(Photo: Paramount Vantage)

In case you missed his appearance on Oprah last week with Sean Penn, Jon Krakauer has offered few comments in conjunction with


Krakauer's Conspicuous Silence

The former Seattle author has little to say about his new movie. And little new to add about his subject’s controversial death.


(Photo: Paramount Vantage)

In case you missed his appearance on Oprah last week with Sean Penn, Jon Krakauer has offered few comments in conjunction with the generally acclaimed adaptation of his 1996 book Into The Wild (which opens this Friday, Sept. 28). He’s prominent in the credits; Penn is effusive in praising him (especially after escorting the writer-director on a hike to the bus where poor Chris McCandless starved to death in 1992); and he even attended the L.A. premiere of the film, surrounded by celebrities. Oddly, Krakauer is completely absent as a source—not even quoted, in fact—in a current Outside magazine feature story on the film. It was there, in January of 1993, that his journalism on McCandless was first so widely read—and got him a publishing contract for his first bestseller. (It was published in the spring of 1996, just before Outside sent him to cover commercial climbers on Mount Everest—resulting in his even bigger magazine feature and book, Into Thin Air.)

Today, according to Random House, some two million copies of Into the Wild are in print; and many more will surely be sold of the movie tie-in paperback edition. Yet, weirdly, apart from a cover photo of actor of Emile Hirsch (above, who plays McCandless), it appears to be the same book as the 1997 paperback. There’s no new postscript in my review copy, and the author’s preface still dates to April 1995, when Krakauer was living in Seattle (where, it should be noted, McCandless passed through en route to Alaska; and where resides Eddie Vedder, who contributed songs to the movie). (Not long after Into Thin Air made him wealthy, Krakauer and his wife decamped for Boulder, Colorado.) The author invested a huge amount of research—almost three years—into the book, talking to sources who turned up only after the Outside account was published, and creating a still somewhat controversial hypothesis on what killed McCandless.

After the young trekker’s death, most people—especially in self-reliant, unforgiving Alaska—believed the greenhorn accidentally starved himself to death, the logical extension of his lack of preparation (no map, no compass, no knowledge of a cable tram crossing nearby that would’ve allowed him to escape across the Teklanika River). In his book, Krakauer hypothesized that the ravenous McCandless mistakenly overdosed on wild potato seeds that had turned poisonous in late summer. The movie (which I’ve seen and liked) repeats this view—the hero turns to foraging when he can’t find any game to shoot with his small rifle, and slight differences in plant taxonomy—which he later realizes, too late—lead to his doom.

Crucially, in the book, Krakauer collects the seed pods he blames and sends them to a lab. In the final pages, he writes “conclusive spectrographic analysis has yet to be completed,” and we’re left with the impression that the bright, resourceful, but impulsive McCandless fatally compromised his digestive system—making it impossible for him to absorb the nutrients from any other plants he foraged. In the movie, too, there’s the sad sense that a kid who lived by the book (inventing himself as if from the pages of Jack London, Thoreau, and Tolstoy) also died by the book, as he goes back to his plant guide and correctly discerns his mistake. The difference between one page and the next (“inedible”) is literally the difference between life and death. Krakauer concludes, “Laid low by the toxic seeds, McCandless discovered that he was suddenly far too weak to hike out and save himself.”

Today, a rival magazine to Outside, Men’s Journal, has another long story on the movie, which essentially rebuts the poisonous seed hypothesis. Writer Matthew Power reports that the tests came back negative. He quotes a University of Alaska scientist saying, “It would have made a good story. But the scientific results worked against my biases. I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I’d eat it myself.” Thus, Power concludes, “Of course, this flies in the face of the McCandless that the public has embraced, and Krakauer’s take has survived subsequent reprintings of the book.”

Including the new movie-themed paperback. I contacted Random House and asked if Krakauer was doing any interviews. The reply was polite but predictable—You can watch him on Oprah. Yet on an NPR interview last week, Krakauer said another new edition was planned, which addresses the poison-starvation debate. “My theory’s essentially the same,” he told Melissa Block. “But I’ve revised it somewhat.” Now he theorizes that the seeds stored by McCandless in a plastic bag began to dampen and mold—and that’s what lead to his death. “That’s what I believe happened. I don’t have proof, but I’m pretty convinced of that.”

Then, checking again with Random House, I got this new, not very clear clarification: “The revised text appeared in the second printing of the movie tie-in. Revised books have been in stores for at least two weeks.” But bookstores place their orders months in advance, just as publishers mail out review copies months in advance. I’ve only got the first printing, and so do the local bookstores I checked. How substantial are Krakauer’s revisions? Readers and filmgoers are waiting to see.

Meanwhile, it’s unlikely the movie or book (or books) will end the discussion. Fifteen years after the young man’s untimely death (at age 24), it’ll be hard to prove that any interpretation of events is conclusively right or wrong. Krakauer originally made clear—by interpolating his own biography and risky, bullheaded youthful adventures—that he was offering a sympathetic defense of McCandless, not an indictment. The volatile but idealistic Penn also chooses to see the kid’s better side, though the movie—better than any book could do—makes clear the devastating effect upon his parents (well played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) of his mysterious two-year disappearance. His journey of self-invention was also an act of some hostility toward his family, and there are certainly aspects of his life and tale not to admire—selfishness, for one, if not the stupidity of mistaking one plant for another.

How Krakauer feels about this now isn’t totally clear. (He’s said to be busily working on his next project—always a convenient excuse—and is only doing select national press.) His last book, Under the Banner of Heaven, was about Mormons—certainly a group that knows what it’s like to be criticized and misunderstood, as McCandless was. Its sales were so-so, while the Pacific Northwest Independent Bestseller reports that last week, before the movie even opened locally, the tie-in version of Into the Wild was already third on the paperback list. Which presumably encompasses both printings, which only lends to the confusion.

Beyond the forensic, CSI-like dissection of seed pods, I suspect what many viewers—myself included—want to know is what happened to those depicted in the movie who actually crossed paths with McCandless. What became of Jan Burres (wonderfully played by Catherine Keener), whose own son ran away from home? Or the kindly, paternal WWII vet Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook, ditto). Or rowdy grain harvester Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn, who shows for the first time that he can actually act while listening and be funny at the same time), who employed McCandless? (Actually, I’m cheating a bit here, like all film critics—Westerberg ended up working on the movie as a driver and consultant.) And what about his poor family?

But whether Krakauer provides them or not, not all footnotes have to be morbid. (Perhaps we’ll get the full story when the DVD comes out next year.) Especially considering that the movie itself is finally less mournful than a celebration of a life cut short but lived in full.

UPDATE: Checking the second-printing galleys faxed from Random House against the earlier edition (already No. 10 on the Publisher’s Weekly trade paperback list), Krakauer’s revisions to pages 193 and 194 (in both editions) address the contradictory lab results reported in Men’s Journal. He admits “more thorough testing turned up no indication of any [toxic] alkaloids.”

But after puzzling over the supposed mystery for years after the first 1996 edition of the book, Krakauer writes, “I had an epiphany.” Hence the mold thesis he mentions on NPR. “The plant that poisoned him wasn’t toxic, per se; McCandless simply had the misfortune to eat moldy seeds.” As evidence, he cites rainy weather, conducive to mold, noted in McCandless’ journal, and also blames the unhygienic plastic Ziploc bags that McCandless had photographed (on film developed posthumously) bulging with foraged seeds and berries.

The movie relates a more direct cause-and-effect scenario of death by food poisoning, but the ultimate effect is the same: death by starvation. Which Krakauer says (in both printings) can result in “a sublime mental euphoria, a sense of calm accompanied by transcendent mental clarity.” That, too, in consonant with Penn’s movie. It depicts McCandless lying in rapture like the wounded Prince Andrei at the Battle of Austerlitz in War and Peace (Tolstoy being one of McCandless’ favorite authors). Or, to resort to a different kind of symbolism also known to Penn: He dies like Christ, leaving the world and those he met in a better state.

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