Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Reese Witherspoon

I have often enjoyed the film versions of novels and stories as much as I enjoyed the written work, but more often I miss what the film medium must omit for the sake of time, story, and clarity. One recent film is an exception. Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, is better than the book, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.

The memoir plods along, each step a labor in verbs and nouns to describe the physical demands of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) while mourning her state as a motherless child. The film, on the other hand, soars because of the camera’s ability to reveal the trail from Southern California’s dry desert regions through grasslands and foothills to mountain peaks and Oregon’s deep, dark forests. Strayed, the author, seemed to lack the capacity to paint these sites with rich language, or she was unimpressed because of the sorrow heavier than the pack she purportedly bore.

"Places We Seek When Our Hearts Are Heavy"
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin
The memoir is also raw; the author appears naked before us. She recounts her terrible choices in men and preparation for the trail, her descent into drug use and promiscuity, and the torturous end to her marriage as well as her mother’s beloved horse. With each tale, Strayed excuses herself by telling her readers that “she just didn’t know” or “she doesn’t know why” she did those things. She only glimpses real causes, including a father who abused her mother emotionally and physically and a stepfather who was present and kind in her life until he moved on almost immediately after her mother died.

Strayed transitions through the five stages of grief before and along the PCT. She denies that her mother could die so quickly after diagnosis and runs from the truth of her mother’s death in drugs and sex. On the trail, Strayed vents her rage that she had too few years with her mother and later, wishes for more time. Most steps from Southern California to Oregon are the steps of someone depressed, someone ashamed of who and what she was. The long-sought acceptance, however, is perfunctory. Readers are simply informed that it took place; we don’t witness the transformation.

The film, however, does not wallow in denial or anger or even bargaining. The film can’t tell us how often Strayed contemplates a sexual encounter, and the film’s screen writer, producers, and director choose not to prolong the poor horse’s execution at the hands of amateurs with the excuse that no money could be found for humane euthanasia.

Sunsets Call to Mind the Glory and Beauty in This Life
Photo Provided by Al Griffin 
The film draws the protagonist with paints less stark and thus softens the hard edges so off-putting to this reader. The film seems to recognize how flawed Strayed was, how repugnant her actions, how much of a pariah she might be in many circumstances. The film coaxes us to believe that Strayed triumphed over bad judgment and self-destruction, and I, for one, certainly hope that’s true.

Reading Challenge:

Read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, then watch the film, Wild. Which version rises to the level of readability?

Writing Challenge:

Write your own critique of Wild the book and Wild the film.