Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Sean Penn (director and writer), Into the Wild (2007) 

The film Into the Wild (2007), written and directed by Sean Penn, is based on the biography of the ill-fated environmentalist adventurer Chris McCandless by Jon Krakauer Into the Wild (1996) that had been expanded from his lengthy article ‘Death of an innocent’ (1993).  The film presents McCandless as a left-wing idealist, environmental purist and intrepid adventurer who had the courage of his convictions to act uncompromisingly on the high principles he believed in and to renounce the materialism of modern Western civilisation to live as a hobo along the highways and in the national parks of North America before attempting his ultimate back-to-nature dream of living alone in the Alaskan wilderness, an endeavour that proved fatal and made McCandless a kind of environmental martyr. 

Through telling the story of McCandless, the film promotes ideals of environmentalism, romanticism, anti-materialism, egalitarian socialism, and a back-to-nature philosophy that promotes living in the wilderness close to nature and possessing only what one needs.  This amounts to a rejection of Western civilisation, especially its materialism, commercialism, its inequalities, and the comfortable middle-class suburban lifestyle.

Through its treatment of McCandless, the film also explores a left-wing libertarianism that involves pursuing the ultimate in personal freedom by radically purging oneself of the influences of mainstream society (including money), the rejection of the over-regulation and bureaucratisation of behaviour in favour of a maximization of personal choice and responsibility, by renouncing personal belongings other than what one can carry on one’s back, and also by living alone so one is unencumbered by the compromises imposed by long-term relationships, with this all being done in order to maximise one’s virtue, sense of achievement, and to discover one’s ‘true self’.    Meanwhile, through its treatment of several people whom McCandless encounters, the film also promotes counter-cultural (hippie) and ‘alternative’ lifestyles that are compatible with, but less radical than, the uncompromising approach of McCandless to the ideals he pursues. 

While the courageous idealism of McCandless is presented by the film as something to be admired, he is also presented as a somewhat tragic figure, with his fatal flaw being hubris.  Believing in the virtue of pursuing self-improvement by setting oneself increasingly difficult challenges, he became overconfident due to his past successes.  Consequently, McCandless eventually set himself challenges that were too demanding, such as by travelling into the Alaskan wilderness without a map or compass or adequate supplies. Starvation killed him when this could have been avoided.  In addition, the film toys with the idea of mythologising McCandless with several references to him as being Christ-like.  This is a way of giving McCandless a mythical status as a man who sacrificed himself for an ideal, which is that of rejecting materialism. 

In addition, the film also touches upon motivations for McCandless to undertake his adventure that were psychological rather than ideological.  He is shown to have had a troubled home life and toxic relationships with his parents, especially his father who was prone to dishonesty, hypocrisy, domestic violence and who was as strong-willed as his son so they frequently clashed.   In addition to being an idealist, McCandless could also be seen as a troubled young man fleeing a toxic home-life by rejecting his past existence and identity by changing locations and changing his name.  The film suggests that McCandless was unconsciously searching for a surrogate father figure to fill the gap in his life left by his poor relationship with his father.  The film also suggests that McCandless’ rejection of his parents was part of the motivation of his political idealism since he rejected the values for which he believed they stood.  In addition, his avoidance of all communication with his family while he was on the road is presented as severe and as damaging to McCandless as it was for his parents and sister.  The film suggests that he would have been better off to have been more forgiving, although he seems to have accepted his family name and been more forgiving towards them at the end of his life. 

The film also represents a cinematic attempt to explore whether we can ever truly know the nature of a person who is deceased by the records and relics they left behind and through the recollections of others who knew the person.  In this way, the film is somewhat like the classic Citizen Kane (1941) directed and co-written by Orson Welles.  McCandless travelled light.  He did not keep anything more than a sparse journal, and he produced only a few written documents.  In addition, he travelled alone so there is no close companion to share their understanding of him.  However, a picture of sorts can be composed from the recollections of his family (most notably his sister whose memories of him feature in the film) and of the people whom he encountered on his journeys and whose lives he seems to have touched.   The film, and the book it was based on, represents substantial detective work.  However, the film seems to convey that despite this detective work a definitive picture of McCandless remains elusive.    The cinema audience is positioned to appreciate this inconclusiveness and is left to ponder the gaps in the story that may never be filled in. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2019 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Into the Wild meaning, Into the Wild themes, Into the Wild analysis, Into the Wild notes