Yglesias gets Into the Wild exactly right:
Jon Krakauer’s book version of the story is already far too kind to Christopher McCandless and his antics and the film erred even further in that direction. But if you believe — as Sean Penn seems to — that McCandless’ recklessness and cruelty toward his immediate family were, in fact, a noble spiritual journey worthy of celebration, then Penn’s done a brilliant job of transforming the story into a film that sees what Penn sees. I feel like that’s a bit of an irresponsible thing to do, but it’s good filmmaking; a very good movie, just one promoting a weird and wrongheaded point of view.
There was an early showing of the film version at Dartmouth as part of Telluride@Dartmouth, and I purposefully avoided it because I found the book so infuriating. I don’t know what people see in this kid. In case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, McCandless graduated from Emory in 1990, gave all of his savings to Oxfam, spent the next two years hitchhiking through South Dakota and California while finding intermittent employment (all without maintaining contact with his family), and then hitchhiked to Alaska to “live off the land”. Not surprisingly, he died due to his incompetence.
I read the book in the overly generalized freshman English course my school requires all students to take (and, yes, I think reading Jon Krakauer, Barbara Kingsolver, Edith Wharton, Sophocles, and Lorraine Hansberry in the same course renders said course “overly generalized”), and began all of my written assignments about it with the same sentence: “What is supposed to be noble about Chris McCandless?” And in none of them was I able to answer it. The only thing I could come up was the Oxfam donation, but if he gotten an actual, you know, job he would have been able to give them more; the opportunity cost, for Oxfam, seems to exceed the actual donation. All of his other actions – cutting off his family, living as a transient, accidentally committing suicide through excessive stupidity – are despicable bordering on pitiful. It’s disappointing and confounding that people like Sean Penn try to make a martyr of this fool.