Into the Wild is an American biographical adventure film written by Sean Penn. The film tells the story of Alexander Supertramp, a man who hitchhiked to the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990s. Hunters later found his rotting body in a sleeping bag inside an abandoned bus.
The film premiered in 2007 at the Rome Film Fest and later in Fairbanks, Alaska, to widespread critical and fan acclaim. It earned two Golden Globe nominations and two Academy Award nominations for Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor.
Into the Wild is based on the true story of American hitchhiker Christopher McCandless
Sean Penn drew the inspiration for Into the Wild from Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book with the same name. The book tells the story of Christopher McCandless (Alexander Supertramp), a hitchhiker who left civilization to live off the earth in Alaska.
Christopher McCandless had a promising legal career ahead of him when he learned that he and his sister were born out of wedlock. He resolved to abandon his family for a life of self-dependence in the wilderness. The film rarely deviates from the book, which mapped out Chris’s journey from the memories of the people he met along the way.
McCandless left home in his Datsun 210 but was forced to take up hitchhiking after a flood swept away his car. His journey took him to South Dakota, Mexico, and California, before he decided to move to Alaska.
In Alaska, Christopher hitched a ride from local electrician Jim Gallien. Upon learning about Christopher’s plans, Jim advised him to get more equipment, and even offered to drive him to Anchorage, Alaska, to buy equipment. Cognizant of Alaska’s harsh conditions, Jim questioned McCandless’ prospects in the wild.
Christopher had a light backpack, a ten-pound bag of rice, and a rifle. Jim handed him a pair of Wellington boots and dropped him off at the Stampede Trail on 28th April 1992. McCandless had planned to hike to the Bering Sea, but he stopped 20 miles in to camp in an abandoned bus. He was happy to find shelter, and on the side of the bus, he scribbled a summary of his journey:
“Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ‘cause ‘the West is the best.’ And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure.”
Christopher’s prophecy came true; the Alaskan excursion would be his last. He was found dead by moose hunters on 6th September 1992. He’d made the last entry on his diary 19-days prior. Alongside him lay a note, begging anyone passing by to help him:
“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.”
In the film, Christopher died due to poisoning, but that theory is contested
The cause of Christopher’s death remains a controversial topic. In the film, Christopher confuses an edible plant for a poisonous plant which kills him. Jon Krakauer, the author of Into the Wild, was a proponent of this theory, but later came to change course.
According to a piece in The New Yorker, Christopher was well-read in the field of botany and was unlikely to have mistaken a poisonous plant for an edible one. Jon found that Christopher ate Hedysarum alpinum seeds that, though harmless to a healthy human being, can be toxic to a malnourished person like Christopher. He concluded:
“Had McCandless’s guidebook to edible plants warned that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contain a neurotoxin that can cause paralysis, he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April.”
Others claim that Christopher simply died of starvation. Whichever the case, no one disputes that he was severely malnourished. He survived on wild meat and plants, but none were enough to sustain him. McCandless smiled in his self-portraits, but the pictures portrayed a disheveled, withering man.
Via his diary, we know that he’d decided to return to civilization. He’d packed his bags and started hiking back, only to find that the Teklanika River, which was a stream when he passed, was now a raging 75-foot-wide river.
If Christopher bought a map, as he was advised by Jim Gallien, he would have known that a mile down the river was a hand-operated tram he could have used to get to the other side. Better yet, six miles south of the bus was a cabin stocked with food and supplies. Dejected, Christopher returned to the bus, where his health rapidly declined, leading to his death.