Jon Krakauer's bestseller has made McCandless a cult icon for a rootless generation - he graduated from college, changed his name, gave his money to charity, burned the rest, ditched his car (quite literally) and set off on an odyssey that ended with a survivalist challenge in a remote region of Alaska.
People tend to see some part of themselves in McCandless - a rebel, open-roader, wildman, back-to-the-garden greenie, activist, New Age Thoreau (he kept a florid journal). Certainly Krakauer did, noting how his own life as a solo mountain climber mirrored McCandless' dark side - brooding, aloof, impulsive to the point of being self-destructive.
In the movie, Penn gives us a substantially different view of McCandless - certainly it's a sunnier tale, and McCandless comes off as a guy who is more obviously inspirational.
Much of the difference in tone originates with Penn's decision to cast Emile Hirsh in the lead. Hirsch is an ingratiating young man with a naturally easy smile, and he makes McCandless a lighter, more optimistic presence that he was in the book.
The movie McCandless charms (sometimes heals) the people he meets - a wandering hippie couple (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker), a rowdy grain harvester (Vince Vaughn), a lonely retiree (Hal Holbrook).
In return, almost everyone McCandless encounters offers him shelter, money, a job, a hot dog, sex, advice - something.
And this theme of hospitality and generosity helps "Into The Wild" take on a life independent of the book. It broadens from a portrait of McCandless to a landscape of back-road/off-road America, one that feels warm, authentic in its idiosyncracy and weirdly patriotic (it helps that Vaughn, Keener, Holbrook and Dierker are all good).
There's a lot to like about this offbeat, evocative travelogue that "Into the Wild" becomes, and that's important, because there is plenty here for nit-pickers. The movie feels unfair to the parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden) McCandless rejects, there are a bunch of unsubtle Eddie Vedder songs we don't need, and some sore-thumb stylistic gestures - Penn takes the words from McCandless' journal and splatters them across the screen in yellow letters.
Penn has been praised for his wide-screen depiction of the modern American west, and the movie does have some nice vistas, but Penn never finds a visual way to illustrate the important lessons that McCandless learned on his hard-luck journey. Instead, he simply highlights crucial words from books and journals and blows them up for us to read.
This is strange, since Krakauer's book contains an image that screams to be filmed - McCandless in the wilderness, near death, crawling into the sleeping bag that his mother had sewn for him.
It tells us everything we need to know about how McCandless finally felt about the one-sided feud with his parents, the one at the root of the urge that sent him into the pitiless embrace of the natural world. *
Produced by Sean Penn, Art Linson and William Phlad, written and directed by Sean Penn, music by Michael Brook, Kaki King, Eddie Vedder, distributed by Paramount Vantage.