In 2020, How do the Movie and its Subject Hold Up?
Felix Quiñonez Jr.
This past June, the Alaska Army National Guard decided to airlift the “Magic Bus,” immortalized by Into the Wild. (the book and movie) As I read the news, my indifference genuinely surprised me. There was a time when I was a card-carrying member of the Chris McCandless cult. But did I still idolize this tragic figure and the movie that introduced me to him?
Who Was Chris McCandless?
There are few figures in our time, who inspire as divisive opinions as Chris McCandless. Almost from the minute, hunters found his body in what he referred to as the “Magic Bus” people have vigorously debated whether he was a tragic, romantic figure or a dumb, arrogant kid who may have had a death wish.
Born in California and raised in Virginia, in 1990, McCandless graduated from Emory University. After graduating, he donated his savings of $24,000 to Oxfam and set out on a journey to leave behind modern society’s restraints that would culminate in Alaska.
He lived a vagabond lifestyle and took odd jobs here and there to fund his journey. Then in April 1992, he hitchhiked from South Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska. He was last seen alive on April 28, by the man who gave him a ride to the start of the trail on the outskirts of Healy, a small town.
Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, 400 rounds, rice, books, some camping equipment, and a few other things, Chris embarked on what would become his last adventure. After hiking along the stampede trail, he came upon an abandoned school bus that he called the “Magic Bus.” It would become his shelter.
According to the journal entries, Chris left behind, he gathered edible plants and hunted wildlife. On one occasion, he shot a moose but was unable to preserve it. After having lived on the bus for a little over two months, Chris planned to head back into society. But he wasn’t prepared for the rising tide of the Teklanika River. When he crossed it in the spring, it was low, but it was now considerably higher. Unable to cross it, Chris went back to his bus, which would become his last resting place. Roughly 113 days after arriving, Chris died, but his legend or cautionary tale was born. Because his body had been decomposing for so long when hunters found it, it was impossible to determine his exact death date. The cause of death was initially attributed to starvation but has been debated for years.
How I became Card-Carrying Member of the McCandless Cult
In 2007, I moved to New York City from Long Island to attend Hunter College. Like many young men, I imagined myself a rebellious individual and saw a kindred spirit in Chris. I had a similarly romantic and naïve outlook on life that made me admire his journey and the person I imagined him to be. Part of the reason I found the image of who he was, so appealing was that I imagined myself in the same way. After seeing the movie, I immediately bought a copy of the book of the same name, written by John Krakauer. I carried it with me everywhere I went, and it made me feel even more confident of my kinship with Chris McCandless. And like Chris, I fell in love with the Henry David Thoreau quote:
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
I told myself that love, money, and fame are things that many of us aspire to while so few of us covet truth. It’s no coincidence after all that one of the most famous sayings in the world is, “ignorance is bliss.” But I wasn’t like that, no, I was like Chris, and I didn’t need the comfort of love, the security of money, or distraction of fame. No, all I needed was the truth, no matter what form it took.
So much of our early lives are dictated by adults telling us how we should live it. They tell us what to eat, when to sleep, when we can go out, what we can do, and so many other things. It can start to feel like we have very little agency in our own lives.
Life begins to resemble a train ride, with an unseen conductor controlling the destination and every stop. All we can do is sit back and watch our lives unfold before us. We go from elementary school to middle school, to high school, to college, to the workforce, and on and on.
It’s only natural that, at one point, some of us want to rebel against that. Society places us on a path and ascribes us a list of things we have to check off to be deemed successful. But no one stops to ask us if we even want to go where the path leads or if we even want the things we’re supposed to spend so much of our lives chasing after.
It’s no wonder so many people end up resentful of that. Sometimes we get so caught up in accomplishing the checklist of life, that only years later, are we able to stop long enough to see that we were working so hard to achieve something we never wanted. When you think of it that way, it’s not surprising that so many people find Chris’s story inspirational. It’s no wonder, so many people even choose to embark on the journey to the so-called “Magic Bus” in Alaska.
For so many people that feel shackled by society’s restraints, Chris represented an ideal. He embodied the possibility to break free from a society we never signed up to in the first place. In some ways, he wasn’t so different than the mythical “one that got away,” so many people have.
In both cases, the person isn’t significant, just what they represent to us. He allowed us to believe that it is possible to live outside the constraints put on us. He convinced us that there is life outside the bubble of society if only we are brave enough to reach for it.
How I felt about the movie in 2007
The first time I saw Into the Wild, it took me less than five minutes to know the filmmaker’s stance on Chris McCandless. There was no pretense at objectivity. The movie makes it very clear that Chris is the hero of the story and wastes no time treating him as a sort of mythical and noble figure. It’s clear this movie is for those of us in the cult of Chris McCandless, and it was made by one of our own.
Even for the movie’s most vocal detractors, it would be difficult to deny its beauty. At times, there is such breathtaking scenery that it almost feels as if nature itself is a character in the movie. And this feels very fitting for a film about Chris.
Eddie Vedder provides a lot of the music, and it fits the atmosphere without being overbearing. The movie uses it to enhance the mood, but it never feels like watching a music video or montage.
Even though the movie is clearly about Chris, it benefits from a solid supporting cast. By telling their own stories and giving us a look into Chris’ journey, they help paint a fuller picture of him. But of course, the lead role is of prime importance, and Emile Hirsch does a great job. He even looks a bit like Chris. At times, he can come off a bit like a blank slate, and I feel that was no accident. It feels like the movie wants the viewer to project their feelings onto the character. Emile Hirsch plays well off the supporting cast. At times you can see him absorbing the stories of the characters Chris meets. With his eyes, he emotes so much without ever saying a word.
Sometimes knowing how the story will end can impede the viewer’s ability to get invested in the journey. But even though I knew precisely how Chris’s journey would end, I was still gripped the entire time. Occasionally I found myself irrationally, hoping that he would make it. And when he finally does meet his inevitable fate, it still moved me profoundly.
Revisiting Into the Wild in 2020
But that was almost thirteen years ago, and a lot can happen in that time. Time has a way of changing everything, even the way you look at the world. I have to admit, my admiration for Chris McCandless slowly faded away until one day, it was no longer there. I didn’t turn on him exactly; I just stopped thinking about him altogether.
When I read that the bus was being airlifted, I wasn’t immediately inspired to revisit the movie. But it did remind me of how much I used to admire Chris. It also made me think of a time gone by and what Chris used to represent to me. Then one day, I stumbled upon Into the Wild as I scrolled through one of my streaming services looking for something to watch. I remembered how much I used to love it and figured, “why not?”
I still think it’s a very well-made, beautifully shot movie with a lot to enjoy. But I can’t get over just how in love with its subject the film seems to be. Revisiting the movie, it becomes instantly apparent that the filmmaker was more interested in providing fawning admiration than any meaningful exploration of the character.
But re-watching the movie makes it clear that what was left out does just as much to shape the movie’s portrayal of Chris as what we get to see. It’s puzzling to see that the film completely overlooks the possibility that arrogance must have at least played a small part in convincing Chris that his journey could have ended any other way. And it’s pretty difficult to see his complete disregard of how his actions would impact his family as anything but selfish.
Another thing that the movie never even hints at is the possibility that Chris could have had a mental illness. At least one of the people who encountered Chris on his way to Alaska found him so bizarre that he and his aunt immediately regretted picking up the hitchhiker. They found Chris and his general disregard for hygiene so off-putting that they ditched him at a store. It’s not a complete stretch to think that the man’s description of Chris paired with his adopting a different persona could be the sign of someone suffering from a form of mental illness. Others have gone further and suggested that Chris had schizophrenia.
I also found it curious that there is no mention of the cabins that were vandalized in the area during the spring of Chris’ excursion. Three cabins were not only ransacked but as one of the owners described to a local publication, “completely trashed.” The man said that “Everything that wasn’t nailed down had been wrecked.”
But the movie never bothers to explore these possibilities. It seems that the film is too concerned with preserving the myth. And that’s too bad because these things wouldn’t have “ruined” Chris. Instead, they would have gone a long way towards painting a fuller picture of Chris. It would have made him a more nuanced and complicated character. In short, it would have made him human. But the movie isn’t interested in portraying Chris, the human, it only cares about Chris, the legend. And in the end, the film gives us a version of Chris that is as imaginary as the peaceful, idyllic postcard version of the wilderness Chris thought he would find when he set out on his journey. And that is the movie’s biggest failing.
I also find it manipulative that the primary purpose of the supporting characters seems to be to vocalize how the movie wants us to feel about Chris. If that wasn’t enough, the sister’s narration seems to hammer the point home. Her romantic monologues about her brother spell it out for the viewers.
Putting the Legend to Rest
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that much of what made me see Chris as a mythical hero, could be attributed to youthful romanticism and a shallow outlook on life. I know it wasn’t something that people talked about back then, but these days I find it hard to idolize someone who seemed so unaware of his privilege. It’s not hard to imagine that if Chris hadn’t been a young white man, his journey could have ended sooner and differently. It certainly makes you wonder if authorities would have been so eager to overlook the fact that Chris illegally entered Mexico with a gun if he wasn’t white. I also find it hard to ignore that he was so young and experienced so little of the life he denounced.
While I no longer see him in the same heroic light as I used to, I don’t think he’s the awful person that so many people believe he is. He seemed to be going through a tough time, as so many of us do at that age. It’s challenging to deal with the uncertainty that comes from not knowing what to do with your future. It’s a shame that he didn’t get to live long enough to see that the many things he thought were unbearable, might not have been so bad.
Like so many people, I willfully ignored the things I didn’t want to see about him. I instead preferred to construct an idea of him. In a way, he was never all that important to myself or many of his followers. The legend so many of us built of Chris had nothing to do with him but what we wanted to see in ourselves. In a way, we selfishly, reduced him to a one-dimensional figure to prop up our fantasies. Perhaps, it’s time we let Chris be a real person, warts and all.