grades in college, after all. And he did take on odd jobs at a farm, where he seemed to relish the manual labor. It was one of many pit stops and side trips Christopher took during his trek.

Nonetheless, it’s a little disingenuous when he yammers on about how he hates hypocrites, politicians, and pricks. Or the time when he dismisses family, fortune, and love, saying he’d rather have truth. There’s also his classic observation that careers are a 20th century creation.

Such sentiments are rampant, particularly among the college-age granola set. At least Christopher had enough chutzpah to act on his freewheeling shtick.

Surely it was that free spirit that caught Sean Penn’s imagination. Perhaps Penn can relate to his desire to lash out at all of the world’s injustices, whether real or perceived.

It’s probably that same desire to lash out that emboldened Penn to visit Venezuela and stand side by side with Hugo Chavez. And while it may be noble for Penn to rail against what he considers to be President Bush’s injustices, it is nearsighted of Penn to do it next to a saber-rattling, tin pot dictator and oil magnate who has plenty of skeletons in his own closet.

Was that recent mini-brouhaha a publicity stunt? Was it an unfortunate misinterpretation of Penn’s own idealism? It’s hard to say. And while it’s not entirely germane to Into the Wild, it reflects the blindness of the idealism in Into the Wild.

Into the Great Unknown

To use the overblown and overly-poetic parlance of Alexander Supertramp, if you’re lucky, you’ve had idealistic leanings. If you’re really lucky, you still do right up to the end, no matter how or when that end comes. In that regard, Christopher was a lucky man.

However, what McCandless wrote about, as depicted in the movie, was neither revolutionary nor “revelationary.” When people go on vacation, they tend to go to places they enjoy and they tend to find themselves surrounded by other similarly-minded people. People who dedicate their lives to helping those less fortunate are never so comfortable. Perhaps McCandless would have discovered even more important truths if he had gone to Africa instead of donating the money to do it for him.

As it turns out, McCandless does meet plenty of those “good people” and they are almost unanimously more engaging than McCandless himself. That’s not entirely a knock on Emile Hirsch’s performance; that’s simply the way Christopher came across.

Perhaps the greatest value of Christopher’s adventures comes from a fairly obvious observation, but one Christopher didn’t arrive at until it was too late, that happiness is only real when it’s shared.

Editor’s Note: Matt Anderson’s own sense of unfettered idealism has led to many triumphs and the occasional “unfortunate misinterpretation.” He hasn’t worn a watch in 14 years, following the untimely demise of a Fossil in Rome, Italy.

“The saddest people on Earth are those who fail to aim high.”
— Mattopia Jones

  • rk: Nice review and a fine rant. I felt the same way about McCandless when I read the book. I find it an interesting bit of data on that sheer obsessiveness one sometimes needs to pursue a difficult goal without being sidetracked (see also Grizzly Man, Proof, A Beautiful Mind, etc.), as this is one of the things I wrestle with in writing fiction. I will see this movie despite its romanticizations as I am always interested in how books are adapted for the screen (and because I've always loved that "Big Hard Sun" song). Thanks for the reviews! December 20, 2007 reply
  • KatMac: I agreed with your point view until about half way through the book. First, he did more good by donating the money instead of using it to take a trip to Africa. Second, you seem to be infected with the opposite of idealism which is heavily laden in your article. Sean Penn's political excursions had nothing to do with this movie. He remains true to a book that he did not write! I disagree that Chris is the least interesting person in this film/book. Everyone that was interviewed said their life was changed by their brief contact with him. The older man actually took his advice, and ended up living at Chris' old campsite. The most important lesson from this man's life is that he had the courage to take a spiritual journey to ponder the conflicts of his life. How many people can say the same thing. People die uselessly everyday. They kill themselves with cigarettes, junk food, etc. He chose to live and die on his own terms. I think if he were alive today, he would not ask for our sympathy or understanding. March 23, 2008 reply