“Into the Wild” author Jon Krakauer is suing the people with whom he agreed to make a musical stage play based on his well-known Alaska book.
No one knows exactly why.
“In May 2018, attorneys for Krakauer told (musical developers Nikos) Tsakalakos and (Janet) Allard that the author had ‘found the
script objectionable” and wanted the two to remove all references to his book, Thomas Gounley reported at Business Den last week.
The Denver-based, news website broke the story. Krakauer lives in Boulder, about 25 miles north of Denver. Neither side has offered anything more specific than that “objectionable” claim to date.
The book “Into the Wild” is a reconstruction of the 1992 starvation death of 24-year-old Chris McCandless in an abandoned bus along the Stampede Trail just north of Denali National Park and Preserve. The book made Krakauer’s career.
Krakauer created a portrait of McCandless as a Thoreau-esque figure in search of the meaning of life murdered by the unforgiving Alaska wilderness.
“McCandless’s journey was inspired by Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. These authors’ works can be assigned in conjunction with this text. Transcendentalism also influenced McCandless, so students should learn about the philosophical and spiritual movement,” says Prestwick House’s guide to “How to Teach ‘Into the Wild.'”
Krakauer has been aggressively protective of this McCandless image in the face of alternative theories as to how McCandless came to starve to death within a day’s hike of the Denali Park Road.
The play has been little seen. It premiered last year at the Encore Dexter Musical Theatre Company in Michigan. Dexter is a small town on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, a community of 365,000 home to the University of Michigan.
Dan Cooney, the producing artistic director at the theatre, Monday refused to offer a summary of the play.
“We are not going to comment here,” he emailed. “We have no idea what the issue is with the show, and don’t feel comfortable speaking on behalf of the musical.”
A review of the play at the website A2 Arts Addict in May of last year said the play made “sympathetic, McCandless’ parents – to such a degree that you wonder what else, beyond typical young adult rebellion, is happening in Chris’ head.”
It went on to describe how the play “unpacks a bit more of Chris’ troubled relationship with his dad….for it appears to be a primary driver of Chris’ doomed, foolhardy mission.”
The first suggestion – that McCandless has issues in his head – and the second – that he set out on a “doomed, foolhardy mission – run counter to the McCandless myth created by Krakauer.
He portrayed McCandless’s disappearance into the Alaska wilds as a grand adventure and painted McCandless’s demise as the fault of nature.
The key plot twist in the book is that McCandless becomes “trapped” in the wild.
“On July 5…the Teklanika (River) was at full flood, swollen with rain and snowmelt from glaciers high in the Alaska Range, running cold and fast,” Krakauer wrote. “If he could reach the far shore, the remainder of the hike to the highway would be easy, but to get there he would have to negotiate a channel some one hundred feet wide. The water, opaque with glacial sediment and only a few degrees warmer than the ice it had so recently been, was the color of wet concrete. Too deep to wade, it rumbled like a
freight train. The powerful current would quickly knock him off his feet and carry him away.”
“McCandless was a weak swimmer and had confessed to several people that he was in fact afraid of the water,” Krakauer wrote.
Jim Gallien, who picked McCandless up while he was hitchhiking along the George Parks Highway and drove him to the road where the adventure began, is cast as one who heard such a confession. Gallien has said that didn’t happen.
“Attempting to swim the numbingly cold torrent or even to paddle
some sort of improvised raft across seemed too risky to consider,” Krakauer wrote. “Just downstream from where the trail met the river, the Teklanika erupted into a chaos of boiling whitewater as it accelerated through the narrow gorge. Long before he could swim or paddle to the far shore, he’d be pulled into these rapids and drowned.
“He concluded, correctly, that he would probably be swept to his death….”
All of that is pure conjecture. Krakauer had no way of knowing what was going on in McCandless’s head nor did anyone else. Whatever conclusions McCandless reached about anything during his approximately four-month sojourn in the Alaska wilderness died with him.
But the death of an adventurous young man entering the wilderness in search of the meaning of life only to be trapped there by the unforgiving whims of nature is central to the cult of McCandless that Krakauer built.
A play that even hinted at a foolhardy young man on a suicide mission would not sit well with the author.
“Granted, no one dies quickly from starvation, but as the back end of the second act kept unfolding, with the number of days he had been without food appearing on the screen behind him, along with diary entries taken from the original book, the play became arthritic in its pace and delivery. The whole show clocked in at about 2:45. It made me wonder if the story was better suited for an opera, a form in which long aria-filled death scenes are expected. Long, long death scenes are tough to pull off in musical theatre.”
A long, long death scene – along with McCandless’s scant diary entries portraying his limited hunting skills with his .22 rifle – would not sit well with Krakauer either.
Krakauer has pretended McCandless was doing OK as a survivalist and only died because he fell victim to a mystery poison. In the first version of the McCandless story, published in Outside magazine in 1993, Krakauer wrote that “in all likelihood, McCandless mistakenly ate some seeds from the wild sweet pea and became gravely ill.”
That story opened with the hitchhiking McCandless meeting Gallien who wondered “if he’d picked up one of those crackpots from the Lower 48 who come north to live out their ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska has long been a magnet for unbalanced souls, often outfitted with little more than innocence and desire, who hope to find their footing in the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier. The bush, however, is a harsh place and cares nothing for hope or longing. More than a few such dreamers have met predictably unpleasant ends.
“(But) Alex didn’t strike Gallien as your typical misfit. He was congenial, seemed well-educated, and peppered Gallien with sensible questions
about ‘what kind of small game lived in the country, what kind of berries he could eat, that kind of thing.'”
Having dismissed the idea that McCandless was “your typical misfit,” Krakauer went on to claim that “McCandless entertained no illusions that he was trekking into Club Med; peril, adversity, and Tolstoyan renunciation were what he was seeking. And that is precisely what he found on the Stampede Trail, in spades.
“For most of 16 weeks McCandless more than held his own. Indeed, were it not for one or two innocent and seemingly insignificant blunders he would have walked out of the Alaskan woods in July or August as anonymously as he walked into them in April.”
Expanding the myth
When Krakaeur’s book came out three years later, it was more of the same plus. The supposedly toxic pods of the “wild sweet pea” that the Outside story claimed to have started McCandless’s slide into death by starvation by rendering him “too weak to hunt effectively” had by then morphed into the seeds of the wild potato that actually killed him.
“…A compelling case can be made for these seeds having caused McCandless’s death,” Krakauer wrote. “If true, it means that McCandless wasn’t quite as reckless or incompetent as he has been made out to be. He didn’t carelessly confuse one species with another. The plant that poisoned him was not known to be toxic.”
A third theory was then offered by Krakauer just before a movie version of his book hit the big screen in 2007.
“Now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves, but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy,” Krakauer said then. “And the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. My theory is essentially the same, but I’ve refined it somewhat. You know, who cares? But I care and his family cares.”
That theory also turned out to be wrong and Krakauer came up with a fourth. Appearing on NPR in 2013, he claimed a rare “neurotoxin and amino acid” called ODAP had killed McCandless.
“So I simply took the final step, as I also last August got a hold of some wild potato seeds, and sent them to a very sophisticated lab in Ann Arbor that had state-of-the-art techniques. And sure enough, absolutely, definitely, certainly the wild potato seeds contained ODAP, this deadly neurotoxin that causes paralysis if you eat it when you’re not getting enough other nutrients.”
The data, she reported, “from high-performance liquid chromatography separations of potato seed extracts, don’t show what Krakauer says they do, according to experts who reviewed the report for C&EN. In fact, they say, the extract was barely separated at all, making it impossible to tell what the seeds contain.”
By 2015, Krakauer was claiming in New Yorker magazine that the deadly poison wasn’t ODAP, but canavanine, “an antimetabolite stored in the seeds of many leguminous species to ward off predators, and its toxicity in animals is well documented in scientific literature.”
It’s toxicity is not well documented in humans, however. But this time Krakauer at least had a team of scientists to back him up. In a study published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, they reported they had found L-canavanine in the roots of the Eskimo potatoes that McCandless’s meager diary indicated he was eating.
“In the case of Christopher McCandless, there is evidence that H alpinum seeds constituted a significant portion of his meager diet during a period before his death” they wrote. “Based on this and what is known about the toxic effects of L-canavanine, we make the logical conclusion that, under these conditions, it is highly likely that the ingestion of relatively large amounts of this antimetabolite was a contributing factor to his death.”
A contributing factor is one thing. A cause is another. And no one knows how many seeds McCandless was eating. He kept no records of his food consumption. The “significant portion” amounts to no more than a wild guess.
L-canavanine is debated in the health food community because alfalfa seeds and sprouts are high in the chemical. For that reason, people with lupus and pregnant women are advised to avoid alfalfa, but the sprouts and seeds are touted as good for lowering the cholesterol of healthy people.
An authority on wild edible plants, Samuel Thayer, last year lumped all of Krakauer’s poison plant claims together as part of a “poisonous plant fable.”
In doing so, Thayer raised the obvious question as to the evidence to support any McCandless poisoning theory: How much of this or that did McCandless eat?
The question is key because the effects of toxins are dose related. If you drank too much water in the right circumstances, it can kill you.
Unfortunately, nobody knows how much of anything McCandless ate. He kept no notes on his diet. What is known from his few jottings in a journal that recorded the squirrels, birds and other game he poached is that he didn’t eat much.
“When Chris tried to leave the wilderness in early July, he probably did so because he realized that starvation was a real threat,” Thayer writes. “He took a picture of himself at that time, about which Krakauer says, ‘He looks healthy but alarmingly gaunt. Already his cheeks are sunken. The tendons in his neck stand out like taut cables’.
“How does Krakauer deduce ‘healthy’ from that description? This photo was taken almost seven weeks before McCandless died, and four weeks before he ate wild potato seeds and felt ill. Clearly, he was gravely malnourished and on a trajectory toward death long before the alleged ‘poisoning’ even occurred. But Krakauer still maintains the fallacy that Chris was doing fine. Only one page after the above description, he states that Chris had ‘been fending for himself quite nicely in the country.'”
McCandless hadn’t, however, been fending “quite nicely.” He’d been slowly starving, and in the end his autopsy recorded that he died from starvation. His then decomposed body weighed 66 pounds.
Krakauer has never been able to accept the idea that McCandless simply starved to death. To do so, would be to recognize that McCandless was killed by his own incompetence, and that would undermine the whole “Into the Wild” myth of a bright young man on a sensible adventure of self discovery murdered by twists of fate at the hands of nature.
A play about McCandless’s death that might lead one to any other conclusion than the latter would surely upset Krakauer. And the R2 review suggested the play comes across “like a generational ‘Rashomon.’ You’re seeing the same story, but your subjective filter skews how you perceive this cult figure.
“As a teen or twentysomething, you think, ‘He’s so gutsy and true to himself!’ while the older you thinks, ‘Dear God, why did he plot this doomed course for himself?’!”
Jon Krakauer would not like that latter conclusion at all. He would not like it one little bit.