The new VCE comparison study requires students to consider ‘the ways in which different texts provide different perspectives on ideas, issues and themes and how comparing them can offer an enriched understanding’. For example, with a Tracks and Into the Wild pairing, you might consider what each of the texts suggests about the purity and salvation of nature. Why do so many people think that travelling alone into a landscape full of things that could potentially eat, poison or otherwise harm them is somehow going to repair their damaged souls? (I want to make a joke about going on school camps here, but it’s only going to detract from the very serious point I want to make about these texts …)
Despite the many similarities — including the oblique references to unhappy past experiences, rejection of materialism and a desire to live freely — Davidson’s and McCandless’s journeys in Tracks and Into the Wild are driven by fundamentally different forces. Davidson seeks to find herself through her well-defined physical challenge after a lengthy period of preparation and with the support of others, while McCandless seems to be trying to lose himself entirely in a series of environments of which he has no real understanding. Both, interestingly, succeed.
Into the Wild juxtaposes nature and humanity in its representation of McCandless’s quest for freedom in both book and film iterations, but for those of you who are moving from teaching Krakauer in 2016 to teaching Penn in 2017, there are some subtle but important differences to note. On the surface, Penn’s telling of Into the Wild communicates an enticing ‘finding yourself’ energy that will no doubt appeal to the romantic and rebellious natures of many 17- and 18-year-olds, a fact demonstrated by the enormous number of ill-prepared young hikers who have had to be rescued after undertaking their own odyssey to bus number 142. Penn’s vision of McCandless’s character reveals a protagonist who eschews the expectations of society and his family, and hits the road in search of freedom from materialism. Many adults, too, might also be seduced by the way McCandless’s decisions are presented in the film, considering his character to be like Henry David Thoreau, an incredibly influential American philosopher and writer who lived for a time in the woods and wrote about his experiences in Walden. But the McCandless we see in Into the Wild is not a modern-age Thoreau, even though the film references his work.
Modern texts that draw on the legacy of Thoreau’s time living by Walden Pond tend to focus on the following passage, which helps to perpetuate the myth of the independent, bookish, passionate soul seeking their truth in nature:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life …
The way this idea is referenced in many texts, isolation in nature becomes a spiritual cure-all for the disillusioned, creative soul. Thoreau, however, was not in the wilderness, but the woods. He visited the town of Concord often and was not, by any means, genuinely isolated from other people. Thoreau’s quest was similar to Davidson’s: they both sought to find their own path, to reject the conventions and structures of society and ‘not … to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains.’ Thoreau was not asking to ‘leave the ship’ of society or forego human companionship entirely, he wanted to enjoy the view without the impediment of walls, just as Davidson seeks to experience a challenging journey to test her mettle and experience the Australian outback in all its wild glory. In contrast, McCandless’s character is not happy with stepping on to the deck for a better view, he figuratively leaps from the gunwales and leaves everyone else behind.
Therein lies the need to tread carefully with this film and to manage discussions about the perils of taking extreme measures to find ‘freedom’.
In the film’s flashbacks, we can see why McCandless is disillusioned by the discord of his upbringing, but the heartstring-tugging Eddie Vedder soundtrack, the sweeping landscapes and the cleverly employed cinematic techniques all contribute to a potential reading of the film as the story of a creative-genius/hero’s tragic end. Students might need to be pointed towards a more complex reading of the text that acknowledges that it is also the story of a lost and troubled young man from a difficult but wealthy home who dies lonely and in agony while his friends and family are left in limbo.
It might be considered that Penn’s well-produced, cinematically beautiful version presents a slightly less problematised view of McCandless’s character than Krakauer’s book does. The film’s narrative perspective is aligned with McCandless, even though the film is told from an omniscient point of view. We hear his character speak to us, read to us and write for us. We see his triumph and are positioned to champion his quest, right until the end when the folly of his journey is revealed. This folly is presented as a careless misidentification after a failed river crossing, giving the impression that it is the barrier of the river — that symbolic representation of his ultimate fear: water — that is to blame for his death, rather than his own hubris. In Krakauer’s book, however, we read different stories of ‘vanishing’ in the wilderness and, importantly, we also read the other side of the story: the grief, loss and longing felt by the McCandless family. This is explored less fully in the film. Consider the ending: an imagined scene of familial forgiveness, and an almost beatific series of cross-cuts between a smiling but weeping McCandless, and the bright light of the sun that culminates in an ascendance into the sky. Granted the ghostly heartbeat could be seen as a reminder of his mortality but, as the soundtrack becomes less subtle, as the long shot pulls right back to show the whole landscape from above, it seems more of a tribal drumbeat. Is his scream in agony or ecstasy? Are his tears of joy or relief?
McCandless’s character in the film is an intelligent, charming and disillusioned young man, but the downfall of his character is not his unlucky misidentification of a plant species or the raging Teklanika River, it is his inability to recognise that he is a flawed human being who cannot exist on his own. Though he clearly recognises the flaws in his own parents and in society at large, the film does not show him examining his own personal shortcomings as explicitly. He is damaged, naïve and, at times, patronising. ‘You’re wrong if you think the joy of life comes from human relationships,’ says the 24-year-old recent college graduate to the 80-year-old still-grieving widower, Ron Franz. It could be argued that his character is more fully realised in Krakauer’s version; he offers us more than one perspective and an easier entry point into questioning McCandless’s choices. But watching the film, students might not immediately recognise the problematic nature of McCandless’s actions. Asking students to deconstruct the presentation of his character, consider the gaps in the narrative, and explore McCandless’s lure for other, similarly broken, people, will be solid entry points into considering the broader issues and themes.
Into the Wild might be a challenging text for the reasons I’ve outlined, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided. It is a visually interesting movie with a wide range of cinematic techniques that will provide students with many ways to write about the impact of text construction on how ideas are conveyed. It will also prompt your students to consider their own places in the ‘machinery’ of society.
Click the link below for a list of online resources that relate to both Penn’s and Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and questions to consider about the film in your planning for an Into the Wild/Tracks pairing in 2017.
Please note that all links in the attached PDF and in this post will take you to third-party sites. While we’ve done our best to vet the content for a general secondary-student audience, the links may include content or advertisements that are not suitable for all school contexts, or may have changed since we last viewed the content.