Seeing ‘Wild’

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Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. Driven to the edge by the loss of her beloved mother (Laura Dern), the dissolution of her marriage and a headlong dive into self-destructive behavior, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) makes a decision to halt her downward spiral and put her life back together again. With no outdoors experience, a heavy backpack and little else to go on but her own will, Cheryl sets out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail — one of the country’s longest and toughest through-trails.

Powerfully moving and emotionally resonant, the film opens with the climactic loss of a boot as it slips from Cheryl Strayed’s mountain top perch, which is immediately followed by a barrage of flashback memories and thoughts — bursting images of a fox, of a horse, of dictionary definitions, of her mother’s face. This opening serves as a framework to outline the story, attempting to afford the viewer with a general overview into the journey that is about to unfold.

The movie was clearly created for readers of the book, and can be confusing and hard to follow if you don’t already know the story. The cinematography is jumpy, weaving in and out between the hike and her memories. For example, the movie transitions from Stayed on the trail reading by skimming past the book and into her memory of reading the very same book in a college lecture. However, the movie itself does interesting things with the cinematography, creating new depth in ways that the book cannot achieve by way of written word.

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What’s great about this movie is that it provides the audience with visuals that can only be imagined by reading the book. Visuals are what makes the film so strong — for instance, Cheryl looking into her own reflection in mirrors and windows is a simple representation of her self reflecting soul searching that is not seen in the book. The majestic mountain peaks, the dry deserts and the snow-capped mountains all become real to the audience in its full breathtaking majesty. The book, although it provides readers with detailed descriptions, such as listing all of the supplies Cheryl packed into her backpack “Monster”, it is difficult to visualize the true struggle Strayed went through in packing and hauling the mass of equipment. The scene where Witherspoon first packs and lifts Monster truly demonstrates how difficult it would have been to conquer the journey with such a heavy load literally weighing on her shoulders. The visual depiction provides the audience with a real idea of what it actually takes to hike the PCT – a struggle which becomes emphasized, real, and relatable once watching the film itself.

The script loosely follows the plot line of the memoir, chronicling Strayed’s journey in a timeline that can get confusing because of the out-of-order organization of her flashback memories. The film is fast-paced in comparison to it’s novel counterpart, failing to recognize the true significance of many of Strayed’s internal revelations. But, though certain details are omitted, the movie still provides a closely accurate portrayal of the written memoir that stays true to Strayed’s story. The movies utilizes a great deal of direct quotes from the novel to stay true to the essence of Strayed’s memoir, turning them into an inner monologue of thoughts. The trouble with the movie is the distance it creates between Strayed and the viewer. In the book, the reader is one with Strayed, whereas in the movie there is a separation. Though it is a close depiction of her journey, it is not the same. The book is always better than the movie, truly.

While the movie overlooks various details from the book, it also improvises certain scenes. For example, whereas the book is told in first person narration, the movie allows us a glimpse into the other characters lives and thoughts: for example, the director imagines what her ex-husband Paul does on the other end of the phone line, whereas in the book we only know what Cheryl imagined him to be doing while speaking with her on the phone. While this allows character development of the supplementary characters, it at the same times takes the entire focus away from Cheryl as is done in the memoir.

One benefit of having the book created into a movie is that they work so well in conjunction. Strayed, as a writer, provides readers with vividly magnificent imagery that is sharp and compelling. Jean Marc-Vallée, as a director, does a great job in providing the viewer with the grand vistas and scenery that accurately illustrates Strayed’s miserable struggle through the dry Mojave and the snow-capped Sierras, tired and dirty and bleeding.

A powerful story of perseverance, Strayed inspires readers to be daring, curious, motivated. In this conquering tale of self realization Strayed pushes the boundaries of her sanity, her emotional and physical strength, and courage, ultimately facing her fears and growing into a capable individual. Whereas when the film begins Strayed can barely pitch a tent, let alone carry her monstrous pack, by the end of the film she seemingly glides down the trail, proving to herself and viewers that she is truly able to persevere and survive.

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