Into the Open: Twenty Years of McCandless Martyrology
Published: Friday, February 15, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 15, 2013 02:02
January marked the twentieth anniversary of the appearance of Jon Krauker’s “Death of an Innocent” in the pages of Outside magazine. In the two decades that have transpired since its publication, the article’s subject has become a cultural icon. The cult of Christopher McCandless includes a well written account of his journey (Krauker’s expansion of his article into a book: Into the Wild), a multimedia hagiography directed and produced by Sean Penn, an accompanying soundtrack, an inspired reality television show, countless artistic responses, and an abandoned bus in a remote region of Alaska that serves as a place of pilgrimage for millions of admirers who believe they identify with McCandless in a special way.
Much of this is due to the comparison of McCandless to Henry David Thoreau, a comparison most aggressively offered by those who stand to profit from his story. Indeed, one might say McCandless is an appropriate Thoreau for our time: a man who leaves behind an embellished story in place of a distinguished corpus (“I’m going to paraphrase Thoreau here... rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness...give me truth”).
Krauker’s book is a detailed account of McCandless’s life and death (Penn would later provide for his resurrection). When reading Into the Wild one gets the feeling that Krauker is often reaching: that his digressions are the result of a scarcity of material. Then again, consider Krauker’s task of transforming an eight- (8) page article into a two hundred and twenty-four- (224) page book. Krauker also makes the awkward choice of comparing McCandless’s journey into the Alaskan wilderness to his own youthful climb up Alaska’s Devils Thumb. Whatever criticisms one might have of Krauker’s book, one can at least say that he attempts to present his readers with a balanced portrayal of McCandless’s story (not withstanding Krauker’s biases as a writer).
If Krauker makes the innocent mistake of identifying too much with his subject, Penn ruthlessly hijacks McCandless’s story and makes it his own. Penn’s cinematic adaption of Krauker’s book is not the story of Christopher McCandless, but the ideology of Sean Penn repackaged for consumption by the masses. A simple explication of the film detects a façade of depth and intellect erected by Penn to protect his questionable artistic choices from the criticism they deserve. In the most camp of terms: Into the Wild is the sort of film that dumb people think smart people enjoy.
His moralizing pollutes Penn’s film. To begin with, Penn’s McCandless flees his life to escape the bourgeois values of his parents; his mother and father are portrayed as stereotypical capitalists obsessed with financial success. Additionally, McCandless is the child of a traditional family, an institution which Penn presents as an inherent cesspool of abuse, instability, and emotional trauma. Penn’s McCandless even begins the film by reading Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May (1937).” This makes for an interesting juxtaposition, given that the reading immediately follows a passage from Lord Byron’s “There Is Pleasure In The Pathless Wood.”
To put it bluntly, her poem’s appearance in Penn’s film was probably the highlight of Olds’s poetic career. The choice was no coincidence; one might say it was Penn’s gift to Olds for serving as a literary consultant on the film (one imagines Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton sitting in another dimension, laughing as they watch Penn ask Olds for her expertise in developing the film’s narration). In any case, “I Go Back to May (1937)” seems an apt expression of how Penn seems to feel about the nuclear family: “…you are going to do things/you cannot imagine you would ever do/you are going to do bad things to children/you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of/you are going to want to die…” Such is a logical conclusion given the way Penn exaggerates and dramatizes the tumultuous nature of McCandless’s family life.