A road to hell or a road to redemption? A foolish project of an unbalanced individual or a life-saving pilgrimage?
After a premature death of her beloved mother and a divorce Cheryl nose-dived into troubles. She dropped out of college right before graduation, then she went through a period of working lowest wages as a waitress, shooting heroin and sleeping around with strangers. Determined to put her life in order Cheryl decided to trek one stretch of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), a 2663 miles long route from the Mexican border to just beyond the Canadian border. It is one of the most scenic American trails, leading along the crest of nine mountain ranges. It is also an incredibly demanding challenge, especially to a lonely woman with no previous experience when it comes to camping and trekking long distances on foot.
Even though Cheryl tried to prepare herself as well as she could and she spent every dollar she’d saved on different camping equipment soon enough it became clear that nothing is able to prepare you for such an endeavour. She made several mistakes, buying too tight shoes being one of the most serious ones and perhaps the most painful one too. Still she managed to walk 1100 miles on her own along the PCT, almost exactly as she’d planned. With what result?
I really wanted to see just the movie, featuring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl and Laura Dern as her mom, Bobbi. Fortunately around the same time I found the book it was based on. According to one of the most important rules of my life I watched the movie first and read the book later. It was a good choice. Had I read the autobiographic tale of Cheryl about her unique experience first I doubt I would have managed to watch Wild till the very end.
The movie had one clear advantage over the book: it actually showed that scenic wilderness and incredible views. Also in my opinion the performance of both actresses was great. Actually if Reese gets that Oscar for the best actress I guess it’ll be the first award given for voluntarily pulling out your damaged toenail before the camera. I don’t consider it a spoiler because it is actually the very first scene – both in the book and in the movie. Be warned, it is pretty toe-curling, uncomfortable and cringeworthy; anyway I really had to close my eyes for a moment or two.
Then the movie went firmly downward and after watching it I felt that I had more questions than answers concerning the unusual challenge of Cheryl. Immediately I progressed to the book and most things, if not all, became way clearer and better. It turned out the director not only changed some facts but also put them in a different order and infused with a quite different atmosphere. It made itself felt.
Throughout the movie Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl seemed to me pretty much afraid most of the time. Perhaps it was a deliberate move – showing that a fragile woman, carrying a big, heavy, 60-pound-plus backpack and struggling against the nature and herself cannot and shouldn’t feel relaxed. Perhaps it was an evidence of the sexism ruling in Hollywood according to which a woman’s place is not in the wild. Anyway only after reading the book it became obvious there were few moments of real danger and fear during Cheryl’s trek. In fact, after the initial difficulties, she felt on the trail more or less at home, her own mistakes representing the biggest threat (those shoes!).
Sympathetic strangers offered her a lift, gave her some precious advice, invited her to their homes, fed her, allowed her to take a shower and sleep in real bed free of charge. A Swiss woman met near the end of her trek massaged Cheryl’s horribly injured, dirty feet; two military guys offered her their beer because they wanted to show a respect to a woman clearly tougher than themselves; a Latino man gave her his beloved rastafarian t-shirt as a token of good luck – those are the scenes from the book that impressed me the most AND were completely omitted in the movie. Near the end of her narration Cheryl herself strongly emphasized the fact that, during the 3-month long journey she met with only two cases of outwardly aggressive, negative reaction and still she escaped unscathed – I would say she was pretty lucky or the people aren’t so bad at all.
My other issue: contrary to the book I think there was something oddly sensationalistic about the handling of Strayed’s sexuality in the movie. Of course I don’t try to deny the fact that empty, random sexual encounters after a tragedy in your life aren’t exactly a five-star coping mechanism, but the presentation of female sexual aggressiveness as the ultimate debasement I do find slightly problematic. Oh well.
I liked the novel far better than the movie – no surprises here. Although Wild features some great cinematography and was a demanding film to shoot I had some issues with the director’s interpretation of Strayed’s account. I know it is not easy to adapt a multi-linear 1st person narration book to screen and getting into a solitary character’s headspace but I am not sure the director’s and screenwriter’s approach worked for me. Still Wild was interesting to watch by virtue of being different than your average Hollywood production.