Wildland Filmography

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Last updated 1 June 2008

The process of turning books that have elements of wild nature into films has a long history. The advent of DVD and online purchase opens up a back catalogue of these, as well as contemporary examples. I have long thought that a list could be made that exemplifies the canon. Rather than just compile a notional list, this page will have reviews of a notable selection.

Into the wild  NEW

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, Wiliam Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughn, Kirsten Stewart, and Hal Holbrook. Screenplay/Director: Sean Penn (2007) Paramount Pictures. DVD PHE 9425

This film is based on a book by Jon Krakauer about the real events in the life of Christopher McCandless, a young man who felt out of step with the values of the world he lived in, and instead sought freedom in a simpler life, closer to nature. I came across the book a couple of years ago in Boston, but the sadness of the story - the fact that McCandless set off into Alaskan wilderness and died there - made me put it back on the shelf. The release of the film version, and the excellent reviews it received, made me want to find out about McCandless, but also benefit from the visual portrayal that a film provides over a book.

The film works by switching between Alaska, and the last days of his life there, with the events and journeys that lead up to him going to Alaska. The journeys are marked by chapters, and it is his sister whose narration charts the initial anxiety of the McCandless family that turns into despair at a son who disappears to them within days of his graduating from Atlanta's Emory College in 1990, and does not contact them. She provides the back story that tells us that McCandless had come to despise his parents, especially his father, for the dysfunction of the family life, and for the lies and evasion of a chequered past. He wants to break with all that, and so he gives away his graduate school fund, cuts up credit and ID cards, and burns his Social Security card and bank notes. Books by the likes of Thoreau and Jack London, especially The Call of the Wild, are amongst his inspiration and accompany him.

He sets out on the road in his old car, but it gets washed away one night in a flash flood in the desert of Arizona. And so instead he hitches, or jumps freight trains, moving from place to place, finding where he can live independently, off the land and without money, but taking work occasionally. He writes to Wayne, one who gave him work, about his independent life after he had moved on:
“I’ve decided to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty is too good to pass up”

His charm wins over all who he meets on the road: a hippie couple, a tantalising young girl, an old man, and a grain farmer, but he leaves them all. A chance meeting is of a Danish couple on the banks of the Colorado River while he illegitimately travels by kayak through the Grand Canyon. They encourage him to travel the entire length of the river, bypassing the Hoover dam, and ending up in open sea off Mexico in the Gulf of California. He lives in a cave for 36 days next to the Gulf, but then loses his kayak in a wind storm, and so returns across the border and heads for city life in Los Angeles. But it is too alien to him now, too full of fear, danger, desperation and inequality. He leaves quickly and continues with his odyssey, but having determined that the wilderness of Alaska will be his ultimate destination.

The criss-crossing of his journeys - Georgia, Arizona, South Dakota, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington State etc - and the changes in landscape from arid to wooded to coastal, can be confusing. But the ultimate story and his goal is Alaska. He prepares himself by taking advice where he can and by equipping himself with books on wild plant identification.

His days in Alaska are recorded in a college notebook. An abandoned bus (how did it get there?) becomes his home, and we chart how he becomes more proficient at finding food as the snow of late spring melts into the new growth of the summer. He kills a moose and rushes to process the carcass within the hour that he was advised would avoid infestation with flies. He is not prepared. Thus after butchering, he still has to build the structures for a smoke pit out of stick frames and a moss covering. He is too late, and all the meat wriggles with maggots and larvae. He writes in his journal:
”Defective – looks like a disaster. I wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life”

A pack of wolves and a bald headed eagle are attracted to the discarded dead flesh, and we see him watch how they make sense out of the kill as they rip and gnaw. He reflects:
“There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was like a place of heathenism and superstitious rights to be inhabited by men mirrored into the rocks and to the wild animals they met”

As McCandless' fortunes appear to improve, the weight of the task of survival lifting and thoughts turned positive by the glory of his situation, he loses his distrust of humankind and determines to leave the wilderness in good spirit: “Happiness is only real when shared”. A river that he waded easily in the snows of spring, is now impassable, swollen with floury glacial melt water, and he has to turn back. The greatest tragedy then befalls him as his luck with food kills deserts him and he turns to wild berries and seed pods for sustenance. A mis-identification between the seeds of the edible wild potato and the poisonous wild sweet pea, leaves him sick and ultimately staring a slow death in the face as his plant identification book reveals the poison to inhibit digestion, causing death by starvation. 

Emaciation, weakness and delirium are only slightly relieved when McCandless notes that he made it to his 100th day in Alaska, about two years after he first split from his old life. He has become trapped in the wild, and that is where he dies. The film closes with a photograph of McCandless himself, sitting at ease against the side of the bus, this having been on a roll of film in his camera, found by moose hunters two weeks after his death. It shows a happy, healthy McCandless, at ease in the wilderness, and where he would in all likelihood have returned with others again and again, had he been able to overcome the swollen river and been refreshed and better prepared on those returns.

Emile Hirsch is convincing as McCandless (although slighter in build) and the principle actors, especially the lovely Catherine Keener, play their enchantment with him, and their bewilderment at his leaving, very well. The anguish of motherhood at a lost child is emotionally captured by Marcia Gay Harden, especially in an opening sequence where her dreams lead her to believe that her son was there in reality. The soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment: the lyrics of popular songs reflecting events, and the gentle music of Eddie Vedder reflecting the landscape.

1 June 2008


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk