I sped through the book "Wild" by Sheryl Strayed. It was soulfull, thrilling and triumphant. I loved it. I lent it to a friend and after reading only a chapter he questioned the author's right to complain over such a matter as her mother dying, and the validity of her suffering which consequently led to her embarking on a solo hike. At the time I was irritated by his question. Why should anyone have to measure their suffering? The memoir is a beautifully written account of her journey back to wellness, reconciling her mother’s tragically young death and the guilt she felt for having taken her for granted and the blame she dispensed around her upbringing while her mother was still alive. I found his questioning absurd until I watched the film last night.
Cheryl writes about her difficult struggle during and after her first marriage. The break down of her marriage in the book is written thoughtfully, without blame or resentment. Subsequently her mothers early death caused her to further spiral downhill. There was drug use and one night stands, but never are these acts written with the intent to shock or elevate the story. The opposite could be said for the way they are depicted in the film.
Last night watching the film, I too found myself questioning the validity of her ‘suffering’ which led to her hiking the PCT as an unprepared and novice hiker. Whereas in her memoir her epic hike was courageouss, spiritual and even romantic, in the film it only seemed selfish, childish and stupid. There were no moments of real reconciliation. At the end of the movie I only found myself asking, so what?
First of all Reese Witherspoon disastrously cast herself as Cheryl. Totally wrong for the part of a recovering drug abuser who is both self deprecating yet self assured, unprepared yet surprisingly capable and resourceful. None of this translated to the big screen where the director Jean Marc Vallee relied more on his tired flashback style, which would have fit well with this memoir but felt exhausting and tortured. Who to blame here though, Nick Hornby who wrote the script or Marc Vallee’s treatment of it? I think organically the folding flashback scenes to Cheryl’s earlier life onto the forward narrative was the best way forward for the handling of this memoir. The treatment of this narrative tool was it’s downfall. That and the acting.
The casting sins continue as the crew shoved Reese into hair and make up, and out she came with a fringe and lighter coloured hair. Ta da – Cheryl 10 years younger. Sorry guys, Reese just can’t pull off the fresh faced early twenties role any more. Why try so hard to reconcile the flashback scenes to the audience? I find these casting decisions so off putting. Even Cheryl when she did the hike was 26 years old. Reese Witherspoon is in her late 30s. Why not find a younger, more suitable actress for the part? Hollywood is not that starved of young, female talent contrary to what we are told in the media. But oh that’s right, it was Reese herself who secured the rights to the film. Of course she is going to put herself in the lead role. Another Ben Afleck on our hands.
Reese Witherspoon, known for her perky, upbeat characters has been quite obviously attempting to delve into darker, serious roles recently. With the poorly directed Devil’s Elbow going almost unnoticed, Reese decided to tackle a sturdier part for the recognition she sought as her Come back film. I couldn’t get past the smutty nature of many of the flashbacks. Again I put this down to Reese Witherspoons attempt to break out of that box and prove to everyone that she can get naked for the right part too. The flashbacks were flecked with Cheryl having sex with strangers, injecting heroin and yelling at her therapist, when she wasn’t insulting her mother for her positive attitude and being less ‘sophisticated’ than herself.
As for the hiking itself, it’s not a particularly interesting journey. This is why some books just don’t belong on screen. People, me being one of them become so enamoured with a piece of beautiful writing and crave something more, something like a film. But it just doesn’t work. Whereas the hiking account in her book is filled with interesting moments, thrilling rock traversing moments, encounters and wild friendships forged through the intermittent civilization stops along the trail, these are never given enough attention in the film and are fleeting and inconsequential. At best they are just moments to fill the otherwise solo sequences with more cast members.
The hiking diary is also the most interesting part of the book because it was in these long, baren stretches of land that Cheryl was able to disentangle the failures, mistakes and sins of her past and the elevated sense of forgiveness she reaches is beautiful.
These moments are given a wink at best in the film and never truly fleshed out to form any type of climax. Instead Nick Hornby and Jean Marc Vallee opted to end with Reese narrating segments of the epilogue. Maybe they thought they were tying it up nicely that way but it felt lazy and lost. Maybe my experience was skewed because I was sitting next to some freak who continued to eat stinking hot food from tupperware containers through the entire film.