Robyn Davidson’s Tracks and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild present the natural world as a liberating way for individuals to free themselves from the constraints of society. Both journeys of the protagonists show that, while the wilderness is capable of frayed emotional states, it is also inherently challenging and potentially deadly. While both Robyn Davidson and Christopher McCandless each have idealised notions of what the wilderness might bring them, Davison and Penn ultimately show that heading into the wilderness with unrealistically sentimental or romanticised notions without understanding the complexities and dangers of planning adequately for survival against the elements, is reckless. The memoir and the film highlight the power and unpredictability of nature and that it should be respected, as well as question the idea of life alone in the natural world as a visible long-term lifestyle choice or a means to achieve personal happiness.
McCandless and Davidson both have romantic and idealised views of the natural world. Both protagonists experience alienation from their societies and reject the expectations of their gender and class. They see the natural environment as a sanctuary and antidote to the ills and corruption of modern society. In the opening scene of Into the Wild, Penn portrays the relationship between man and nature as a sublime majesty through the use of aerial shots and extreme long shots. McCandless is dwarfed in comparison to the natural world, highlighting its powerful nature. Specifically, his melodramatic response to his encounter with the herd of deer’s, crystalises his communion with nature. Complimentary to this, the extra diegetic narration explains McCandless feels “no longer poisoned by [the] civilization he flees” as he experiences “ultimate freedom”. However, Davidson and McCandless have fundamentally different perceptions of nature. McCandless seeks enlightenment in the romantic, literary concept of nature and is blinded by it, whereas, Davidson is drawn to the brutality of the Australian outback and survives by learning from her environment and the people who inhabit it. Davidsons ability to recognize she is a novice traveler and respect and seek help from Eddie (Aboriginal mentor), contrasts with McCandless’ ignorance in learning from Kevin. Initially, Davidson set off in journey out of love for the desert’s vastness and purity, as well as attempt to diminish the expectations put on her as a well-educated middle class, white female and the Indigenous Australian culture. Davidson has a moment of enlightenment where she perceives the natural world as fundamentally different. She metaphorically describes it as a ‘net’, where “habit and routine” dissolves and not seeing things as discrete objects.
Hostility of the natural environment threatens to destroy both protagonists journeys. In Into the Wild, nature is demonstrated as indifferent and hostile to man. The turning point in Into the Wild, as demonstrated by the moose scene, illustrates Mccandless’ isolation from nature, how nature disregards him and gifts him another “harsh blow”. McCandless describes his failure as “one of the greatest tragedies of [his] life” as it emphasises his incapability to be self-reliant, as well as invalidates what he was trying to prove to his father. McCandless’ trauma of unsuccessfully cooking the moose parallels with his family trauma which he relives repeatedly. Ultimately, McCandless’ ignorance in preparing his journey ultimately leads to his downfall. He becomes “literally trapped in the wild”, when faced with the strong current of the Teklanika river. Penn suggests that McCandless can no longer rekindle his relationships and connections, symbolised by the beanie he had left behind. The magic bus which once embodied spiritual rebirth, now acted as a prison. The emotional investment from viewers are heightened through the closeups of his face in pain. The magic he feels in the wild fades as hunger and isolation take their toll. In Tracks, Davidson experiences an identity crisis when she is invited to dance with the Aboriginals and asked to pay. She becomes what she loathes the most, a tourist amongst the Aboriginals. Her fantasy of belonging and being accepted by the Aboriginals was punctured as she felt a “symbolic defeat”. Furthermore, despite Davidsons departure from modern society, human interference and manipulation is shown to be still existent, demonstrated by the poisoning of Diggity, where she was taught “the most profound and cruel lesson of all”. Similar to Into the Wild, nature is depicted as hostile when Davidson is confronted with the wild camels. She finds this challenge internally conflicting when deciding to kill the beast, as she gained a spiritual connection with the land. However, “[she] had her own survival to think of”. In addition, Davidson experienced existential despair from her journey and believed it was beginning to lose its mean and becoming repetitive, “always the road…step after step…”. She saw nature as the enemy and was “ashamed of [her] thoughts”. Likewise, Davidson and McCandless both experience a similar internal dialogue with their respective parental figures when faced with their conflicts – “there was nothing but chaos and the voices”. Despite seeking isolation in the wild, their pasts always followed them. Moreover, Davidson recognises much earlier than McCandless that she must respect nature rather than romanticise it. Upon McCandless’ death bed, was it when he had an epiphany that “happiness is only real when shared”.
McCandless and Davidson’s communion with nature is a source of profound joy and spiritual transcendence in their journeys. McCandless’ beliefs of self-sufficiency in the wild is significantly fuelled by his books which provide an escape from is dissatisfaction of his life. He believed “You’re wrong if you think that the joy in life comes principally from relationships”. American philosopher, Henry Thoreau’s lasting impressions on McCandless was that living without commitment was a positive thing and to strip any bare essentials. Penn portrays a harmonious outlook of McCandless communing with nature through a split screen combined with close up shots depicting the natural environment. In addition, Penn captures a 360 degree panning shot of McCandless in the mountains, where he is at his pinnacle and feels momentarily completely free from society’s constraints. The viewers are positioned to feel greater appreciation for McCandless’ motivations for trying to find peace through nature, by the juxtaposition of him at his peak and flashbacks of his unfortunate domestic environment. In comparison Davidson describes the natural world as “tame, benign and giving” where she believes “our greatest communication lay in the sheer joy of our surroundings”. Davidson overcomes her conflicts and eventually no longer relies on routines and rituals that she fell back on heavily. She begins to slowly reject her past and discard her schedules. An example of this was when she abandoned her clock, which contrasts with McCandless’ beanie. Davidsons evolution is reiterated when she is for the second time, confronted with the wild camels, however this time she acts on instincts and doesn’t shoot. Her growth is further tested when faced with the obstacle of burying Diggity or allowing her to naturally decay into the surface of the ground- “[she] didn’t bury her”. Davidsons growth denies her from falling back on rituals which symbolises her newfound maturity growth, whereas McCandless doesn’t ever overcome his conflicts.
Both Tracks and Into the Wild explore the link between one’s personal growth and environment. Both McCandless and Davidson escape from the restraints of their lives and experience profound conversion over the course of their journeys. Thus, both Davidson and Penn comment on the versatile nature of the environment around being influential in sculpting each stage of the journey of self-discovery and transformation. Ultimately, McCandless approaches his journey with ignorance and naivety and views it as a threat he must conquer, which eventually leads him to his death, whereas Davidson submits herself to the wild by finding new ways to learn and adapt to it.