To McCandless and many others of his ilk, the wilderness has a very specific allure. McCandless sees the wilderness as a purer state, a place free of the evils of modern society, where someone like him can find out what he is really made of, live by his own rules, and be completely free. And this is not just naïveté; McCandless's journal entries show that he does find some answers, some keys to living the way he wants to live.
Yet, it is also true that the reality of day-to-day living in the wilderness is not as romantic as he and others like him imagine it to be. McCandless spends so much time trying to find food to keep himself alive that he has little time to consciously appreciate the wilderness, as is evidenced by the fact that his journal consists almost solely of lists of the food that he finds and eats every day. Perhaps this explains why many of his heroes who wrote about the wilderness, for example, Jack London, never actually spent much time living in it.
Forgiveness, and the danger inherent in the inability to forgive, are central themes in Into the Wild. Chris McCandless is shown to be a very compassionate person, who is unwilling to ignore the fact that so many people are starving or hungry around him, and feels a personal responsibility to help them. Yet his actions are ultimately selfish, and do great harm to those who love him most. Moreover, his inability to forgive his parents’ mistakes seems to be at the center of this seeming contradiction between his compassionate nature and his sometimes cruel behavior.
There is certainly more behind his odyssey than just anger at his parents, but his resentment of them does spread into the rest of his life, and seems to be closely connected to how isolated he becomes at Emory. This, in turn, adds to his revulsion against society generally, which is clearly a driving factor in his deciding to go into the wilderness. One is left to wonder if, had McCandless found a way to forgive his parents for their shortcomings, he would not have felt the need to go to such extreme lengths in his quest for answers.
McCandless describes what he is looking for on his odyssey, particularly on the Alaska trip, as “ultimate freedom.” It would seem that this largely represents, to him, freedom from other people’s rules and authority over him. Throughout his whole life he finds authority particularly oppressive, especially when exercised by anyone who he feels only has such power over him for arbitrary reasons. To live completely alone, in a world where the only laws he feels the need to follow are those of nature, is to him ultimate freedom.
Yet this level of freedom requires total isolation, for to be with others means to have obligations to them. Thus, McCandless’s quest for freedom becomes, also, a refutation of any and all intimacy with others. This kind of freedom is inherently selfish. By living only according to his own rules and those of nature, no matter how principled and deeply-thought, McCandless is implicitly living only for his own best interest. For example, he refuses to get a hunting license because he doesn’t think it is any of the government’s business what he eats; were everyone to act this way, animal populations would be destroyed, and food supplies threatened. McCandless's ultimate freedom is thus limited in scope, for on any larger scale it would be dangerous and potentially disastrous.
The allure of danger and high-risk activities is central to Into the Wild. Krakauer does not believe that this allure is significant to everyone, but it certainly is to a specific kind of young man -- one who is intense, passionate, driven and ambitious, but not satisfied with the opportunities or challenges society presents to him. These young men also always seem to have some kind of demon driving them, whether it is a troubled relationship with their fathers, as with McCandless, Krakauer, and John Waterman, or something else.
For Krakauer, at least, the risk in his activities brought him to a point of meditation—because he is often only one mistake away from death, he has to focus utterly, and this allows him to escape from those problems that would otherwise eat away at him. There is also the thrill of pure accomplishment, man against only nature and himself, which allows him to feel that he truly knows what he is capable of, that he doesn’t need to rely on others, or on society, to survive.
One of the primary qualities McCandless constantly exhibited, which in turn led many to respect him, was his adherence to principles. He does not simply preach that his parents are too materialistic, or state that he won’t be as greedy as he believes them to be. Instead, he lives by his anti-materialism completely, giving away all of his life savings to charity, only making the bare minimum of money that he needs to survive, and keeping as few possessions as he possibly can.
While this adherence to principle is admirable and, unfortunately, unusual, McCandless does seem to put his principles above people, which leads him to cause hurt without really intending to do so. For example, in college Chris decides that he has a moral problem with gifts, and so will no longer accept or give them. Although this decision is based on a sense of morality, it in fact causes McCandless to hurt those who care about him. This may be related to his intimacy problems, for as long as he doesn’t let people get too close, he won’t be put in a position of having to choose them over his principles.
The elusiveness of identity, or of truly understanding someone’s identity, is a theme both explicitly and implicitly present throughout Into the Wild. Krakauer spends about three years putting together first the article on Chris McCandless, and then this book. He talks to almost anyone who met McCandless, even fleetingly. He follows McCandless's trails, reads his journals, even reads the articles he wrote for the student paper at Emory. Krakauer also feels he has an extra level of understanding, because he was much like Chris when he was in his twenties.
Yet even with all of this, at the end of the book, Krakauer acknowledges that McCandless’s presence remains elusive. As closely as he may have studied him, as well as he has come to “know” him, there are a few fundamental questions which no one, not even Chris’s parents, can find a satisfactory answer to. Most important of these is how someone so compassionate, kind, and intelligent could have ended up devastating his parents, and all of those who loved him, so profoundly. The ultimate inability to truly know another person is thus at the heart of Into the Wild.
The father-son relationship, and the potential for dysfunction within it, is an important theme in Into the Wild. Both Krakauer and McCandless are highly ambitious, and have highly ambitious fathers. The problem arises in that their fathers’ ambitions for them are very different from their own, and their strong wills and passion for their own kind of ambition—in Krakauer’s case, mountain climbing, and in McCandless’s, the wilderness and anti-materialist living—cause great rifts between father and son.
For both McCandless and Krakauer, the combination of trying to please a difficult-to-please father, resenting authority, and discovering their fathers’ own great failings leads to an almost insurmountable rift. Krakauer was able to forgive his father only once he was no longer the same man. McCandless died before he had the opportunity to grow out of his anger.
Ever since Baz Luhrmann announced that he was adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—and especially after he revealed that he’d be doing it in 3-D—much digital ink has been spilled about the hideous sacrilege that was sure to follow. Nevermind that Luhrmann’s previous adaptation, William Shakespeare’sRomeo + Juliet, was quite true to both the language and the spirit of that legendary play; Gatsby, as David Denby puts it in The New Yorker this week, is “too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies,” and especially for such an unsubtle filmmaker as Luhrmann.
David Haglund is the literary editor of NewYorker.com.
So the argument goes, anyway. In fact, Fitzgerald’s novel, while great, is not, for the most part, terribly subtle. And though it has moments of real tenderness, it also has melodrama, murder, adultery, and, of course, wild parties. In any case, we can put aside, for the moment, the larger question of whether Luhrmann captured the spirit of Gatsby, which is very much open for debate. There’s a simpler question to address first: How faithful was the filmmaker to the letter of Fitzgerald’s book?
Below is a breakdown of the ways in which the new film departs from the classic novel.
The Frame Story
Luhrmann’s chief departure from the novel arrives right at the beginning, with a frame story in which the narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), some time after that summer spent with Gatsby & co., has checked into a sanitarium, diagnosed by a doctor of some sort as “morbidly alcoholic.” Fitzgerald’s Nick does refer to Gatsby as “the man who gives his name to this book” (emphasis mine), so the idea that The Great Gatsby is a text written by Nick is not entirely original with Luhrmann—though the filmmaker takes this much further than Fitzgerald, showing Nick writing by hand, then typing, and finally compiling his finished manuscript. He even titles it, first just Gatsby, then adding, by hand, “The Great,” in a concluding flourish. (Fitzgerald himself went through many more potential titles.) As for that morbid alcoholism, Nick claims in the novel that he’s “been drunk just twice in my life,” but the movie slyly implies that he’s in denial, by showing him cross out “once” for “twice,” and then, in the frame story, suggesting that it was far more than that, really.
Jordan and Nick
The plot of the film is pretty much entirely faithful to the novel, but Luhrmann and his co-screenwriter Craig Pearce do cut out one of the side stories: the affair between Nick and Jordan Baker, the friend of Daisy’s from Louisville who is a well-known golfer. Daisy promises to set them up, to push them “accidentally in linen closets and … out to sea in a boat,” a line the screenplay keeps—but then, in the film, the matter is dropped. Luhrmann’s Nick says he found Jordan “frightening” at first, a word Carraway doesn’t apply to her in the novel—and later at Gatsby’s we see Jordan whisked away from Nick by a male companion, which doesn’t happen in the book. In the novel, they become a couple and break up near the end of the summer.
The Apartment Party
The film, like the novel, is a series of set pieces, including an impromptu party that Tom throws in a Manhattan apartment he keeps for his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, wife of a Queens mechanic. Nick accompanies them, and the film shows Nick sitting quietly in the apartment’s living room while the adulterous couple have loud sex in the bedroom. Fitzgerald doesn’t spell out anything so explicit—but something like that is implied: Tom and Myrtle disappear and reappear before the other guests arrive; Nick reads a book and waits. Luhrmann also shows Myrtle’s sister Catherine giving Nick a pill that she says she got from a doctor in Queens; that’s not in the novel at all. Luhrmann’s Nick wakes up at home, half-dressed, unsure how he got there, while Fitzgerald’s narrator comes to in an apartment downstairs from Tom and Myrtle’s place, owned by one of their friends (and party-guests); he then goes to Penn Station to take the 4 o’clock train home.
Lunch With Wolfsheim
In the book, Gatsby takes Nick to lunch at a “well-fanned 42nd Street cellar,” where he introduces his new friend to Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jewish gangster. In the movie, Gatsby and Nick go to a barber shop with a hidden entrance to a speakeasy, and once inside they see not only Wolfsheim but also the police commissioner—who, in the book as in the film, Gatsby was “able to do … a favor once.” They also see there (if I understood things correctly) Nick’s boss, whom I believe Luhrmann has turned into Tom’s friend Walter Chase. (In the novel, those are two different people, neither of whom we ever actually meet.) The speakeasy features entertainment from a bevy of Josephine Baker-like dancers, who are not mentioned in the book.
At least one reviewer—David Denby again—has protested Luhmann’s decision to cast an Indian actor, Amitabh Bachchan, as Wolfsheim, a character based on notorious Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein. But faithfulness in this case probably would have meant anti-Semitism, since it is very hard to defend Fitzgerald’s characterization of the “small, flat-nosed Jew” with a “large head” and “two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” Casting Bachchan preserves the character’s otherness while complicating the rather gruesome stereotype Fitzgerald employed. Luhrmann appears to have given some thought to this, given that he faithfully keeps key passages from the novel about race: Tom’s trumpeting of a racist book called Rise of the Colored Empires (which had a real-world inspiration), Nick’s glimpse of apparently wealthy black men and women being driven into Manhattan by a white chauffeur, and Tom’s later diatribe about “intermarriage between black and white.”
The Finnish Woman and Ella Kaye
Did you know that Nick Carraway had a maid? This is easy to forget, since Nick seems generally financially a bit strapped, certainly in comparison to his rich neighbors. But in the novel he employs “a Finnish woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove.” She makes a few appearances in the book but is understandably cut from the movie. So is Ella Kaye, the seemingly conniving woman who manages to snag the inheritance of Dan Cody, the rich, drunken yachtsman who first prompts Gatsby on his road to wealth and artifice. In the movie, Cody’s wealth goes to his family.
Gatsby’s Death and Funeral
Near the end of the book, Gatsby is murdered by George Wilson, the mechanic husband of Tom’s mistress, who has gotten it into his head that Gatsby killed her—and that, what’s more, he might have been the one she was sleeping with on the side. Fitzgerald doesn’t depict the murder: The book says that Gatsby grabbed a “pneumatic mattress” (i.e., a floater) and headed to his pool, then Gatsby’s chauffeur hears gun shots. Luhrmann ditches the pneumatic mattress and adds his own dramatic flourish. In both book and movie, Gatsby is waiting for a phone call from Daisy, but in the film, Nick calls, and Gatsby gets out of the pool when he hears the phone ring. He’s then shot, and he dies believing that Daisy was going to ditch Tom and go way with him. None of that happens in the book.
Gatsby is, in both versions, lonely in death, but the film is even crueler to him in this regard, dropping the last-minute appearance of his father and the unexpected arrival at the funeral of a man who Nick previously met in Gatsby’s study. This is the same man who famously points out that Gatsby has real books, but hasn’t cut the pages. We meet him in the movie in that study, but he makes no mention of the books, and his subsequent appearance is dropped entirely.