Into the Wild, a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn and based on the book by Jon Krakauer, tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young university graduate who embarks on just such a pathless journey. McCandless leaves behind a safe law career and a mystified (but abusive) family to strike out on the road with no money, no companions and no destination. He hitches rides throughout the US, experiencing remarkable and awe-inspiring natural wonders, challenging his greatest fears and living off the land and the hospitality of those he meets. For Christopher, a student of Thoreau, London and Tolstoy, this is the only way he can live an authentic life true to himself.
You'd be right to think this is a beautiful story about the rewards of leaving society's conventions behind to find your own true happiness. But the story comes with a tragic and difficult ending, one that provides a cautionary note. After embarking on his great Alaskan Adventure, an attempt to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher dies of starvation, weak, cold and alone. He is only 24 years old.
Christopher's story, which clearly embodies a "follow your bliss" philosophy, loosely fits with our Cambellian idea of a Hero's Journey. I don't want to claim knowledge of Christopher's motivations, feelings and experiences, but if we consider the film's presentation of his story, it becomes clear that a real life hero's journey can be fraught with danger and can leave us with very conflicted emotions at its outcome.
When Christopher embarks on his adventures, it would be natural to assume that he was following a call to adventure, a yearning to be on the road. But as the story develops and we discover that he lived in an abusive household with some pretty big skeletons, it becomes clear that Christopher is actually attempting to escape from his perceived reality. He rebels against the values his parents represents, to be sure, but he also shows a desire to become invisible. He arranges his disappearance so that his family is never able to find him and he makes no real attempt to stay in touch with his loving sister, even though he appears to have had a close relationship with her. He also leaves behind his name, introducing himself as "Alex" to those he meets. "Alex" is short for "Alexander Supertramp", a new identity he creates for himself.
Alex meets several people along his journey who offer him sage advice. Jan and Rainey are a hippie couple travelling the road in their painted motor home and we can see them as parent figures for Alex, especially when we learn that Jan has an estranged son Alex's age. When they ask Alex why he burned the last of his money, he claims that having money makes him feel "too cautious." Even though she and Rainey live a life on the fringes of conventional society, Jan still has her feet on the ground. She suggests to Alex that "a little caution is a good thing."
Later Alex is employed by Wayne, a happy-go-lucky wheat farmer who treats him much like a younger brother. Here we see Alex spending his days working hard and his nights drinking at the local bar with Wayne and his buddies. In one scene, Alex, after having a little too much to drink, explains why it is so important to escape from society - to get away from the hypocrites, the parents. Wayne tells him that to fall too deeply into that way of thinking is a mistake, that he can't be "juggling blood and fire all the time." What he is really suggesting is that in order to move forward, Alex needs to find a balance in his life and an ability to let go of the past.
Finally, Alex is taken in by Ron, an elderly man who lives a quiet and lonely life. Ron's scenes with Alex are some of the most moving in the film. He reveals that fifty years before his wife and son had been killed by a drunk driver and later explains the nature of forgiveness to Alex, suggesting that to forgive is to love, and when you love on that level you invite "God's light" to shine on you. In their final scene together Ron asks Alex if he'd be willing to take Ron's name, if he'd allow Ron to adopt him as a grandson. Alex blithely suggests they should talk about it when he gets back from Alaska and Ron graciously hides his tears and lets Alex go.
All of these people could be considered guides on Christopher's hero journey and like guide figures, they come into Christopher's life at opportune moments. But ultimately, Christopher is unable to hear their wisdom and integrate it into his life. At this point, he is so disconnected from and distrusting of people that he cannot hear the truth in what they are saying. In fact, every time Christopher leaves people behind, we get the sense that he meant a lot more to them than they did to him. Although he seems to genuinely like and appreciate the people he meets, there is a wall inside him that keeps him from forming too close an attachment.
At one point in the film, Christopher rejects his possible union with the earthly feminine. While living at Slab City with Jan and Rainey, he is introduced to Tracy, a young songwriter who develops a clear interest in him. Although he spends a lot of time with her and seems to, at least in small part, feel the attraction that is between them, he is unwilling to make love to her when she offers herself to him. In denying this communion, Christopher further isolates himself from the living world around him and loses the opportunity to become grounded in the earthly processes that define our lives.
Ultimately, Christopher leaves all of these guides behind to start his Alaskan Adventure. At first, he is happy and successful, foraging for food and lodging in an abandoned bus used by local hunters as a makeshift shelter. But very quickly we realize that Christopher is far out of his depth on this adventure, and slowly we see this realization dawn on him as well. He loses a vast amount of weight as his supply of rice diminishes and finding food becomes more and more difficult. He is able to kill a moose, but with only second hand knowledge of how to properly smoke and preserve the meat, it all spoils and he is forced to watch as the wolves and eagles finish the carcass. Finally, he decides to make the trek out but the frozen river he had traversed in the early spring is now a rushing torrent of water that is impassable. Christopher finds himself locked in the wilderness with no return available to his former world.
Things go downhill quickly at this point, and ultimately Christopher ingests a toxic substance (the book and film differ on how this happens) that prevents the digestion of food. In a sequence that is terrifying and tragic to watch, we see him grow even skinnier and even weaker, until his final act of zipping himself into his parka and stretching out on a mattress becomes heroic in and of itself.
Why do I consider this story a cautionary hero's journey, rather than a failed and foolish one? Christopher's courage in stepping outside of the safe confines of society is something we can all strive for. In the two years he spent following his dream, he arguably packed in more experiences than many people do in a lifetime. And in his final days, his short journal entries and margin notes in his books show that he finally did come to the wisdom that had eluded him for so long: that life must be shared with others to be truly meaningful. His final understanding that "happiness is only real when shared with others" is profound for someone who, for so long, was attempting to cut himself off from all human attachment.
But the tragic fact remains: Christopher didn't have to die. If only, we say to ourselves, if only he'd listened to those guides that life gave him. If only he'd been truly moving toward something rather than running away. If only he'd been able to open himself up to attachment. If only that hard-earned wisdom hadn't come too late. We're left wondering what incredible wisdom of his own Christopher could have brought to the world if he'd been able to successfully make his return journey.
Ultimately, Into the Wild offers important and complex insight into what it means to integrate a hero journey into a personal life. To be sure, it strikes a note of caution but, even more importantly, it advocates living a courageous and inspired life. In a world that encourages conformity, that is a message we could all do with hearing a little more often than we do.