I went looking for something new to watch last week and found this movie.
It interested me for several reasons. It was the film version of the second Jon Krakauer book I had enjoyed. (The first, Into Thin Air, is the sobering account of a tragic Everest climbing season.)
What drew me to the book was its focus on Alaska, a state I have visited several times and that figured more in my family’s life than in the lives of most Americans.
But my memory of the book was limited. Most broadly, it is the story of a young man whose 62-pound corpse was discovered in 1992 by moose hunters in an abandoned bus in the wilderness north of Fairbanks and within view of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. The book covered some of Christopher McCandless’ history, including his post-college abandonment (with some cause) of his family, and his adventures between then and his death. These included stops in rural South Dakota, Mexico, a desultory downtown Los Angeles and a hippie trailer park.
The movie was made well in 2007 by Sean Penn, who is a bit of an iconoclast himself and whose story valorizes McCandless’ search for freedom as emphasized by at least one song in its Eddie Vedder-informed score.
This search for freedom, discussed in book and film, has made McCandless an emblem. His flight to the west is an idea urged first by Horace Greeley in 1865 but one that still resonates and especially in Alaska. But the freedom he seeks, informed by Tolstoy and Jack London, is not defined. And his careful preparation for life alone in the great white north is not enough to protect him from nature itself.
I watched this movie because of a personal wish to get out of the house this year. But I get the impression that the story appeals most to young people grappling with their futures. They project their own views of who Chris McCandless was onto what they know of his life, and they are moved by his courage and his willingness to risk all. Especially in the movie, he lives on as a tragic hero.
So many Into the Wild fans have endangered themselves trekking to the storied bus (and needing rescue) that it finally was removed just about exactly one month ago to prevent more deaths like the one suffered by Alex McCandless.