Monday, September 24, 2007

Sean Penn's "Into the Wild": a summary judgment.

"Into the Wild" was released last Friday. I watched the trailer for it the other day and really wanted to see it. The cinematography looks beautiful, the story is compelling, and they used a great Iron & Wine and Clexico collaboration (He Lays in the Reins) in the trailer. Because I decided not to see Into the Wild, I suppose you could say this is a review based on the trailer, rather than on the merits.

Into the Wild is one of my favorite books. I remember reading the original article, entitled, "Death of an Innocent" in Outside magazine back in 1993. Krakauer is a gripping writer, and the article combines gumshoe reporting and forensic discovery with the finesse of a novelist and the introspection of an essayist. And even without fine writing the story itself is engaging: authorities find a young man's decaying body in a sleeping bag in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness---eventually the body is identified as Chris McCandless, a kid from an affluent family in the elite Northeastern establishment, but how McCandless ended up in Alaska remains a mystery, so a writer collects the clues and slowly pieces together Chris' journey across the midwest, west, southwest, and up the coast to Alaska. But Krakauer made the story better with his persistent questioning: not just where? what? who? and how? but more importantly, why?

Krakauer's article was his big break. Soon he expanded the article, delved a little deeper into the introspection, developed it into a full-length book and published it as Into the Wild. Soon after, he published Eiger Dreams, a collection of wilderness essays/memoirs, and short journalistic pieces and then Into thin Air, another book based on an Outside article, (this one about the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Mt. Everest). Krakauer admits that his writing has become obsessed with extremism in one form or another. Most recently, he published, Under the Banner of Heaven, an exploration of the perils of religious extremism using fundamentalist Dan Lafferty as a case study.

And now Sean Penn has made Into the Wild a movie. On the one hand, who can blame him. It's a great adventure story and just begs for a gorgeously shot film to go along with it. But on the other hand, if this review is to be believed, Penn takes great liberties with the facts of McCandless' life to make Chris a one-dimensional tortured anti-establishment hero and excises the introspection and questioning that made Krakauer's study of McCandless great. If this is true, it's disappointing.

I have nothing against taking artistic liberties with the facts as a theoretical principle. Some of Shakespeare's greatest works aren't faithful to history the purport to portray. The Standing on the Promises series is a fantastic work of historical fiction. But these books take artistic liberties to fill negative space in the historical record, rather than rewrite history that is reliably set down. When history is scant, I have no problem with an author filling in the blanks. Too often, though, artistic liberties and "historical fiction" are merely excuses for a failure to write compelling history.

It's one thing to write ahistorical things about ancient English Kings like Lear and Hamlet, or to use the novelist's gift to flesh out the minimally recorded lives of slaves. But using artistic liberty as an excuse to malign the character of living people is egregious. According to the review at Slate, Penn crudely justifies McCandless' disowning his family by inventing out of whole cloth a childhood of abusive memories. In reality, Walt McCandless did not get drunk and beat his wife. Spousal abuse is not among his many faults. Chris cut off all contact with his family because he disapproved of the materialistic way they lived. Their New England elitism didn't jive with his Thoreauvian ethic and his Jack London aesthetic. Their complicity in the environmental and social exploitation of American capitalism offended him. As a result, his rock-hard integrity demanded that he have nothing to do with them.

Whether these are worthy ideals is one question; whether they justify disowning a beloved family is another. Krakauer's book is good because he takes on these questions (and others), grapples with them, and refuses to take the easy way out. My beef with Penn's movie is not that it is too positive, but that it reduces Chris McCandless to a one-dimensional stock hero. Chris was not just a hippie or an emo hero, and his life story should be more than a surfer movie sans surfing. His staunch ethic makes him more like firebrand John Brown than flowerchild Thoreau. And like John Brown, Chris McCandless' is a bundle of contradictions that should make us think about ourselves. It's unfortunate that Penn's hagiographic portrayal hasn't preserved this. I don't think I want to see Into the Wild after all.


Cabeza said...

A review-review! This blog is getting awfully meta...

But seriously, I enjoyed your comparative analysis of the book you've read and the apparent intentions of Sean Penn's adaptation. This piece honestly made me want to pick up the book and ignore the movie, even though, as you point out, the cinematography looks amazing.

Cook, even when you're a bigshot lawyer fighting for the everyman, please keep writing.

JKC said...

Yeah, a review review, I guess. I can't really call it true cinematographicus because it isn't a review of a movie.

The best comparison is a summary judgment hearing where the judge decides based only on the briefs and oral argument instead of going to full trial and calling witnesses and presenting evidence.

Based only on the trailer and reviews, I didn't see the need for further proof before making my decision not to see the movie. A summary judgment.

JKC said...

And don't forget to take a chance to listen to "He lays in the reins" in the streaming radio. It's awesome.

The Shark said...

May I suggest changing the radio settings so that it doesn't automatically play when the blog is loaded? I like to control when my speakers are playing something.

Excellent review-review, though. :) Sean Penn is one of those people in the industry towards whom I am nearly ambivalent. I don't care for his acting/directing, yet I don't necessarily think he lacks talent.

JKC said...

Yeah, I agree. I don't think Sean Penn is a bad actor or director, I just disagree with this decision. At least he has the integrity to usually do what he wants rather than what will be popular and sell tickets at the box office.

JKC said...

So I was thinking that maybe a documentary would preserve the genius of Krakauer's writing better than a traditional drama. On the other hand, it is a great story, and its kind of a shame to not tell it in narrative.

What if Penn had decided to tell the story from Krakauer's POV as he pieced the story together, interspersed with flashbacks into Chris' life from Chris' POV?

Cabeza said...

Wouldn't that basically be the same as last year's Capote? It was about the Truman Capote's process of discovery while he wrote In Cold Blood, not necessarily about the murders themselves.

JKC said...

I still need to see Capote.