Ross is right. The adventures of Chris McCandless are amazing enough to make a great story in spite of his infuriating, fatal self-indulgence: “anyone who ever thrilled (from the safety of a comfortable reading chair) to Huck Finn’s decision to light out for the territories has to find something thrilling about McCandless’s odyssey as well.” I haven’t seen the film, and probably won’t, but the book is commendable.
Both treatments, then, bring us to the inevitable question of how to judge McCandless. David Denby reminds us that Tolstoy’s ascetic phase didn’t begin until after he had lived a remarkably rich life, contrasting Tolstoy with McCandless who had not “experienced enough of life for his rejection of it to carry much weight.”
I think this is the wrong way to criticize McCandless-as-Tolstoy-disciple, since if McCandless missed the message of Tolstoy’s biography, he read the author’s direct instructions loud and clear. Pierre Bezukhov, standing in for Tolstoy, goes from a life of unsettled, impulsive self-indulgence to enlightened equanimity by spending time as a prisoner of war. McCandless can be forgiven for taking away the intended message that transformative life experience can be packed into a brief but intense sojourn.
If there is a lesson that McCandless failed to learn from War and Peace, it is that Pierre’s epiphany came about not just through mortification and hardship, but through a connection with other people. It is through one another that we are saved, whatever your definition of “saved” might be, and Chris McCandless failed to learn this in time. Both the book and (apparently) the movie focus on the people whom McCandless met and left behind on his travels, and it’s here that the story is so keenly heartbreaking.