Wild the book was always going to be a challenge to adapt into Wild the film. The book is a first-person memoir, perhaps the ideal format for a story like this, which is about an internal journey as much as an external one. Its protagonist, Cheryl Strayed, spends a significant amount of time completely alone. How do you tell such an inherently uncinematic story in a cinematic way?
Well, if you’re Jean-Marc Vallée, you kind of don’t.
Here’s what you do do:
- You use flashbacks. A lot of them. These are usually triggered by something happening in the present. When Cheryl puts a red rape whistle in her mouth, for example, she flashes back to sucking on a man’s finger during sex. While hitchhiking to the beginning of the trail, a song on someone’s radio reminds her of the time her mother danced to that same song in their kitchen. A line of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, read outside her tent after a meal of “cold mush” at the end of her first day on the trail, transports her back to a college classroom. Vallée uses these sensory triggers to smooth out what could otherwise be jarring transitions. What’s odd, though, is how Vallée and his editor, Martin Pensa (Vallée himself is actually credited as an editor, under the name “John Mac McMurphy”—thanks, IMDb!) cut these flashbacks: very very fast, like, well, lightning flashes of memory, and often mixed together out of sequence. It kind of counteracts the fluid effect of the past-to-present transitions I mentioned above (David Denby, in the New Yorker, notes that "we end up watching film editing, not consciousness"), but it also tells us how unpredictable these memories are, lying in wait to ambush Cheryl at any time.
- You have Cheryl speak her thoughts aloud, or you use voiceover. Lots of it. Both for comic relief (Cheryl’s expletive-laden internal monologues, for example, which begin about a minute in to her first day of hiking) and for important emotional climaxes. In the final scene, Cheryl crosses the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State—the last leg of her journey—accompanied by a long voiceover soliloquy, which I assume was lifted verbatim from her book. In the car after the movie, my brother Loren said he didn’t understand the conclusion she came to in this scene. As I began to explain it, I realized I couldn’t; the voiceover was so long that my mind had wandered and I'd stopped paying attention to it. The ending made emotional sense to me even without it, though, which perhaps speaks to how unnecessary it was. From the part I did hear, it sounds like Strayed is a competent writer, and I understand wanting to keep a passage like that in the movie, but its effect on both Loren and I suggests that it wasn't particularly, well, effective.
- You use insert shots and on-screen text. There are notebooks placed at intervals along the Pacific Crest Trail in which hikers record their name and the date; Cheryl also jots down quotes by her favorite writers (Emily Dickinson, for example) in them. In Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting episode about how texts and the Internet are represented in film, he posits that (Western, live action) filmmakers haven’t quite figured out how to depict the Internet visually yet, but that Sherlock has solved the texting problem by using elegantly placed on-screen text instead of insert shots. Interestingly, Vallée shows us the first of Cheryl’s quote using an insert shot of the notebook plus voiceover of Cheryl reading it, which is clunky; from then on, the quotes appear as on-screen text, in her handwriting, a much more efficient and visually pleasing solution.
- And finally, when all else fails, you use dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) visual metaphors to represent what Cheryl is thinking and feeling. Cheryl’s mother appears on the trail in front of her several times like an apparition; she’s also represented by an inquisitive fox that Cheryl encounters at different points along the trail. At one point, during a flashback/nightmare about her mother’s horse—which her brother put down with a rifle after their mother’s death—blood soaks through the roof of Cheryl’s tent, dripping down onto her face.
All of the above are solutions—some effective, some less so—to the problem of adapting this book. But those solutions aren’t the most interesting—and certainly not the most compelling—part of the movie. Wild is a great example of how talking about form alone is never enough—content is equally important. Wild is the kind of story that’s all too rare at the multiplex these days: a story that not only is not, but could not be about a man. A story specifically about the perils and joys of navigating the world as a woman—a petite, blonde, attractive woman alone in the woods. Pretty much every time Cheryl encountered a man on the trail, my heart leapt to my throat. In an early scene, Vallée plays on audience expectations, making us think Cheryl is in danger when she isn’t. Later, though, we see just how right we were to be afraid for her when she runs into a hunter who spies on her while she’s changing clothes. I like your panties, he tells her. They look good on you. “Please don’t say that,” Cheryl says, voice gone soft with fear. Only the appearance of another hunter saves her. Had any number of circumstances been just slightly different—had that second hunter, for example, been in the mood for rape too—we would be watching a very different story, and Vallée makes sure we know it. (As David Denby points out, though, Strayed is a sexual woman, and her encounters with men are "fraught . . . with possibility" as well as danger.)
American cinema needs more stories about women, more stories written by women, and more stories directed by women—and Wild ticks two out of those three boxes. It may not have been directed by a woman, but it was brought into being by one—Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, optioned Strayed’s book for Witherspoon to star in. Whether Wild a good or bad movie, or even a "cinematic" one, isn’t really the point—the point is that it’s rare. Ideally, Wild would be one woman’s story out of a great many at the multiplex. We’re not there yet, but if anything’s going to help us get there, it is movies like this.