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Into the Wild: A Movie to Read

Literary allusions in the movie Into the Wild

Did you know that the 2007 movie, Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn and based on the book by Jon Krakauer, is FULL — and I mean FULL — of literary allusions? Granted, the movie’s inclusion of literature mirrors Krakauer’s book, especially when you consider that nearly every chapter is preceded by an excerpt from the literature that was found with Chris McCandless’ belongings after his death.

To be sure, all those literary references were thankfully and thoughtfully added to the movie, but upon a recent viewing I started to pay particular attention to several lines in the movie… some especially beautiful lines that made me think, Wow, Chris McCandless would have been one heckuva writer! Sure, I noticed a few references to Thoreau, plus a few others from passages read aloud by McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) from novels such as Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. However, I also noticed some especially poetic passages that piqued my curiosity.

And then I started to do some googling while I watched. And guess what?

I discovered SO MANY MORE literary references packed into this brilliant film!

Photo: from Into the Wild Title Sequence | License: Public Domain

There are no fewer than nine instances where beautiful literature takes center screen… from the very opening minute to the final moments of Chris McCandless’ life.

Here’s a quick rundown of those literary allusions:

  1. Childe Harold, the 1812 poem by Lord George Gordon Byron
  2. “I Go Back to May 1937” by Sharon Olds, written in 1987
  3. The American West as Living Space by historian Wallace Stegner, written in 1987
  4. Ch. 18 (Conclusion) of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, published in 1854
  5. “Bear Meat,” the 1961 short story by Italian-Jewish writer and chemist Primo Levi
  6. War and Peace, the 1859 masterpiece by Leo Tolstoy
  7. The Maine Woods by Thoreau, published in 1864
  8. Family Happiness, the 1859 novella by Tolstoy
  9. Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, written in 1957, but banned in the USSR until 1987

If you’re unfamiliar with Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and the 2007 movie directed by Sean Penn, read this post.

How to read a movie

There’s a definite structure to the film. For example, the movie is divided into five chapters: 1) My Own Birth; 2) Adolescence; 3) Manhood; 4) Family; and 5) Getting of Wisdom.

The nine literary allusions are interwoven seamlessly into the narrative and in some instances form the narration. For example, in Chapter 1, Chris recites the entire thirty-line poem, “I Go Back to May 1937” by Sharon Olds.

Chris reads the poem as he imagines his parents’ graduation days and the life events that occur after. It’s easy to mistake the narration for his own writing (especially when details in the scenes echo imagery in the poem), but when his sister Carine (played by Jena Malone) asks, “Who wrote that?” Chris responds with, “Well, it sounds like it could have been one of us.”

Jena Malone plays Carine McCandless and Emile Hirsch plays her brother, Chris, in this Into the Wild scene from graduation day at Emory University in Atlanta.

If there was ever a movie to “read,” Into the Wild is it. It’s the perfect movie to extend and deepen your Into the Wild unit and even though it’s 2-1/2 hours long, with so many literary gifts to explore, it’s time well spent. In other words, this is not a movie one uses merely as a reward for students having read the book. If you teach Into the Wild, spend more time than usual with the accompanying film. This movie lets you dig deeper into Krakauer’s book. Don’t miss its literary gifts!

I’ve made a viewing guide for Into the Wild, the movie. Check it out here: Into the Wild: A LIterary Allusions Odyssey | Or scroll to the bottom of this post for more details.

Links to the Nine Texts Featured in the Movie

  1. Childe Harold by Lord Byron

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods.

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar;

 I  love not man the less, but Nature more.”

This 1812 poem by Lord George Gordon Byron tells the story of a young nobleman who seeks distraction from his aimless life by going on a solitary pilgrimage to foreign lands.

Lord Byron | Wikimedia Commons

2. I Go Back to May 1937” by Sharon Olds

“I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,

I see my father strolling out

under the ochre sandstone arch, the

red tiles glinting like bent

plates of blood behind his head,  I 

see my mother with a few light books at her hip…

…I want to go up to them and say Stop,

don’t do it — she’s the wrong woman, 

he’s the wrong man,…

Sharon Olds | Photo: <a href=”http://Csabalete, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

This 1987 poem, recited by Chris in its entirety on the way to a restaurant after his graduation ceremony, describes the mistakes he believes his parents made and the misery they caused. The poem contains thirty lines; nine are included in this post. Sharon Olds’ website tells more about her career and work, including her latest honor: the 2022 recipient of the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry.

3. The American West as Living Space by Wallace Stegner

“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.”

This book by novelist and historian Stegner is based on his series of lectures about the region and state of mind that is the American West.

4. Ch. 18, the Conclusion of Walden by Henry David Thoreau

“Rather than love, than love, than faith, than fame, than fairness, give me truth.”

This foundational text of American Transcendentalism documented the ideas and philosophy of Thoreau when he lived at Walden Pond from 1845-1847.

5. “Bear Meat” by Primo Levi

“…the sea’s only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, the find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing the blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”

This is excerpted from a short story published in 2007 in the New Yorker magazine. It can be accessed here. Written by Italian-Jewish chemist and Auschwitz survivor, this story contains an inspiring piece of advice for young people (or really anyone at any age). This text, while used in the movie during Chapter 1, does not appear in the book.

Primo Levi | Photo: <a href=”http://Monozigote, CC BY-SA 4.0 Creative Commons Wikimedia

6. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957)

“For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name.”

From the Amazon description, “This is a novel based on Doctor Zhivago is the story of the life and loves of a poet/physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution” of 1917. Although it was originally published in 1957, it was banned in the Soviet Union (USSR) until 1987.

Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago

7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

 “If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed.”

A masterwork of Russian literature, Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1867) is a novel that tells the stories of the many diverse portions of Russian society during the early 19th-century. 

8. The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau

“It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites, — to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we.

The Maine Woods comprises three essays Thoreau wrote during his explorations of the rugged land of Maine between 1846-1857.

9. Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”

This is a 1859 novella about a seventeen-year-old woman who marries an older man and must evolve in order to adjust to her new married life among the elite of St. Petersburg, Russia. 


And that’s it! Nine classic literary allusions packed into a beautiful movie to accompany your next unit on Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

I’ve created a Into the Wild Movie Viewing Guide built around the idea of a Literary Allusion Odyssey. The viewing guide is also available on TpT at this link. If you’re interested in showing the movie to your students, check out this product on my TpT store page.

Here’s how I describe this new resource:

I created this Into the Wild “literary allusions odyssey” movie guide for my students to use while watching the excellent 2007 film based on the book by Jon Krakauer about the life of Christopher Johnson McCandless.

Did you know there are eight passages from a variety of texts sprinkled throughout the movie? There are references to works by Thoreau, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Wallace Stegner, Lord Byron, and contemporary poet Sharon Olds, the 2022 recipient of the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry.

For this “literary allusions odyssey” movie guide, I knew that I did NOT want to create a movie guide that would occupy so much viewing time that students wouldn’t have the opportunity to simply watch and take in this beautiful Sean Penn-directed film.

Instead, I chose to focus on the literary allusions and the structure of the movie by having students notice how the film is broken into five chapters; students fill in the name of each chapter as it appears. Each chapter contains one to three thought-provoking and inspirational literary allusions. When students hear McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) reading the quote, they fill in the missing words. I have included the locations of each chapter’s beginning and of each literary allusion on the key, so you can easily find them if needed.

Below each quoted allusion, the guide also includes the name of the text, author, publication date, and a brief description of each literary allusion. It is my hope that the additional information about each text will foster deeper-level discussions with your class about some well-known pieces of literature and how those texts were woven into the screenplay, similar to how they formed the spiritual fabric underpinning Christopher McCandless’ restless being.

Into the Wild: Literary Allusions Odyssey Movie Guide

I’m swamped with school, but wanted to crank out a post on this fabulous movie that accompanies one of my all-time favorite books by one of my all-time favorite writers, Jon Krakauer. The rich discussions, deep thinking, and life-affirming optimism complement perfectly your units on wilderness reading, Transcendentalism, and American Identity. Have you taught Into the Wild? How did it go?

Feel free to leave a comment below or on my Contact page! Have a great week!

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