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The True Story Behind Into the Wild

June 24, 2020
5 min read

Into the Wild‘ feels like a surreal tale about a man’s journey across the United States. However, it is not a cliched road trip movie. Rather, ‘Into the Wild’ can be considered to be a deeply introspective character study. Yet, it proves to be extremely profound, and a powerful piece of cinema that can change viewers’ perceptions about a variety of topics.

The movie is written, produced, and directed by Sean Penn. It received widespread critical acclaim upon its release and was even nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. The plot revolves around a young man named Christopher McCandless who leaves his material possessions behind to live a nomadic life, with the goal of settling in the Alaskan wilderness. Along the way, he encounters a bunch of challenges and some really interesting people.

Is Into the Wild Based on a True Story?

Several viewers might have wondered whether ‘Into the Wild’ is based on a true story or not. It does tell a deeply personal tale after all: one which feels extremely profound and introspective to be fictional. Well, ‘Into the Wild’ is, in fact, based on the true story of a man who sought to live a life free of material possessions and away from civilization and society. It ought to be noted, however, that the 2007 movie is based on a book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, which in turn, is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless.

As shown in the movie, McCandless was actually a bright student who graduated from Emory University with high grades. However, the film merely glosses over the toxic home atmosphere that McCandless grew up in: something that compelled him to chase an unorthodox life and practically run away from his family.

Christopher’s sister, Carine McCandless published her own memoir later which reveals some disturbing details about their family life. ” Walt was a violent bully who drank heavily and sometimes flew into rages that ended with whippings and beatings for his wife and children. Billie was the primary victim, Carine writes, but she was also a victimizer, belittling and betraying both kids at crucial junctures.” On top of that, Christopher and Carine were born out of wedlock. Their father was married to another woman when he met Christopher and Carine’s mother. For several years, he ran two households.

This is the piece of truth that is undisputed given the fact that it was lived by Carine McCandless as well. However, most of the story in Krakauer’s book has been created by the author based on the brief journal entries written by McCandless himself. “The journal contains approximately 430 words, 130 numbers, nine asterisks, and a handful of symbols. Other than this, all Krakauer had to go on was several rolls of film found with the young man’s body and a rambling, cliche-filled, 103-word diatribe carved into plywood in which McCandless claimed to be “Alexander Supertramp” off on a “climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage.”

However, “it is known for a fact that in April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Carthage, South Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska. Here, he hitchhiked again, being picked up by local electrician named Jim Gallien on his out way of Fairbanks.” McCandless, according to Gallien, was only equipped with ten pounds of rice, a semiautomatic rifle, and a pair of boots.

But, in the movie, as well as the book, McCandless is depicted to have died because of accidentally eating the wrong plant which turned out to be poisonous. However, this theory has been debated intensely. Some people believe that he may have died of mold due to improper storage of food. Some believe that he may have died of starvation due to his rice supply getting over. People have criticized Krakauer for making McCandless appear to be less uncertain and underprepared than he actually was. The author himself discusses how he reached the conclusion about McCandless’ death at the time of writing the book and how that theory has now been debunked here. 

To put things into perspective: “What he [McCandless] didn’t know was that there was a hand-operated tram a mile downriver that would allow him to make the crossing quite easily. Better yet, there was a cozy cabin stocked with food and supplies six miles south of the bus, marked on most maps of the area. It was precisely the kind of information McCandless might have been aware of had he listened to Gallien and taken more care to prepare for his journey” (source). The cause of McCandless’s death is debated even today and we will never know with certainty how he died.

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However, it ought to be noted that the final message that McCandless is depicted to have left at the end of ‘Into the Wild’ is completely fictional. His original message had been a cry for help that read: “Attention possible visitors.
S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. in the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you.”

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