I’m always intrigued when a best-selling novel or memoir is turned in to a movie because they are such different mediums. A memoir allows us to share and experience what the author is feeling and thinking (and remembering). A movie shows us what happened, supported by dialogue and some thoughts (via voice over).
Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild starts with what in screenwriting is called an inciting incident, her throwing a hiking boot off the Pacific Coast Trail. The memoir has the same incident and more; it offers a context for who Cheryl is, a now bootless orphan in a very bad situation.
Same situation, but the memoir gets to a deeper place about who Cheryl is, that her mother has died, her step-father has left, and her brother has drifted away. She’s an orphan with one choice on the trail, and in life: to keep walking.
The memoir does a better job of pulling readers in to want to know more about Cheryl’s life and how she found herself in this situation and what she’ll do about it. The movie quickly and neatly shows what happens, Cheryl accidently knocking one boot off a cliff, then throwing the other boot after it.
Continuing with the memoir’s chapter one, Cheryl learns her mother is dying. Her mother’s death is a primary cause of how Cheryl ends up on the trail. The movie goes down a different path; it shows what a free spirit the mother is and how much her children love and adore her.
Again, the memoir is more deeply felt about what gets Cheryl to the trail; the movie is more visual about her life with her mother before her fatal illness.
The movie, then, does a great job of showing why the mother’s death would have such an impact on Cheryl, but it also leads the movie to having a slower, more episodic pace as scenes of her childhood are mixed with scenes on the trail. As Cheryl hikes, different situations evoke different memoires of her life.
In terms of storytelling, it’s not that either choice is wrong, just that one (the memoir) gets readers to a deeper place than where the movie takes viewers.
The first chapter of the memoir ends with powerful writing, among the lines... ‘It took me years...to be the woman my mother raised.’
The memoir evokes, step by step, starting from page one, that journey. The movie doesn’t begin that aspect of Cheryl’s journey until the death of her mother.
Returning to the movie, when Cheryl checks in at a motel the night before she begins hiking the trail, the memoir has a pivotal scene. Cheryl has difficulty checking in to the cheap motel because she doesn’t have an address. She’s not going back to where she came from, and she doesn’t know where she’ll end up. This is a lovely metaphor for the situation Cheryl finds herself. The movie, instead, focuses on the hotel clerk insisting that Cheryl will have to pay more for the room if she shares it with anyone (i.e., a boyfriend or a trick).
The memoir gets across something deep and true about Cheryl’s life at that moment, while the movie goes for being clever and witty.
When Cheryl sets out the next day, the movie does quickly and neatly show Cheryl’s alertness about which men appear trustworthy and which are scary and potential predators. And in both the movie and memoir, with some men it’s just not clear if they are a threat until a scene progresses.
Both the movie and the book deal with the breakup of Cheryl’s marriage, but the memoir more clearly puts the break up in the context of Cheryl’s life after her mother’s death. The first third of the movie tends to cross cut between the trail and the marriage ending and the aftermath, when Cheryl turns to drugs and casual sex to ease her pain over her mother’s death.
These Paul scenes in the movie play well, but they also tend to give the marriage and its breakup a more prominent role then they have in the memoir. The memoir does a better job of weaving all these threads into a whole picture of Cheryl’s life then.
Returning to men, and specifically the men Cheryl meets on the trail, the memoir conveys more of her friendly encounters and some on-going contacts based on notes left at stations along the trail. The memoir gets to a deeper place about how magical and charming some of these encounters are (and also strange and disquieting). In the movie we get an encounter with a ranger looking for a sexual conquest, while in the memoir that situation is a continuation of an encounter Cheryl has had with three free-spirited young men.
Another significant difference between the movie and memoir is that the movie suggests a fox Cheryl comes across is a kind of spirit guide or totem that accompanies her on her journey. In the memoir, Cheryl tends to have mostly encounters with rattlesnakes and can sometimes hear but not see larger animals.
Continuing with the movie, it conveys in a heart felt way the immediate aftermath of the death of Cheryl’s mother.
Once the movie gets to that death, the movie has more dramatic tension. The work done previously to established Cheryl’s close bond with her mother now pays off.
In both the movie and memoir, once Cheryl gets past Ashland, the pace of the story picks up significantly.
Having read (and loved) the memoir first, I wasn’t in a position to completely judge the movie on its own merits. I enjoyed the movie but didn’t love it.
How the memoir and movie each set out to tell the same basic story offers a lesson in how a literary work can be reimagined as a movie, and the pitfalls involved.
That said, I don’t envy anyone the job of transforming a popular literary work into a movie. It’s a job fraught with difficultly.
To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.