Into The Wild - Katie Brown          

Into The Wild Essay


Into the Wild, written by Jon Krakauer, is a story about a man named Chris McCandless who goes on a life threatening journey into the Alaskan wilderness. As a number one international bestseller, the book received a lot of attention and was eventually made into a film by Sean Penn. In his movie, Into the Wild, Penn deliberately portrays Chris McCandless’s death in a way that is inaccurate and makes Chris seem incompetent.

In the movie, Chris’s death is attributed to mixing the edible wild potato plant and the poisonous pea plant. The scene opens to Chris waking up and clearly something is not right. He is very weak and nauseous. Chris crawls over to his bag of seeds and his plant book, and, to his horror, realizes he has eaten the pea plant instead of the wild potato plant. To inform the viewers of his mistake, Penn has Chris flip frantically between the pages in the book for both plants, as they happen to be right next to each other. Knowing that he has just inflicted death upon himself, Chris begins to panic. Eventually, Chris lays down in his sleeping bag, looking extremely pale and weak, closes his eyes, and takes his last breath.

However, long before the movie was made, Jon Krakauer believed Chris died in a completely different manner and published his new theory in Into the Wild. While Krakauer’s original theory parallels with the sweet pea theory shown in the movie, he states in his book, “but as the months passed and I had the opportunity to ponder McCandless’s death at greater length, the less plausible this consensus seemed” (191). Krakauer presented a new theory in the book, concluding that the wild potato plant contains an alkaloid that, when eaten in abundance, could cause starvation (193). As Krakauer’s original theory was proved wrong, he took the time to put together a new theory to try and figure out the truth about Chris.

By falsely portraying Chris’s death, Penn insults Chris in blaming his death on a foolish mistake rather than something out of Chris’s control. The sweet pea theory suggests Chris is foolish because he has a book that compares and contrasts the two seeds, leaving him with no excuse for mixing the seeds up. Unlike the sweet pea theory, Krakauer’s new theory suggested that Chris’s death was not directly his own fault. On page 193 of Into the Wild when explaining his new theory, Krakauer says, “if true, it means that McCandless wasn’t quite as reckless or incompetent as he has been made out to be. He didn’t carelessly confuse one species with another.” Yet Penn still chooses to use a publicly disproven theory in his book and in effect, insults Chris by using a false and slightly degrading theory.

While Krakauer admitted and fixed his mistake regarding how Chris died to keep the image of Chris accurately alive, Penn changed Chris’s death for the purpose of his movie. A big point of Krakauer writing the book about Chris and his family was to portray the truth about Chris that might not have been accurately portrayed in his original article in Outside. Some of the responses to this article were that Chris was a fool for making this trip into the wild and that he had no idea what he was doing. Also, since the article was written, Krakauer’s original theory on Chris’s death was disproved. Krakauer used his book Into the Wild to further explain to people why Chris did what he did, and also to correct himself on his earlier inaccurate theory. In all, Krakauer has now changed his theory about Chris’s death four times. In doing so, he is showing his dedication to Chris by being determined to have the truth be known. Contrasting to all the work Krakauer has done, Penn reads Into the Wild and the new theory that is presented about Chris’s death, but still uses the disproven theory. His lack of effort towards the delicate subject of Chris’s death is disrespectful to not only Chris, but his family as well.

On the other hand, one might argue that Penn had no other choice. At the time the movie was being made, all of the published theories on Chris’s death had already been disproved. The sweet pea and alkaloid theory were both disproven, so Penn may have made the decision to portray Chris’s death in a way that would be easiest for his movie. The sweet pea theory required the least amount of explanation and background information, so that is what Penn went with. My theory is that Penn figured the sweet pea theory would be the simplest to make into a movie scene that viewers would understand, and, for the purposes of the movie, he chose to portray Chris’s death in a dramatic way.

Instead, Penn should have informed the viewers of his movie that he was not portraying Chris’s death accurately, for I feel that it is unethical to leave the viewer believing information that is untrue. He should have done this for Chris especially because Chris was all about the truth. Penn should have notified viewers that not all of the information in the movie was factual. He could have done this by stating at the beginning that the movie was only “based on a true story”. That would imply that he had done his best to stay true to the story but it wasn’t necessarily all true. It would also give him more room to do what he wanted for the purposes of making his movie. Penn also could have put a disclaimer at the beginning saying that the truth about Chris’s death is still unknown. In doing this, viewers wouldn’t walk away from the film believing false information about Chris. If people believe Penn’s movie to be the truth then, little by little, Chris’s true story will be tainted.

Although there are possible arguments from both sides, Penn using the sweet pea theory in his movie was a shot to Chris’s mental capacity, as well as who he was in general. Chris deserved more than false information about him to be spread around the world by Penn’s movie, with no warnings about the lies it was laced with. If Penn had chosen to warn viewers, his actions wouldn’t have been as immoral, but he chose not to address it.

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