Burroughs Adding Machine

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Literary Nonfiction and Hollywood Film: Perfect Strangers

Hollywood meets Journalism: Writer/director Sean Penn and Nonfiction writer Jon Krakauer in front of McCandless' last place of residence

My partner and I watched Sean Penn’s really stunning, really sympathetic portrait of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild last night and afterward, debated the meaning of creative nonfiction. At least the idea of creative nonfiction–both the literary genre and as it applies to film–was my concern. And as is often the case, we argued. Our misunderstandings emerge from a place where I often think one thing, get frustrated with his incomprehension of the thing I am deliberating, and metaphorically throw my hands in the air. Talking to me must not be an easy thing for any sane person to do.

I digress. Creative nonfiction. I think it’s a great metaphor for the Hollywood approach to film (or should I say movies)? Into the Wild, The Orchid Thief, Jarhead, A Million Little Pieces: all recent, acclaimed, best-selling works of nonfiction. I’m not saying they were personal favorites. But I acknowledge their commercial success, and the glint in the eyes of Hollywood producers, who would translate these essentially “true” stories to mass movie entertainment.

But what are filmmakers’ responsibilities to real life? To the sequencing of events, for example? To the dialogue of real people, both those that existed and those created for the sake of the narrative, and the infinite truths that each of these living (or dead) people know about their own stories?

Christopher McCandless, in one of the few photographs from his travelsIn the case of Into the Wild, for example. I have no doubt that Jon Krakauer, in his bestselling work of nonfiction, did extensive, carefully cited research. He spent hours, days, years, uncovering the story of the 22 year-old who graduated from Emory, donated his life savings (more than twenty thousand dollars) to Oxfam (good for him), and set off to tramp around the country, untethered to material goods and in search of true experience.

But how can a film with dozens of actors who have never met the real man, a writer/director who has never met the deceased young man, and millions of filmgoers, seated in darkened theaters or watching from laptops in private corners of their homes, truly know the experience of Chris McCandless? Yes, the film is based on his journals and interviews with family and friends he met on the road. But is this the truth? Whose truth? And don’t all of us who have learned and been entertained by the story, in a sense, diminish McCandless’ experience, revering and mythmaking (or converesely, criticizing and demeaning) this human through our communal processing?

I don’t mean to be critical. More to meditate and discover. True story to film is, of course, a natural and longstanding thing. And in the case of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, I don’t think he has characterized the adventurer McCandless poorly. It is the sheer fact of the characterization I’m interested in. The ways that authors and audiences seize facts and events and shape them for their own purposes.

The poet Sharon Olds, who contributes to "Into the Wild"Another example of creative nonfiction in this studio film: the use of a poem by Sharon Olds. Olds may be one of my favorite poets, brutal and gorgeous, unflinching and transcendent. In my view, the poet takes the quotidian events of her own experience–watching her little boy play with others at a birthday party, talking to her daughter about Mickey Mouse–and crafts these real moments into art. The boys become metaphors for soldiers of war or the violence indivisible from gender; the mother and daughter a lesson on sex and finding beauty, not shame, in the female body. Olds is one-of-a-kind. Sean Penn, too, admires her, and utilized her poem “I Go Back to May 1937” for an extended montage midway through his film to give body to the family of McCandless.

This combination of real people (the McCandless family), contemporary poetry (Olds’ poem about her own parents), and aesthetic concern (Penn’s interest in showing the intricacies of a typical American family) are the ingredients for what we see on the big screen. Little of this is concretely tied to the wanderings and networks of McCandless’ inner life. We can presume, from the writings that he left, that we’re embracing the essence of his thoughts and feelings. Can we be certain that the many parties involved have captured what McCandless himself felt?

Memoirist and journalist Vivian Gornick, one of the greats, reflects on the New Journalists’ use of creative nonfiction in this way: “We all felt that immediate experience signified. Wherever a writer looked, there was a narrative line to be drawn from the political tale being told on a march, at a party, during a chance encounter.”

The double-edged sword of creative nonfiction. To tell the truth and to tell a story. Perfect accompaniments or polar opposites? And how does creative nonfiction–in a literary sense–compare with Hollywood films whose purpose is to fictionalize real events for entertainment?

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About Me

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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