Monday, July 11, 2016

Into the Wild: A Reflection on the Film

This article is about my emotional reaction to the movie Into the Wild. It is not intended to be a review. I will not be discussing the pacing of the story, the quality of the acting, or the accuracy of the information presented. If you're interested in reading about how well the movie lines up with the actual story, the following links may be of interest:

Into the Wild Debunked
A Note From Carine McCandless

What Is Into the Wild?

Into the Wild is the story of a man who died because of his own misguided ideals.

It is the story of a young man who thought he had it all figured out and didn't want to listen to the advice of those who could have helped him on his journey.

It is the story of a restless soul who never really found his place in the world.

It is the story of a man who tried to build a perfect life and failed in the worst possible way.

Into the Wild is probably the most disturbing movie I have ever seen.

Why Did I Find Into the Wild so disturbing?

You may think I'm exaggerating. You may think I meant to say "thought provoking" rather than disturbing. But I'm not exaggerating. I was profoundly disturbed by this film. I watched it for the first time about about a week ago. At first I referred to it as one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. Then I didn't sleep for four nights in a row because of the nightmares this story provoked. I don't think any film has ever done that to me before, so it's now officially the most disturbing movie I've ever seen.

I am a horror movie buff. I can watch things that would give the average person nightmares and barely be phased by them. I love stories that are creepy. I can usually tolerate the gory without too much emotional strife. But watching a young man starve to death all by himself in the middle of the woods was more than I was prepared to deal with. I literally have not been able to sleep at night for thinking of it.

I think I am disturbed by this story for the same reason many people are inspired by it. Because I see a little of myself in Chris McCandless. I think that while I watched the movie some part of me was subconsciously thinking, "that could have been me". Perhaps because a part of me identified strongly with Chris, that same part of me wanted to see him succeed. When he didn't, I simply couldn't cope.

The Universality of Into the Wild

It's odd to say that I identify with Chris McCandless, considering how different my lifestyle has been from the one he had. Looking back on my adult life, the first word that comes to mind is "traditional". And I mean very traditional. I was twenty when my husband and I got married. A year later we bought our first house. Three years after that we welcomed our first child. I've spent a huge amount of that time being a stay-at-home mom. Like I said...very traditional.

By saying that I identify with Chris McCandless I do not wish to imply that I feel tempted to run away from my husband and kids. Nor am I saying that I resent the choices that brought me to the place where I am today. I did the things I did because it was what I wanted, not because it was what society said I should want. In fact, growing up as I did in the aftermath of the Women's Lib movement, I always felt that society was telling me I should want to "have it all". My choice of the traditional, the old-fashioned, the simpler life was my own little rebellion against the society in which I was raised. So I suppose I was really identifying with Chris McCandless way back then; I was just following a different path. But my feelings about Chris and his story are a bit more complicated than that.

There are three categories of people: those who are content to the point of complacency, those who are restless to the point of misery, and those who are somewhere in between. Most of the time I fall into the middle camp, but when I do start to drift toward an extreme it is usually in the direction of restlessness. I've written about these feelings multiple times, so I won't say it all again here, but if you are interested you can read some of my previous posts:

The Angst: Embracing Our Discontent
The Odd World of the Introverted Artist
A Personal Meditation On Matthew 25: 14-30
The Inevitability of Regret
My Lenten Journey, Part 5

Because I have felt that restlessness, I sympathized with Chris and his search for meaning in his life. I desperately wanted him to find what he was looking for while at the same time recognizing the mistakes he made along the way.

Lessons Learned From Into the Wild

Perhaps it is because I am in my late thirties as opposed to my early twenties that I am more frightened than inspired by this story. For me it is a warning against trying to be too independent. Though we may become fed up with the people in our lives and disillusioned by society, the truth is we need people in order to survive. Chris McCandless followed the noble dream of getting back to nature and living as our ancient ancestors did. But our ancestors were not alone. They lived in groups. In tribes. If a man was injured, he had someone to carry him down the mountain. If he was overwhelmed by a seemingly impossible task, he had older, more experienced people to help him. Sometimes people died, because medical care as we know it today did not exist, but at least people did not have to die alone. Society has never been perfect and it never will be because people are not perfect, but we still need each other. Left alone, we perish.

Being an introvert, I never found the idea of dying alone to be all that disturbing. In fact I've had moments when I've thought that would be preferable to dying surrounded by people who want to invade my personal space, put their hands on me without permission, then proceed to slobber and cry all over me. But Into the Wild showed me how terrible dying alone can really be. The level of isolation Chris McCandless knew during his final months of life is something I can't even imagine. In one of the nightmares I've been having these past few nights I dream that I am Chris during his final days. I won't describe the dream. I'll just say that I don't want to be that alone when it is my time to die. It's just about the most horrible death I can imagine.

He did not deserve to die like that. I know his story is something of a controversial one. For every person who views him as a hero, there is a least one person who who feels he got what was coming to him because of his own impulsiveness and lack of preparation. There are also the people who would say he was a jerk for ditching his family and not keeping in touch with those who loved him most. But I'll say it again. He did not deserve to die like that. No one deserves to die like that. Maybe he made mistakes, and maybe he has only himself to blame for his own demise, but that doesn't diminish the tragic nature of what happened. He went into the wild in search of something profound and encountered instead a lonely and painful death. I can only hope that there was peace also. I hope that God was with him and that he wasn't truly alone.

 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.


  1. I have neither seen nor read Into the Wild, but I was intrigued when I saw that it disturbed you. I think I can see why though. I'm not a horror movie fan, but I do read lots of dark, gory, emotional books, and those I'm fine with. But the ones that are truly disturbing aren't the fantastical, showy, gory ones. They're the ones that hit something more realistic and basic inside you.

    While I was reading your post, I couldn't help but think of The Time Traveler's Wife because that was my most disturbing book. Obviously that wasn't real in the way that Into the Wild was, but I had nightmares and slept restlessly for the few days it took me to read it, and never has any other book done that to me. So anyway, a bit of a tangent, but I think I get what you mean by how the movie affected you.

    1. It was interesting because the final scenes of the movie are not really all that visually disturbing; it was the idea they conveyed that hit me. It was like I could almost feel what he was feeling in those final moments, and I knew that the reality had been a lot worse than what is shown in the film.

      I actually loved the Time Traveler's Wife, oddly enough. I'm not usually a chick flick, or chick lit, kind of girl so a romance novel has to have something really special about it or I won't like it. A tragic ending can sometimes do it for me, but even then I have to really love the characters or I won't feel anything. The Time Traveler's Wife made me cry, something a lot of supposed tear-jerkers generally fail to do, so it's now one of my favorite books.