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I guess I just like liking things

Fact or Film Fiction is a new series by Meags that looks at films claiming to be about true events and seeing how they stack up to said events. Whether the film is good or bad is ancillary to the discussion (it might be mentioned, but it’s not the focus).

My Verdict: Wildly melodramatic.

When starting this new series, I assumed that Into the Wild would be an easy one to start with. The film, about the life and death of Christopher J. McCandless, is based on a best-selling book by Jon Krakauer. So, I set out to read that book, then watch the movie again and write up where the movie changed things up, and voila. I anticipated a few shortcuts here, a few fake conversations there. But then, I did a Google search, which led me down several rabbit holes I did not expect to go down. What I discovered was that the movie doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but neither does the book.

For those of you who did not spend the 2 1/2 hours to watch the Sean Penn written and directed film, here’s the story: A troubled young man cuts himself off from his family and most of the people he knows to wander around the USA (first by car, but later on foot) to live off the land, while obtaining random jobs to supplement his foraging and the mercy of strangers. In the summer of 1992, he went into Alaska, off the Stampede Trail, and lived in an abandoned bus for a little over 100 days, where he starved to death. He was found by some moose hunters approximately 2 weeks after his death.

The film itself is beautiful and hypnotic. The Alaskan backgrounds are breathtaking in their scope, and the film artfully recreates a state of mind of adventure and confusion, while telling the story of this young man. There are a few details that are completely fabricated. For example, Chris worked at a McDonald’s during his journey, not a Burger King. He took a canoe down the Colorado River, not a kayak. But in the big picture, this are silly nitpicks. So I’m going to focus on a few major themes.

What the film got right: the strain in the McCandless family

One thing that the book de-emphasized and the film did not was the tensions between the McCandlesses, particularly between Chris and his father, Walt McCandless. Both works were aided and influenced by Chris’ surviving family members, and this lends a certain bias to it, as Chris can’t explain himself from the grave. The film clearly depicts a dysfunctional family, one governed by fear and stress, particularly in one scene where Carine, played by Jena Malone, has a voice-over while screaming and fighting takes place in the background. This is only speculation, but I believe that Krakauer was unable to put into words what Carine McCandless had shared out of fear of an accusation or limited cooperation from Chris’ parents. By showing this scene in the film as a background to a vaguely related voice-over, Penn could show this part of the story without actually making an accusation. On a fan site dedicated to Chris McCandless, Carine provided a letter which clearly describes how their childhood was deeply traumatic to her and her brother as they grew up. She writes:

We indeed had the privilege of family vacations. Yet aside from smiling children frozen in time through family photos, I am disturbed by their quote “All of this was driven by a desire to make sure that all felt as one and that hopefully they would continue that fellowship through the rest of their lives.” In reality they often made attempts to pit us against each other in an effort to prevent unity and communication. Yet they now take credit for the close relationship we siblings maintain to this day. We are our family. It is a fact that Walt and Billie consistently refuse to talk honestly about the past whenever their children reach out to them for healing and closure. We are still blamed for their poor choices.(1)

The tensions between Chris and his father stemmed from learning that his father had been living a double life, that the relationship between his parents had been adulterous, and his father continued to maintain a relationship with his first wife even after Chris had been born. Some writers have wondered why Chris was so harsh on his father while allowing moral leniency to others, including Wayne Westerberg, who was arrested for making “black boxes” (a device that obtains satellite programming for free) during their acquaintance. Chris’ writings are peppered with ideas about truth and morality, so we know these are thoughts he was consumed with, but there are no easy answers to why he reacted so strongly to his father’s sins and disregarded those of others.

The poison plant death theory has been disproven over and over

The medical examiner ruled Chris’ death as caused by starvation. His body had no subcutaneous fat on it, and it was estimated that his BMI had dipped under 14, which is the lowest a human body can continue to function at. At the time of his autopsy, his body only weighed 67 lbs. However, in the film (and somewhat in the book, more on that later), Penn shows Chris’ death as occurring due to a mix-up of two different plant species, wild potato root (H. alpinum) and wild sweet pea (H. mackenziei). There a number of reasons this is unlikely, and Krakauer himself agrees. The largest reason this is unlikely is because neither of these plants are poisonous. The film goes the extra mile to bolster this fiction. As foraging specialist Samuel Thayer writes:

…the film’s most egregious deception occurs when [Emile Hirsch as] Chris opens up Tanaina Plantlore (Kari, 1987). The book’s actual cover is shown, but when Chris flips to page 128 to read about H. mackenziei, the movie shows a counterfeit page that the producers have forged and inserted. The excerpt from the book that McCandless reads in the film goes like this (Yes, it really does go like this; the apparent errors and omissions are original.):

The lateral veins, nearly invisible on leaflets of wild sweet pea the plants poisonous seedlings. If ingested symptoms include partial motor paralysis, inhibition of digestion, and nausea. If untreated leads to starvation and death. Another way to distinguish is that the stem of the wild sweet pea is mostly unbranched.

That’s strange, because when I open to page 128 in my copy, it only says this in the same place:

The lateral veins of the leaflets of wild sweet pea are hidden, while those of the wild potato are conspicuous. Another way to distinguish between the two plants is that the stem of the wild sweet pea is mostly unbranched, while that of the wild potato is definitely branched.”(2)

Krakauer, for his part, has had difficulty letting go of the idea that something caused Chris to deteriorate quickly and prevent him from trying to cross the Teklanika River and return to civilization. He first posited the mistaken identity hypothesis in the original Outside Magazine article he wrote on Chris in 1993. By the time he wrote the full length book, Into the Wild, in 1996, he had changed his theory to one that described the difference between the roots of the wild potato plant and the seeds, which he believed was the true culprit. Perhaps the seeds had a mold on them that produced a specific alkaloid known to be toxic to farm animals. Krakauer had several specimens of both types of plant send to a lab for testing. After the book was published, however, the lab researcher, Dr. Thomas Clausen, admitted that he couldn’t find anything poisonous about the plants, and that he would “eat it myself”. (3)

Fast forward to September 2013, and the story has changed once again. In an article in the New Yorker magazine, Krakauer shared a theory from Ronald Hamilton, that the cause of death may have been ODAP poisoning from a protein in the wild potato root seed. This protein was found in the samples that Krakauer sent to a lab. I’m not rejecting the theory out of hand, but it seems like the much simpler explanation is that Chris was running a severe caloric deficit in his 113 days in Alaska, surviving on small game and limited foraging, and unfortunately starved to death. However, the starvation hypothesis runs contrary to the mythos of Chris McCandless, and what many of his “fans”, for lack of a better word, want to posthumously recreate him as. Which leads us to the final theme.

Speculating what was going through Chris’ mind is only that: speculation

A lot of scenes in the film are fictional, merely for the reason that those events are unknowable. Chris did keep some photo journals and wrote his thoughts down periodically throughout his adventure, but some things had to be made up in order to keep the story flowing. A lot of those things include his thoughts and emotions throughout, and also what his motivations were. Most of this we can never really know, since Chris is not here to tell us. The film manipulates the viewer into seeing the events a certain way, by what is omitted from the film, along with what is there. Chris had not only identification and cash in his possessions when he died, but he also had a map. This map was released to the family with some other belongings after his autopsy was completed, and it is unclear what it was a map of. While he was evidently unprepared for Alaska during the time he was there, the theory that he wanted to completely cut himself off from civilization permanently is somewhat romanticized. Both Penn and Krakauer imply that the reason that Chris decided to leave the bus in July was due to the following passage in Leo Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness”:

I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor—such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children perhaps—what can more the heart of man desire?

However, a simpler explanation could be that he realized that the game and plant life in the area he had settled in was insufficient to meet his dietary needs, and he needed to return to the city, regain health, before trying another adventure. Ideas like this only serve to mythologize a man who died unnecessarily.

Another example is how Chris came to leave the yellow Datsun behind. Chris parked his car in an area that was known to have flash flooding, and where cars were not permitted. (This part is shown in the film.) However, not only did Chris not spend the night in the Datsun (he slept in a tent), but he was incredibly frustrated when he tried to start the vehicle and realized the engine was flooded. He had not intended to abandon the vehicle but saw no other option, since asking for help to move an illegally parked vehicle was out of the question. While subtle, the film gives the viewer the impression that Chris wanted to completely remove himself from modern life, ditching his car was another way to prevent his family from tracing him. The true story tends to make Chris seem more impulsive, and is demonstrative of his poor planning skills.


In the end, there are a lot of unanswered questions about Chris’ state of mind and about the minutiae of his last two years. Both the film and the book show a Chris of the author or filmmaker’s design. His story has been adopted by many who consider him to be a visionary. There’s yet another theory about what caused the demise of Chris McCandless, propagated by Craig Medred, one of the original writers on the story for the Anchorage Daily News, and that is that Chris was suffering from the onset of schizophrenia.(4) I feel that it is about as likely as the idea that poisonous seeds did him in. Considering that hundreds of people flock to that old bus and have made it into a shrine, or want to replicate his journey, or consider him a hero against the trapping of a modern life, I find it difficult to believe that all or most of those people are also suffering from mental illness. The most likely scenario is that a young man without experience or perspective thought “how hard can it be?” and embarked on a journey that, unfortunately, turned fatal.

Bonus features: includes complete list of sources and other trivia about the film






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