Monday, April 13, 2015

Movie vs. Book: "Wild: Raw and Real"

I'm going to start this off by saying that I was pretty sure this movie would have significant voice over. I expected passages from the book read over top of scenes, Reese Witherspoon's voice retelling Cheryl Strayed's powerful journey across the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Instead, what I got was probably more true to the actual journey itself; a sense of silence and introspection. Cheryl Strayed wrote her memoir about her hike on the PCT nearly twenty years after the hike occurred (click here to read my book review). Nick Hornsby adapted her story into a smart screenplay brought to soul stirring life by Jean-Marc Vallee.

Strayed struck out on the journey by herself with no sense of what she was about to endure physically or psychologically. She walked to return to her self. She walked to remember who she was and to find out who she had become after the devastating death of her mother. Cheryl's life spiraled downward and deconstructed her marriage, her path in college and her faith in any God that might exist. She was a hollow person seeking to fill herself through reckless sex and drug abuse. Her decision to hike the PCT undoubtedly saved her life.

The movie surprised me. I believed in Witherspoon's performance and thought she was faithful to Cheryl's portrayal of herself during that phase in her life. The movie trimmed a lot, but that's what adaptation is all about. I thought the trims were a benefit to tightening the film. They eliminated one of Cheryl's siblings, her step-father and some of the interactions she had on the hike. What they kept was the raw reality of the pain, deprivation, and psychological warfare occurring in Cheryl's mind as she walked.

A book can delve into flashbacks and build believable characters and back story. In film, the images, the cinematography, the dialogue and detail all have to convey in one minute what may have been captured in 30 pages of writing. The only voice over that occurred was Cheryl either fading into a flashback in her mind, the scenes tied together with the words, or what she was writing in the PCT log book. The rest was all on Witherspoon and her acting. She had to carry a woman's life defining journey, and I was with her every step of the way.

From the opening scene through the sadly hilarious struggle to even lift her hiking pack "monster" off the ground - I was held. There was no story voice over, there was only the story I was seeing, and I felt Cheryl's struggle, her anger, her despair, and her strength. She didn't quit that hike. She conquered it. Cheryl writes in one of the PCT log entries that "God is a ruthless bitch." But when the movie ends with her arrival at The Bridge of the Gods, we know that a transformation has taken place within this woman.

Her flashbacks establish her history of sexual promiscuity, but her walk explores her growing awareness of choice and a renewed sense of self expressed in different encounters with men on the hike. It becomes clear that sex is now a conscious choice and not a mindless attempt to fill an aching void carved out by grief.

There were a few things more I would have liked from the movie, and that was a better understanding of Cheryl's love for her mother. Yes, it is established, but it wasn't established in a way that I understood anything other than anger at God or the Universe for a seemingly unjust death of a woman who was too young to die. Perhaps the disconnect was in establishing that grief derailed Cheryl, but we didn't know her well enough before her mother's death to understand what a departure from her life her sudden reckless behavior meant. Her marriage was under sold and there was no sense of what the marriage was to Cheryl before she began destroying it.

That's the problem with flashbacks, they can only establish so much, and editing the film comes down to making sure just the right scenes are included to build the story and make it believable. Those were my issues with the movie, but overall I thought it captured Cheryl Strayed's raw and honest story about walking hundreds of miles to find the woman her mother had raised.

My favorite part of the movie was this quote/philosophy/message, "There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty." It gives me goosebumps just writing it down. Put yourself in the way of beauty and see what happens.


  1. I am glad that this book was such a good read for you, and that the movie actually stayed true to it in a lot of ways instead of succumbing to the usual narration. Reese Witherspoon is one of my favourite actresses so I will be trying this book before I go and watch the movie!

    Check out my review:

    1. Thanks Olivia, I checked out your blog and started following you. I definitely recommend reading the book first, though the movie is good enough to stand on its own, you know it's always nice to have that extra information that comes from a book when going to see an adaptation.

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