Truth In Freedom: The Telling of Christopher McCandless (w9)

John Muir, an environmental advocate once stated that “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness”. The wilderness is embedded deeply into each of us humans. For some, it’s a sense of escape and adventure. And for others, a sense of utter freedom — freedom to do virtually anything or be anything. The wilderness is a way for us to get in touch with something larger than ourselves. After reading countless books of Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, and being trapped in the modern world of emphasis on “things” and money, Christopher McCandless ventured off to find that freedom. Into the Wild tells his story.

After reading “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer, director Sean Penn decided to take it to the next level and make it a movie. The movie, (and book) depict a true story of Christopher McCandless’ life. As expressed in an analysis of the movie by Rob Jones, he states that “Although all of Alexander Supertramp’s adventures were real, there was no genuine evidence or proof of the details of his trip other than a journal and some pictures.” (Jones, ¶ 1) This allowed the director, Penn, to use some artistic liberties throughout the movie while keeping it realistic. It was after graduating from Emory College that McCandless decided that he no longer wanted to live in the society he has come to known. He didn’t want a fancy job or a nice car. He wanted he wanted truth that could only be found in freedom. McCandless wanted what every one of us have wanted at least once in our life. He wanted to escape. He wanted to find and be himself, unaffected by any unnatural factors of the modern world.

The first thing McCandless did was decide to donate his life savings–$24,000–to charity. He then drove his car to the side of the road, and burned the remaining money he had along with his social security card, then proceed to cut up his ID and credit cards. McCandless doesn’t tell a single person where he is going, and starts his odyssey to Alaska to explore the American wilderness. To start his new life he decides to go by a new name, Alexander Supertramp, a sort of re-birth into this new life he was to lead.

Scene from the movie where Christopher burns his social security card.

McCandless rebelled against all aspects of society, stating that “careers are a twentieth century invention and I don’t want one” (Into The Wild). He wanted to be completely immersed in nature–and at times–with reckless abandon. He thought that “If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed” (Into The Wild). At times, I can agree with this statement in the sense that we do take many precautions and weigh out our options in the modern world. In the other sense though, reason is necessary for survival and might be a factor in how McCandless’ journey unfortunately ends.

Along with the desire to escape from the grip of reality, one of McCandless’ biggest freedoms he desired was from was his own parents. They were a perfect representation of the life he saw inevitable if you got sucked too far into the society he escaped. McCandless’ parents had an abusive relationship with each other, fighting frequently in front of him and his sister, Carnie. The movie alludes to this as the root of his problems and his quest for a different life. Once McCandless found out that his father had a wife and children before and during when McCandless was born, he felt utterly betrayed. The narrator, his sister, tells the audience that Christopher found it “a murder to every day’s truth” (Into the Wild). McCandless valued truth above all things else–something I can strongly relate to. It is an aspect of life that is so necessary, yet so often manipulated. Gersi analyzes in his essay on McCandless’ character, “he paraphrases Thoreau stating that “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth”. From this we can see his immersed connection with the notion of truth” (Gersi, ¶ 2). In the wild, a tree is a tree, a moose is a moose. Truth goes hand in hand with the sense of freedom, there is no hiding or manipulating. Instead of being in control of everything, in nature it controls you. It’s a thrill he couldn’t find in the working world.

McCandless’ wanderlust or sense for pure adventure is what I find the most attracting about his life. As Raskin says “the wild seems to have come already packaged in American’s DNA, and American writers can’t help but to hear its call and walk on the wild side too” (¶ 1). Many times in my life I have always longed to drop everything and go into the wilderness and simply live. The unknown pulls at me. Especially when overwhelmed or stuck in a continuous routine for so long. I find that I’m not alone with these feelings. To us, McCandless is one of the one’s who actually went out and sought what they were looking for, and his life became something we can admire. McCandless is depicted as a sort of hero to the ones who longed to escape as well.

Raskin touches on how heavily influenced McCandless was by the beloved books he read such as “The Call of The Wild” by Jack London. He felt deeply connected to this particular book because as Raskin points out:

“Like London, McCandless had an uneasy relationship with his father, and he too also went in search of freedom and searches for a substitute. There’s a great deal in the phrase from The Call of the Wild in which London writes of Buck, “the pain of his wild fathers” (27). In the movie Into the Wild, Hal Holbrook — who knows a lot about the wild by taking on the identity of Mark Twain — plays to perfection Ron Franz, one of McCandless’ father figures” (Raskin ¶ 6).

Throughout his journey, Penn shows McCandless constantly reading his books wherever he is, whether it be with the hippie couple Rainey and Jan, or with the old widowed man, Ron Franz, another one of McCandless’ father figures. The books were the one thing constant in his life that never seemed to lie to him. They served as his escape prior to his actual escape, but stayed with him into his life.They emphasized the innate longing for the outdoors that everybody has, but few care to act on. It was an alternate reality and an inspirational guide for his journey. Raskin demonstrates that by stating “It’s as though, as a culture, we need to reconnect to that sense of awe, wonder, and fear our earliest ancestors felt when they set foot on a continent that struck them as virgin wilderness” (Raskin ¶ 1). He points out that as an American culture, in the day and age of everything moving so quickly, we yearn to step back and feel something our ancestors felt in a much less complicated time. A longing for the outdoors is simply embedded in us, whether we chose to embrace it or not. They give us a sense of serenity away from our hectic lives.

McCandless is seen here reading one of his many beloved books.

McCandless’ main motive in the movie is the freedom and submitting to his innate wanderlust; however, he is a complex character with several smaller motives also. Sean Penn wanted to depict McCandless as a relatable character rather than something from a folklore legend. To do this, he chose to emphasize the things that drove McCandless away, and showed they were things many of us can get tired within our own lives. The fake happiness his parents presented to him was something he decided he couldn’t be bothered by, along with the value of things such as new cars. He was in control of his life, and he could refuse to conform to society’s “norm”. McGrath analyzes how Penn wanted the character of McCandless to be portrayed, he states ”You sense that he also saw — or wanted to see — a kind of alter ego in Mr. McCandless, someone who refused to conform to the system and embraced the world on his own terms” (McGrath ¶9). In Krakauer’s book, McCandless takes a canoe down the end stretch of whitewater rapids. Penn wanted this situation to be a little more extreme in order to embody this rebellious manner of McCandless he wanted to portray. McGrath demonstrates this by touching on the canoe part in Krakauer’s book and continuing to say “But Mr. Penn thought that kayaking through whitewater would demonstrate the character’s feeling of exhilaration and adventure, his almost mystical belief in his own abilities” (McGrath ¶21). McGrath is touching on this adventurous side of McCandless that Penn wanted us to see, not just the side of him that was seeking to escape and find himself in the solitude of nature–much in the style of Jack London and Thoreau–in a search for a more authentic relation to the natural world. The photo below is from the kayaking scene in the movie.

In one sense, McCandless was on a quest for happiness. The feelings that he sought throughout his journey in nature coincide with the sense of the pure joy he found in freedom. This was the joy and freedom he was seeking from the beginning that compelled him so much to leave. Nature provided him with uninterrupted and unspoiled joy.

Penn shows McCandless encountering many families along the way. One of them, Ron Franz, was the father figure that suggests McCandless stay with him, and become his adopted son. In the scene below, this is a moment between McCandless’ father figure and himself. He speaks on how “You’re wrong if you think the joy of life comes principally from human relationships,” something he preaches before he actually makes it to Alaska. It shows them bonding, and shows McCandless finally interacting with a strong father figure.McCandless experiences moments of joy with all of the different people he meets. Instead of burying his nose in his studies, or hiding in his room while his parents fought, he is shown laughing, smiling, and learning with people from all different walks of life. He is blinded by this joy he found by his headstrong quest to Alaska. To him, these were just minor encounters on the way to his great Alaskan journey, he was free to leave whenever. It took him until the end of his journey, and ultimately up until his moment of death to figure out what he had been experiencing all along.

In the book, Krakauer speculates that McCandless might have eaten poison potato root plants on purpose. However, in the movie Penn depicts it as a tragic accident. Once realizing what has happened to him, McCandless is shown with tears streaming down his face, fighting to scratch in the words “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED” in between the lines of one of his beloved books (Into the Wild). Although he was free in the wild with himself, he didn’t realize that while on this odyssey, he found pure happiness and freedom to be himself with all of the people he had encountered along the way.

Shortly after, he speaks on calling things by their right name. You hear him quoting a passage from one of his books, “to call each thing by its right name…by its right name” (Into the Wild). The camera then zooms in on his farewell note, signed “Christopher Johnson McCandless” (Into the Wild). This shows that although he found freedom, he also realized he found the freedom to be his true, raw self, and finally goes back to his original name shortly before his death. Raskin compares his quest to that of Jack London’s, “From the start, London knew instinctively what McCandless only discovered shortly before his death and announced in his farewell words to the world — that “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED” (Raskin ¶ 8) McCandless was so caught up in his personal quest, he was unable to realize that his happiness was among the journey, and the company of others.

Ironically, his headstrong quest mirrors that of almost every person’s in modern day society. Whether it’d be a project, money, a job, a promotion, etc. almost everybody seems to be caught up in their own agenda, rarely making time to tend for either their own happiness or to enjoy the happiness of friends and family. We are often bound by too many commitments, appointments, work schedules, etc. We don’t often have that complete sense of freedom and doing whatever makes us truly happy. McCandless realizes a lesson in the wild as well as on the way to his solitary endpoint that the modern day world can learn from as well. He realizes that freedom, happiness, and good company all go hand in hand to create what he so longed for, and that being engulfed in one task can throw shade on what is truly important in life.


I would first like to thank Christopher McCandless himself for devoting himself to living his life exactly how he wanted to live it and immersing himself into nature. I would also like to thank the writer of the book, Jon Krakauer for making the story so well known, and director of the movie Sean Penn for further enhancing the story of Christopher McCandless and his great Alaskan odyssey. I would like to especially thank my sister for introducing me to a movie that found itself in such a special place in my heart. Next, I’d like to acknowledge my group member Alana for editing my very last rough draft, and my TA Eileen for guiding me through it. A thanks is also due to Professor Harris for assigning the essay and giving us a wonderful free range to write about something we truly find compelling. I’d like to thank the rest of my group members as well for offering editing advice early on in my editing stages. I’d lastly like to thank my boyfriend Sean for helping me edit this til the very very end and for re-watching the movie over again with me.

Author’s Memo

In the beginning I had almost too many things to say about this movie in the essay because I loved the movie so much, I wanted to analyze every bit. I then realized into my second draft, with the help of my TA Eileen, that you can’t always write about every single theme or detail even if you really want to. I then had to really zoom in on one theme that I found the most interesting to me and once I found it–freedom in the outdoors and the quest for happiness–I realized that that specific theme had been in the back of my mind motivating me this whole time. I’ve come far from lengthy paragraphs that didn’t match up well organizational-wise or theme-wise. I’m happy to say that I’ve really focused on the theme of freedom and quest for happiness and I hope that others take away an important message from this essay and learn to not take life so seriously sometimes, and even maybe venture out into the wild if only for a moment.

Works Cited

Gersis “Analysis of Sean Penn’s Into The Wild.” Gersis Blog. N.p., 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

“Into the Wild (6/9) Movie CLIP — Sitting On My Butt (2007) HD.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.

Jones, Ron. “Christopher McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp.” Chris McCandless Now I Walk Into The Wild Biography. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Anchor, 1997. Print.

Mcgrath, Charles. “Mother Nature’s Restless Sons.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2007. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Dir. Penn, Sean Into The Wild. Perf. Emile Hirsch and Vince Vaughn. Paramount Vantage, 2007. DVD.

Raskin, Jonah. “Calls of the Wild on the Page and Screen: From Jack London and Gary Snyder to Jon Krakauer and Sean Penn”. American Literary Realism 43.3 (2011): 198–203. Web…

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