Jon Krakauer was on assignment for Outside Magazine when news broke in September of 1992 that moose hunters had discovered the emaciated body of a young man in the Alaskan wilderness. He apparently had starved to death. The story made national news, and within two weeks the body was identified as that of Christopher J. McCandless, a 24-year old wayfarer whose family had been searching for him for over two years. In an article for Outside Krakauer answered many of the mysteries about this young man, but for months afterward questions continued to haunt Krakauer himself about this tragedy. What had driven Chris McCandless, a highly successful student and athlete and the comfortable son of affluent parents, to abruptly sever ties with his family and friends, give away all his wealth, and begin wandering the country as a vagabond? What inspired him to live an ascetic, solitary life in the natural world for weeks and months at a time? What was he looking for, or what was he running from? Finally, what had actually caused McCandless's death? Was it his own foolishness and unpreparedness, or could it be attributed to factors beyond his control? Krakauer decided to set off in pursuit of some deeper answers.

In the book that followed, Into the Wild, Krakauer pursues the remaining mysteries about McCandless with the dogged thoroughness of an investigative journalist, but it is clear to a reader before too many pages go by that the author is anything but an objective reporter. The writing is fueled by his personal fascination with this idealistic, headstrong young man. The author’s personal involvement, we come to understand, springs from his recognition that McCandless was very much like himself as a young person -- rebellious, judgmental, occasionally foolhardy, but also full of an uncompromising ambition and an intense thirst for all that life could offer. Ultimately, how we as readers respond to the tragic story of Christopher McCandless, whether with scorn or admiration, may depend on just how much we share Krakauer’s ability to see a piece of ourselves in the young man who renamed himself "Alexander Supertramp.”

Sean Penn faced numerous challenges in creating the film version of Into the Wild in 2007, not the least of which was how to handle the unconventional storytelling method of his source. Krakauer’s book jumps around freely in time and space, following clues from McCandless’s diaries, postcards, and photographs, plus interviews with people who spent time with McCandless, to piece together the sequence of his travels during two years on the road. The book leaps from the final days of McCandless’s life to the very beginnings of his conflicts with his family, then from his adventures in Arizona and Mexico to a postmortem analysis of his last days in Alaska. Krakauer also fleshes out his book with a number of related tangents, whole chapters devoted to other young adventurers who, like Chris, met with bad ends. He even includes a lengthy autobiographical section detailing his own days as a reckless and rebellious young mountain climber. Following the advice of Henry David Thoreau, one of McCandless’s literary heroes, Penn wisely chose to “simplify, simplify.” His film tells McCandless’s tale without interruption and more sequentially than the book (though preserving some of the flashback scenes that pepper Krakauer’s narrative). By limiting his scope and by granting himself the liberty to invent sequences that "fill in the gaps," Penn allows a narrative arc to develop that is lacking or muddied to some degree in Krakauer's book.

The film manages to keep McCandless’s story anchored in reality in spite of numerous deviations, however, by working much of the “evidence” Krakauer relied on into the story-line. We see McCandless engraving pictures of his travels on a leather belt, scrawling a graffito manifesto on a signboard, and annotating copies of his beloved Tolstoy and Jack London paperbacks rather than looking at these artifacts in CSI-style after-the-fact analysis. Penn gives life to words from Chris’s real letters and cards by working them into dialogue between characters, and he allows text from his postcards and graffiti to scroll unobtrusively over certain scenes, adding depth and reminding us of the real person at the heart of these events. Penn's creative methods result in a story that is "inspired by" true events rather than a strictly faithful reporting, but his changes to Krakauer’s stringently researched book yield a more coherent and focused narrative and make for a much better movie.

In simplifying Krakauer's story and eliminating his outside material, of course, Penn risked losing one of the book's great strengths -- its evenhandedness and objectivity. Krakauer says at the beginning of his book, "I will leave it to the reader to form his or her own opinion of Chris McCandless," and he follows through despite his own clear affection for his subject. His book features testimony from many people who were highly critical of McCandless, some of whom go so far as to say he got what he deserved. Thankfully, though, Penn does not fall into the trap of romanticizing this young man. The film is a loving portrayal of Chris McCandless (touchingly played by Emile Hirsh) to be sure, but at the same time it takes an unflinching look at the enormous pain his behavior created. Carine McCandless (played by Jena Malone) comes in to voice over numerous sequences in Chris's adventures, reminding us just when we might forget that back in Virginia there are real people who are suffering deeply from Chris's intentional disappearance, including this loving younger sister. William Hurt, well cast as Walter McCandless, reminds us of a father's tortured grief and guilt at his son's judgment and rejection. It is tempting to view Chris's choice to walk alone in the world like a modern Thoreau as admirable and lofty, but Penn never lets us see it so simply. Viewers continue to hope that Chris will find it in his heart to call or write to the people who raised him and who stay up nights wondering where he might be in the world. Above all other characters in the film, it is Hal Holbrook's Oscar-nominated portrayal of Ron Franz, the 80-year old man who looked upon McCandless as an adopted son, that brings a storybook narrative into a painfully human perspective. His devotion to the hitchhiker he picked up one day on the way to "Oh My God Hot Springs" is compelling and pure, and his suffering at McCandless’s departure is heart-wrenching. Franz articulates a message to Chris that we all wish the young man could hear: "When you forgive, you love, and when you love, God's light shines on you." Penn does not look away from the tragic truth that McCandless never acted on this advice and thereby left many people grasping for closure and solace.

The real Chris McCandless at bus #142

Penn's version of Into the Wild can't replace the book that came before it, and any reader who feels drawn to the wild like McCandless (or Krakauer) would do well to tuck this volume into his or her backpack along with the bag of rice. However, as an armchair experience the film surpasses its source in a number of ways. The sweeping images of the natural world, from red-rock desert scenes to panoramas of snow-capped peaks in Alaska, remind viewers of the allure of these open spaces. No book can capture this as well. The up-close depictions of McCandless's interactions with the many people he came in contact with, too, serve to humanize a story that so many readers have responded to with closed judgment from a safe distance. Watching the film, it is impossible to pigeonhole the Christopher McCandless of this film as either saint or sinner -- the pure exhilaration he felt at being in the wilderness comes across in terms too real to discount, and the pain of loss among those who cared for him is also too vivid to ignore. Penn’s film adaptation may not be wholly faithful to the Krakauer’s book, but it is absolutely true to the spirit of Christopher McCandless and wholly successful as a work in its own right. I highly recommend it.