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!
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:
- Childe Harold, the 1812 poem by Lord George Gordon Byron
- “I Go Back to May 1937” by Sharon Olds, written in 1987
- The American West as Living Space by historian Wallace Stegner, written in 1987
- Ch. 18 (Conclusion) of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, published in 1854
- “Bear Meat,” the 1961 short story by Italian-Jewish writer and chemist Primo Levi
- War and Peace, the 1859 masterpiece by Leo Tolstoy
- The Maine Woods by Thoreau, published in 1864
- Family Happiness, the 1859 novella by Tolstoy
- 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.”
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!
Links to the Nine Texts Featured in the Movie
“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.
“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,…“
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.
“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.
“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.
“…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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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’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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