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Into the Wild – movie vs. book

September 15, 2008

I finished reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer last week (read my review here), and in the course of my web-browsing before writing my review, I came across a TON of varying opinions of people who felt very strongly – not necessarily about the book or movie itself, but about their subject, Chris McCandless.

I’m a very clear “must read the book before I’ll consider touching the movie” type of girl when possible, but I do typically enjoy watching movie adaptations from books. So, after finishing the book, it’s only natural that I’d be curious to see what Sean Penn did with it in movie format – and how he turned a book that was essentially a documentary into a movie with actors and a story.

I’m pleased to say that movie compared to book quite well. Each had their strong points – I had an easier time keeping the path of his pre-Alaska wanderings straight in the movie, and the movie was gorgeous and exceptionally well shot, and I imagine that it really helped bring the environment to life for people who haven’t been to Alaska. Conversely, the book was (obviously) better able to explain some things, particularly the circumstances surrounding his death, in clear detail, and some of what I thought were the most affecting parts of the book, that of the aftermath of McCandless’s death, were reduced to a mere footnote in the movie, or absent altogether.

I also thought the movie came down a little harder on both Chris’s parents and on Chris himself. The first one is understandable – because the book spends much more time with Chris’s parents after his death, and lets them speak for themselves, they’re much more sympathetic than they are in the movie, which shows their relationship largely from Chris’s perspective. On the other hand, Chris seemed a bit more “out there” in the movie than I really got the sense of from the book, less just “off the beaten path” and more “actually slightly crazy” although I can’t put my finger on why – acting choices or scriptwriting choices, I don’t know.

One final note – I am not a compulsive credits-watcher, and I was already getting up to turn off the DVD player when I noticed that Jim Gallien – the truck driver who drove McCandless to the start of the Stampede Trail, and the last person to see him alive – was played by himself. I thought that was a nice touch, and that it really spoke to the filmmakers’ commitment to get things right, and to tell the story with as much respect as possible, both for Chris and for the people he left behind.

What about you guys? Seen the movie and/or read the book? What did you think?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2008 6:32 pm

    I didn’t notice that fact about Jim Gallien in the film. That’s a nice touch.

    • Pancho permalink
      July 6, 2011 6:10 pm

      was the book and the movie the same????

  2. September 15, 2008 9:15 pm

    Hey! i was in alaska last summer an we were camping in the denali national park.. on one of our bus tours, i got to hear the story of chris and found out that the movie was going to be out. the story kinda stuck to me coz i am an emory grad as well (so was chris) i had made a mental note to read this book but never got around to doing it.. will go and pick it up right away:) thanks for reminding me..

  3. September 15, 2008 9:19 pm

    charley – The Jim Gallien thing was just the capper on what I felt like was a serious effort to make the movie as true-to-reality as possible – even the costuming choices matched (almost exactly) what he was wearing in some of the self-portraits he took.

    ramya – Hmm, that’s cool that your bus driver brought it up; ours certainly didn’t. In fact, I was only vaguely aware that Into the Wild was set in Alaska at all, which is why I got such a shock when I cracked the book and realized that it took place so close to where we’d been.

  4. September 16, 2008 11:29 am

    The book and movie really made me think a lot. My husband did NOT like the movie and said it changed a lot of the book. And something about the end where the author realized that McCandless really probably died from starvation and not the seeds but the movie makes out as though he would have made it if only he didn’t accidentally eat poisonous seeds.

    I guess the main thing for me is that living in Alaska and knowing people who can actually survive summer or winter out in the wilderness…that what McCandless lacked was a true respect for the wilderness. I thought it was such a waste and disrespect with the moose. And he was constantly getting bailed out by people…what if the driver didn’t give him the shoes? What if he didn’t find the bus? If he really wanted to make it in the wild he should have been more prepared, learned survival skills. Instead he read novels and had no clue what he was doing.

    Haha wow. Yeah I guess it’s a pretty sensitive subject to me :) Unlike my husband I thought the movie was pretty good and I thought they did a great job sticking to the book and trying to get it right.

    Great post!

  5. September 17, 2008 5:46 pm

    Amanda – My impression from the book was that he didn’t know (and his book didn’t say) that the seeds were poisonous. The movie makes it out like he confused two related species, but as I understood it, Krakauer’s belief was that he ate the (unknowingly toxic) seeds from the same plant that he’d been eating the roots all summer. There are biases on either side, and we’ll never know for sure.

    I think you’re dead on in saying that he had a very overly romanticized view of the wilderness… like he saw it more as this great idealized abstract, and didn’t pay proper attention to the concrete realities.

  6. September 18, 2008 6:06 pm

    I haven’t read or seen either, yet, but they are in the too-read and watch lists. :)

  7. October 26, 2008 2:17 am

    OK …honestly, is everyone who has posted thus far a 20 yr old college kid? Granted much of the movie focuses on Chris’ free spirit….the message has nothing to do with how prepared he was or how hw wanted to escape society. The message he found, albeit too late, and lesson I learned was what who do or where we go is irrelevant, but what matters in life are the relationships we make and the experinces we share with others…that is what makes us who we are and what we remeber as we grow old. Experiences not shared are wasted…

    • norberthaupt permalink
      February 26, 2009 9:22 am

      Well, irony should have it that Chris’ experiences in the wilderness are more shared than anyone else’s in recent history (short of John Muir perhaps). If Chris knew that there are millions of people that know his name and watching him die in that bus in a movie years after, he would be flabbergasted. But all that is due to the diligence of Krakauer.

      There are thousands of Chris’s out there that died that we never heard of again, ever, anyone, with just as poignant a story. There was no Krakauer to spend years researching their steps and documenting their tragedy.

  8. October 29, 2008 10:36 am

    EP, the thing I took with me, too, was where he wrote in the book “happiness is only real if shared”. I don’t think it matters that he was unprepared – he did make an effort to be knowledgeable. It wasn’t a matter of seeing who could be the best “survivor man” but to experience it all, which he did. He also made note that the issue with the moose was a tragedy to him. He was hungry – what was he supposed to do? I haven’t read the book yet, as I just found out about the movie, but I am definitely getting it.

  9. Jim Bisset permalink
    January 23, 2009 2:17 pm

    I just finished the book and now they think it was a mold on the seeds (from having been stuffed in a moist plastic bag) that actually killed him or made his so sick he starved.

  10. Emily permalink
    February 12, 2009 7:22 pm

    I had just finished the book a couple of days ago and i and i have seen the movie beforre i read the book. i thiught that the movie was done very tastefully, but when i read the book, i couldn’t help but notice that they have left some points out that were in the book. i did not like the fact that they made Chris’s parents seem more aggressive in the movie than in the book. Grant it they may have had their issues, but i don’t believe that they should have been portrayed that way. One thing that I’m kind of in the middle about is that i liked how they showed how free- spirited he was, but i didn’t like that fact that they didn’t show how ill prepared he was for his trip. But over all i believe that they movie was portrayedvery well. i especially loved the music! Eddie Vedder is one of my favorite artists and i absolutly loved the music he composed. The music went along perfectly with the movie. For the book it had a great impact with me. even though chris was self centered, egotistical, and a know it all, i 100% believed on what he has to say about society and the world today. Every time i kepton readingi was blown away. to see the impacts that he made on others lives was just astonishing. Who knew that i person could affect so many people and he didn’t even make it to see them again. Well from all this rambling, i believe that you get my point so i will stop now.

  11. John permalink
    March 30, 2009 2:07 pm

    I just recently saw the movie and then felt compelled to read the book. My overall impression is that the move is very true to the book and has the right “feel.” And as others have mentioned, it adds some great visual images and music to go along with the story. One of my main questions after watching the movie had to do with how much of the story is really known and how much is conjecture. The book is really helpful there since you find out the source of the information and can clearly see the boundary between what is known and what is conjecture.
    The one mystifying thing about the movie (as others have mentioned) is that it seems clearly to paint the parents in a harsher light. I cannot imagine why the movie makers would have wanted to do this as I am sure it only heaps more pain on Chris’s parents who are after all real people.
    I feel a great appreciation for Jon K. for having researched and written the book. It is a fascinating story and the telling of it helps to make something positive out of a life tragically cut short. I think he is also doing a service by offering a kinder perspective concerning Chris’ inexperience and unpreparedness. Many outdoors people have had experiences from their younger days that they survived more by luck than by good sense.

  12. Dan permalink
    September 24, 2009 5:29 pm

    OK, the book stunk. It’s an ok story, but not when you say the same things over and over again. For every twenty-five pages there might be 1 good thing. The movie was very very good at making it into a real story instead of turning it into a thesis of the life of someone that you have to read and take a test on over every 2 chapters about in school!!!!!

    • November 11, 2009 3:20 pm

      This is a strange comment. Does Dan realize that this is a documentary of a real person’s life? The guy didn’t conduct his life to make it work as a story where “1 good thing” happens every few pages. His life was as exciting or as mundane as all of our lives. Anyone that has ever backpacked or camped out will know that it’s not that exciting. All day is spent getting to that next destination to camp out, day after day, and keeping enough fuel in the stomach to sustain it. There is little energy and time for anything else. So the book “stunk?”

      • Jacob Thomas permalink
        April 17, 2012 7:58 pm

        I agree here with Norbert. Personally being a teenage kid and having the book crammed down your throat and then having to take a test on it does in a way make you disregard the book and can make it easy to find it boring but to non-fiction readers and others alike this book earned its 5 stars.

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