The Road Less Travelled

18 January 2015

Wild, a fantastic film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, creates a new kind of movie heroine – the female wanderer. 

The wandering hero occupies a central place in our storytelling traditions. Almost every culture and major world religion has a story about a wanderer – sometimes alone, sometimes with company – for whom the journey is as engrossing as the destination. The Greeks had Odysseus, who took ten years to get to the Trojan War and another ten to get back again. In the Bible, Abraham and Moses and Jesus each had their time alone in the wilderness, waiting for divine instruction from a temperamental God. In Buddhism, Siddhartha found enlightenment alone under the Bodhi tree. Chaucer’s pilgrims told each other stories as they travelled to Canterbury, while in The Divine Comedy, Dante wandered in and out the Underworld with Virgil as his guide.

The journey narrative continued strongly into the modern age, especially in America, a country of huge landscapes and a fondness for heroic individualism. From Thoreau building his house by Walden Pond to Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi River to Jack Kerouac on the road, the journey is perhaps the quintessential American story.

As marvellous as this tradition is, it’s also obvious that most of the great wanderers of literature (and, more recently, film) have been men. While men got to go off and have adventures, the lot of women in literature (much as in life until feminism came along) has been to stay at home, stir the soup pot and wait for the men to return. After several millennia, women are finally putting down the soup ladle, coming out of the cave, saying, “This isn’t so bad” and going off into the wilderness – and coming back to the campfire to tell us about their experiences.

This has spawned a recent but hugely successful publishing market, most notably Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-bestselling travelogue Eat Pray Love.  The latest, and possibly finest addition to the female journey narrative is American writer Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, in which Strayed recounts her three-month, 1,100-mile hike across America’s Pacific Crest Trail. Wild is a strange and contradictory book, a mixture of travelogue, therapy journal, college reading list and self-flagellating confession. As with the best journey stories, Strayed starts on her way with some heavy baggage. She’s bereft after the death of her mother, and nursing bruises after her descent into heroin addiction and the break-up of her marriage. As revealed through her prose, Strayed is perceptive, self-aware and funny. She’s also a woman who doesn’t want to make life easy for herself. She frequently acts against her best interests, and often has no idea whether she’s on the right track. In other words, like most of us.

Wild has been adapted into a fantastic new film, starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed. It’s one of the best films of the year (it’s early still, I know) and creates a genuinely new kind of heroine: the female traveller. A more conventional film would have turned Strayed’s story into a relentlessly upbeat tale of trial over adversity. As scripted by Nick Hornby and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (who made the equally impressive Dallas Buyer’s Club), Wild avoids any easy highs and lows. The film’s opening scene sets the tone for the piece: Witherspoon, alone on a mountain top, shakes off her ridiculously oversized backpack and stops to remove her boots and examine her bruised, bleeding feet. She rips off a shattered toenail, watches as her boot falls down a crevice, and screams angry abuse into the open air. It’s a simple scene, but it captures the odd combination of pain, loneliness, anger and transcendence that punctuates Strayed’s quest.

Shot in a stripped-down, almost documentary style, the narrative glides effortless back and forth from Cheryl’s journey and back into her complicated backstory. The film sustains Strayed’s sense of ambivalence about her past. Sometimes memories intrude like unwelcome ghosts, or as nightmares that she wants to exorcise; at other points, they’re recollections of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”, that illuminate her sense of her own life. Occasionally the film lapses into therapy-speak – “I’m going to walk my way back to the woman my mother thought I was,” Witherspoon announces at one point – but mostly the film lets a well-rounded character play out her own complications without commentary.

As Strayed, Witherspoon gives a fantastic performance: quiet, thoughtful, determined and unafraid to sit with her character’s contradictions. I never quite believed that someone of Witherspoon’s spunky appeal would lose herself into heroin addiction and casual threesomes in alleyways with strangers. That said, it’s a brave, vanity free performance that never feels like a Hollywood actress slumming it. Wild is, among other things, a love story, admittedly of an unusual kind. Strayed describes her mother in one scene as “the love of my life”, and it’s this love (and Strayed’s grief at its loss) that forms the backbone of the film.Strayed’s mother is played, quite wonderfully, by Laura Dern, who pulls off a tricky double act: she plays a real woman who tries to make the best of her misfortunes, as well as the glowing, somewhat idealised memory of “Mom” that Cheryl holds in her mind. Wild is especially fine at capturing the casual cruelties the adolescent Strayed inflicts on her mother in passing – cringing as her mother returns to high school to get her diploma, and mocking her for her lack of education and her cheery optimism in the face of poverty. Dern lets us see every grimace of humiliation among all the pride and motherly love, just as Witherspoon lets us see the inner child who’s devastated when her mother dies. In an age of misery memoirs and TV talk shows fuelled by examples of bad parenting, it’s unusual to see a mother-daughter relationship presented so sympathetically and powerfully.

Wild is, above all, about life in the wilderness. I’m from a country where the locals have ready access to Nature, and where strapping on a backpack and wandering into the bush is a national religion. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me just how radical Strayed, an American woman with an urban upbringing, was being when she chose to undertake a three-month hike alone. Her discovery of the beauty and brutality of life outside is portrayed with sympathy and humour. It’s clear that there’s a degree of masochism in Strayed’s project, at least at first. She starts with an enormous backpack that’s literally too much baggage, and boots that are a size too small, which she embraces as a kind of self-punishment. Even later in the film, as she dresses for a rare night out, she views the bruises on her back with a tentative pride – they are her war wounds, sustained after months of struggle. The film also portrays, with alarming clarity, how Strayed had to navigate her fear of sexual assault from every man who crossed her path.

Wild also spends a lot of time, as Strayed did, looking at nature. The spectacular cinematography, filmed mostly around Oregon, gives full weight to the beauty of the landscape without ever feeling ornamental or gratuitous. We see the mountain views and panoramic vistas as Strayed did – as wonderful surprises happened on in a moment, and with the full sense of the effort taken to get there.

By the end of the film, Strayed reaches her end point, and the filmmakers can’t help themselves from bursting into a long monologue lifted from Strayed’s text. For me, the voiceover wasn’t necessary – the achievement of Strayed’s quest is written on Witherspoon’s tired but quietly rapturous face. That said, I can’t recommend Wild highly enough. It’s a struggle against adversity for those who don’t like self-help books, and a travelogue for those who’ve wondered what it might be like to stray off the beaten path. Strayed managed to hike her way back to her life. To her and the filmmakers’ credit, it’s a journey we can also take pleasure and wisdom from.


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