The Road vs. Into The Wild

The Road
Director: John Hillcoat
USA, 2009, 119mins, rated 15

Into The Wild
Director: Sean Pean
USA, 2007, 143mins, rated 15

Double bill screening at The Phoenix, 28 February 2010

In a departure from standard Flickerdrome practice (technically my remit is to review films released in UK cinemas since 1 January 2010 and – just in case you were wondering), I’m looking at The Road and Into The Wild together following a double bill screening of the two movies at the lovely Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. Although two very different films with two very different outlooks on life, they complement one another well as a double and have strong thematic similarities, notably: they’re both adaptations, both road movies (of sorts), both feature ‘the wilderness’ in central roles and both concern the relationship of father and son.

Viggo Mortensen as 'the man' contemplates the future in The Road

The Road was shown first, a film that’s already been reviewed on this site. In this fable of a man and his son journeying through a dying America (‘mid-‘ as opposed to ‘post-apocalyptic’), heading south to avoid another deadly winter and hopefully find the ‘good people’ there, the wilderness is central to the film’s setting and tone. Beautifully realised by director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, this is one of the most terrifyingly realistic portrayals of what our planet might look like once we’ve destroyed it. Suffused with a haunting natural trauma and presented in an oppressively underexposed style, this is the wild as bleak, fractured and infertile as you never want to see it.

At the other end of the scale is the unspoilt Alaskan wilderness Chris McCandless is intent on experiencing in Into The Wild. This true story documents the intriguing plight of a young man who leaves behind his family, identity and money to journey alone through America and into its last truly great wilderness. The complete opposite of The Road’s fractured grey wastelands, McCandless seeks the rugged, abundant and ultimately hostile wild of Henry David Thoreau and Jack London – intense and beatific nature far removed from the civilised societies of man’s creating.

Emile Hirsch as Chris McCandless in Into The Wild

Written for the screen and directed by Sean Penn, Into The Wild was adapted from the book of the same name by journalist John Krakauer (who in turn based it on his own 1993 article). Considering the book is a work of journalism, Penn’s visceral adaptation is anything but documentary in style. The book was pieced together from Chris McCandless’s journals and interviews with his family and those he’d encountered on his travels, and Penn has done well to extract a compelling narrative while keeping enough of McCandless’s background to flesh out this fascinating young man and his adventures. Among what’s been omitted is the amount of himself Krakauer put into the book. Recognising elements of his younger self in Chris McCandless, Krakauer uses the book to examine his own formative years in reflection to Chris. Sharing a love of the outdoors and tales of a similar (and no less thrilling) Alaskan adventure, Krakauer compounds the wonderment in Chris’s life story with an outpouring of deep, brotherly empathy.

On the other hand, The Road – Cormac McCarthy’s bleak and harrowing Pulitzer-winning 2006 novel – made it to the screen relatively unscathed by the adaptation process. Inspired in part by becoming a father again in his 60s, The Road is McCarthy’s ode to a dying world and a father’s love for his son. Despite some secondary characters being pared away to intensify the pair's isolation and the role of the wife and mother (played perfectly, as ever, by Charlize Theron) being extended – presumably to show more of life before ‘the event’ and provide some balance, in flashback, to the terrible grey burden of the pair’s existence - generally this is a very faithful adaptation. One notable deviation from the book is the inclusion of the beetle that the pair find as they reach the coast. This diversion from the novel is a pretty crass device that tries to push a more positive ending than the book implies. It’s a shame the film-makers kept so close to the book for most of the film, then choose to over amplify McCarthy’s ending and force the ambiguous optimism contained within his simple metaphor of ‘the fire’.

Father and son near the end of The Road

‘The fire’ – and their belief that they carry it within them – is what keeps the father and son from giving up hope during their journey on The Road. It's a metaphor that binds them, a way for the father to instil pride and purpose in his son and to reaffirm his own determination to fight and protect. Although its meaning is unspecified, it could be seen as the fire of righteousness, of civilisation and human decency (in a world beset by devolved, baby-eating cannibals), or of hope – burning bright to illuminate their way in a darkened world. But most likely it’s the fire of life, the flame of humanity flickering against the torpor of a dying, broken future. And it’s this light that so rages within Chris McCandless in Into The Wild. His desire to live and experience, to burn with empathy or injustice, to live life simply but to its fullest possible purpose, is what drives this young man alone into the wilderness and away from the hypocritical society that he sees all around him. That he ultimately finds an answer to his troubles and deeply affects those he meets on his journey is a testament itself to the brilliance of the light that burns within him.

What truly links both films’ stories, however, is their central father/son relationships. In The Road, ‘the man’ and his son are pitted together against a dying and hostile world with only each other for protection. Consumed by the fear that something will harm his son and snuff out the fire of his own existence – and thus, mankind's future – the father must protect and prepare him for what lies ahead. It seems pretty clear that this is a reflection of McCarthy's own fears for his infant son – fears of terrorism (marauding cannibals), fears of mankind destroying its planet (ecological genocide) and itself (nuclear war – ‘there was a long shear of bright light’), but most of all, the fear of a father not being able to distil as much of himself as possible into his progeny before his own mortality expires. Ironically, this paranoid and ego-centric approach to fatherhood is exactly what drives Chris McCandless away from home and into the arms of the wilderness in Into The Wild. At the heart of this story is a boy who’s become so abhorred by his domineering and imperfect father that he turns his back on everything he associates with him – education, institutions, society, money, even his own identity – to try and find his real self out in the wilds of nature and ‘kill the false being within’.

Chris McCandless heads Into The Wild alone

Originally I praised The Road for its ending, saying it offered a ray of hope through the bleakness by suggesting mankind would prevail. I felt the film aimed to show us the error of our ways and all we stand to lose by not heeding it. Sadly, on a second viewing, I feel that ultimately The Road is a work of pessimism and fear that it actually offers little hope for retribution – despite the film-makers' best efforts to push a positive note at its end. This time around what came through most was McCarthy’s apparent distrust of his fellow man and his fears for the future of the planet in relation to his own son. We’ve lost our humanity, McCarthy seems to be saying, and are on our way to hell. The bleakness that saturates The Road is what he believes we’ll find when we get there. Conversely, Into The Wild has the complete opposite tone and is a work that celebrates life and the beauty of the human spirit, as personified by the brief but startling existence of Chris McCandless. Respect has to be paid to both John Krakauer for unearthing McCandless’s story and shaping it into a compelling document, and to Sean Penn for so vividly bringing his story to life that it might touch and inspire others. Between the embittered negativity of The Road and the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Into The Wild, the message seems clear: while draining cynicism can glow long into the night, the light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long.

Into The Wild


  1. Nice idea to see these films together. Both seem to be dominated with a man's struggle in and against the world around him.

    The Road the world is harsher and less forgiving and our taking it from granted in the past has possibly led us towards a place where what natural world survives doesn't want us within it.

    Meanwhile Into The Wild seems to revel in the natural world, and McCandless so wants to embrace that wild world but ultimately misunderstands it completely and again it is taken for grant and treats him accordingly.

    Strangely coming out of Into The Wild left much more of a mark than The Road. I had a very heated discussion afterwards with someone. We had both got very involved with McCandless and his journey. I was very angry with him and his chosen path, especially since I liked him as a character so much. I saw him as the perfect embodiment of the arrogance of youth, thinking he can conquer the world but completely unaware of the real harshness of it.

    So in many ways I find Into The Wild provoked in me the respect for the harsh world out there and our real significance in it (very little I'm sure) that The Road was trying to instil.

  2. Thanks Allegromanontropppo.

    I'm not sure I agree with you that McCandless misunderstood the wild completely, don't forget he managed to survive out there for 112 days (during the late winter!) before making the mistake that killed him. That's a considerable achievement. Did you see that Channel 4 series Alone In The Wild recently? That guy was much more prepared in terms of equipment and training, and yet didn't last 50 summer days because he couldn't handle the isolation.

    The isolation was what Chris seemed to revel in, and what brought him to the conclusion that true happiness can only be attained with other. Sadly it seems it was his impatience that led him out there too soon. If he's waited until the spring water had receded before heading out there, I'm sure he'd have been fine. But then, we'd never have had his story...

  3. I take your point, Chris certainly seemed to crave the isolation and I'm not saying he wasn't prepared at all. I'm sure he was relative to what I could do in the same situation :-)

    However the tone and division of time on the film seems to be saying to us, it doesn't matter so much what he did when he got to Alaska. It's the journey he took to get there that was of real value NOT the isolation he got when he was there. That was the folly in Chris' story and his downfall was all the more sad for it.

    Perhaps I am allow myself to be skewed by Penn's direction too much but that seems to be the directors take (or the is that from the book?) and as I said before, it had a powerful effect on me, leaving me very conflicted about Chris and his life.

    Certainly a film worthy of discussion. Keep up the good work, Flickerdrome!

  4. I'd certainly recommend the book. It's an amazing, touching and very life-affirming work. And Penn did a great job bringing it to the screen.

    Like you, I was very touched and conflicted by Chris McCandless's story. 23's a complicated age, and he was certainly a complicated young man. Yes he was arrogant and naive, but he lived his life to the full and had a deep integrity. I think we could all take something positive from him.


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