Leather-tramps travel by foot while rubber-tramps travel by car, but in the end a tramp is a tramp. In most cases, tramps aren’t living the lifestyle they are by choice—this was the case, however, with Christopher McCandless. He preferred to be called Alexander Supertramp, which garnered a slightly baffled reaction from most people he met. The character of Chris in Jon Krakauer’s novel and Sean Penn’s film is based on that of the real life 1992 graduate of Emory University who donated his grad school savings of $24,000 to charity, ditched his car, burned his remaining cash and deserted civilization to live in the wild.
I guess there is some validation in his self-proclaimed title: ‘Supertramp’. I mean he didn’t just travel by foot or just by car or even a combination of both—he had no short-term planning or daily routine. He consciously made the choice to fight for his life everyday for the pure sake of freedom and adventure. In line with displaying Chris’s character, I believe Sean Penn portrays a different protagonist in his 2007 film than that of Jon Krakauer in his original novel. They are similar on many wavelengths but I see the main distinction in the novel Chris having a much more bleaker world view than the film version played by Emile Hirsch.
“How I feed myself is none of the government’s business. Fuck their stupid rules.” This is Chris’s response in the book when asked if he even had a hunting license to hunt and fend for himself in the wilderness. These words would never be uttered in the film by Hirsch’s Chris—he has too much overall positivity. His motivation driving him to Alaska isn’t along the lines of him hating structured society but more along the assumption that he will enjoy his life better surrounded by nature—free from rules and materiality. At the end when attempting explain his chosen lifestyle to Ron Franz, played by Hal Holbrook, he says: “You’re wrong if you think the joy of life comes from human relationships.” He says this in a way that does not diminish the value of human relationships but merely suggests that it is not the pinnacle of happiness.
The difference in the characterization of both Chris’s comes from the author of each work. In writing his novel, he only could find out about Chris through word-of-mouth and through stories and pictures. He never actually knew or met Chris so in telling his story it had to be done through the perspective of those that aided him in his journey. Chris, as I previously mentioned, is shown as mildly pessimistic in the novel. This could be directly linked to the impression he left on people; they knew he had good intentions but still couldn’t accept the reasoning for his actions and therefore retold their experiences with him in a slightly negative light—they were sad that he was gone because they thought he had so much potential and was throwing it all away. In the film, the way these people feel about Chris doesn’t change, and in fact might even be more powerful since we can visually discern the emotions in their face. However, the story is now told through the perspective of Chris himself. We see the world through his eyes rather than the eyes of someone attempting to understand him.