What the Film Adaptation of "WILD" Got Right

Last night we had the good fortune to catch the Portland premier of Wild (based on the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed).

I have to admit that, as someone who has been pretty deeply disappointed by previous memoir-to-film adaptations, my expectations were moderate.  I kinda had my heart crushed when one of my favorite books of all times, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, was adapted into a mediocre-at-best feature, despite the involvement of some of the best writing and acting talent out there (Paul Dano? Check.  Robert Deniro? Check.)  It goes to show how easily these major projects can go awry.

What bothered me about the film version of Another Bullshit Night was its unwillingness to take many (any?) formal risks with structure or chronology.  The book version was written in poetic vignettes and fractured scenes, with a digressive, nonlinear style.  Flynn's multi-modal themes and narrative lines tend to resonate and accrue, like a well-crafted poetry collection (Flynn is first and foremost a poet).  In fact, Flynn acknowledges in the endnotes that he structured the book based on Moby-Dick--one of the most endlessly digressive, genre-defying, complexly-designed novels in the American canon. But the film version (titled Being Flynn) refuses to venture away from its safe, Hollywood-style linearity; the monolith of its singular narrative pillar unfortunately begins to buckle and sag under its top-heaviness.

It's interesting that Cheryl's book was written in a way that feels quite a bit more straightforward than Flynn's. After all, it's about a 1000-mile hike from Southern California to Oregon, point A to point B, with an inevitably linear arc.  But Strayed is often at her best in poignant flashbacks and memories, which are interspersed with the hiking narrative.

The Wild filmmakers took this flashback/hiking/flashback structure and actually amplified it--way, way past what might be expected--rather than saddling the narrative with a predictable Hollywood arc. 

This is absolutely a mainstream film, yet I found in it a definite experimental quality, especially in the way it allows the past to constantly spill and echo (sometimes literally) into the present.  In his review for the New Yorker, David Denby claims the film version of Wild lacks mystery or poetry.  (He also calls Cheryl Strayed "big-bodied,"--never have I so wanted to smack my hand around the back of a reviewer's wrinkled neck and tell him to mind his fucking manners). Denby's main complaint is with Witherspoon's voice-overs, which I agree can feel slightly heavy-handed at times.  This film would certainly have been more impressionistic had they left out the voiced-over journal entries and passages from the book; it also wouldn't have been as true to the written literary work.  And the film, in my opinion, absolutely does have mystery and poetry, especially in its willingness to play with a stream-of-consciousness visual style.  One repeating image captures Strayed riding across the Steel Street Bridge (?) with her ex-husband.  We receive the scene only in lightning-fast flashes; from the first glimpse we easily glean, almost subliminally, the scene's emotionally strained tone.  The first flashes are completely silent--it's all gesture, facial expression, body language, mood. Only after the third or fourth (or fifth?) flash does the director finally hit the play button on the scene, allowing a shattering argument between the divorced couple to proceed in this culmination of an appropriately shattered plot structure. 

Form mirrors content; mood mirrors form--shit gets seriously wild in the actors' hearts and the editor's room.    

Of course, this is to say nothing of Strayed's endless sincerity and authenticity as a writer--her willingness to risk sentimentality but never indulge in it. The filmmakers capture this quite well--it feels more like a tribute to a particular author (and her mother), than any other film in recent memory.   Strayed writes in a confessional tone (which has even been labled with its own authorial moniker: "Strayedian"), but she's equally skilled with T.S. Eliot's concept of the objective correlative, for instance when she allows an enormous backpack to signify her tremendous weight of grief (without belaboring the point on the page).  It's hard to think of a more emotional plot line, yet her character refuses a truly demonstrative expression of sorrow for nearly 1000 miles, until (spoiler alert) she encounters an angelic young boy, his grandmother, and their pack-llama.  It's a cinematic scene that could have easily lapsed into melodrama, but the film handles it with a light touch, and yes, even grace.  And Jesus, someone give that little kid a fun-meal-sized Oscar award--either that or a Texas-sized chamois to dry the tears of a hundred million movie goers.

There's every chance that I'm too close to the material to have much of an objective opinion here. Years ago, during graduate school, I read the very first kernels of Wild, published in an essay entitled "Heroin/e", in a fairly obscure literary journal.  I was thrilled to meet & work with Cheryl years later, and was present when she gave a powerful reading from unedited sections of Wild during a reading for Certificate Program students at the Independent Publishing Resource Center here in Portland.

Curiously, after Cheryl's reading, I heard one of our students (who was highly uncharacteristic of our students in general), make a snotty remark to the effect of, who really wants to hear about some writer's divorce?

Who, indeed?

As the film continues to open in wide-release in theaters across the country and the world, it'll be interesting to find out.