Walk on the mild side: why Wild and Tracks turn the wilderness into a walk in the park

In Deliverance, four men are hounded through woods by inbred rednecks. In Wild, Reese Witherspoon hikes 1,000 miles and hurts a toenail.

Are movies about the great outdoors going soft?

Testing the limits of endurance, or just going for a bit of a ramble? … Reese Witherspoon in Wild. Photograph: Allstar/Fox Searchlight

Testing the limits of endurance, or just going for a bit of a ramble? … Reese Witherspoon in Wild. Photograph: Allstar/Fox Searchlight

How wild is Wild? The new Reese Witherspoon vehicle is based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada, in an attempt to put some distance between herself and her heroin addiction, and to come to terms with the death of her mother. The film version of her 1995 trek opens with Witherspoon yanking a bloody toenail off her mangled foot, accidentally knocking one of her boots down a sheer mountainside, and screaming obscenities across a valley. Pretty extreme stuff, then. You can see why Witherspoon is being tipped for an Oscar.

Up to a point, anyway. After a while, you may find yourself asking whether Strayed is really testing the limits of her endurance, or whether Wild is simply a film about an exhilarating nature ramble – ie, not very wild at all. Anyone who changes their surname to Strayed is obviously not averse to self-mythologising. But the fact is, our hero isn’t conquering Everest or hacking through uncharted jungle. She’s striding along a National Scenic Trail, with a guidebook in her rucksack and signposts to stop her getting lost. The route also has well-appointed campsites, where Cheryl collects packages her friends have sent her, and enjoys a refreshing bottle of her favourite soft drink – one thing the film is wild about is product placement. And, however tough the going may get, Cheryl still has plenty of time to sit and read poetry, thereby allowing Witherspoon to do the cute little frown of concentration that was so funny in Election and Legally Blonde, but which we’re supposed to takeseriously in Wild.

2010, THE WAY

So what’s the big deal? The film undoubtedly works as an advert for the California countryside, but not much else. Wild, like its central character, is pootling along a well-worn path: the middlebrow drama adapted from a plotless non-fiction book about a therapeutic hiking holiday. This year, we’ve already had Tracks, in which Mia Wasikowska plays a woman who tramps 1,700 miles across Australia with four camels and a dog for company. Like Wild, it’s based on a memoir, by Robyn Davidson, and it’s a lot stronger on scenery than story. In 2010, we had The Way, written and directed by Emilio Estevez, and starring his dad, Martin Sheen, as a man who walks through Europe on a traditional pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Estevez fictionalised the source material in order to give Sheen’s character a bereavement to match Strayed’s, but the film is actually an adaptation of another memoir, Jack Hitt’s Off the Road.

Covering even more ground, Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black were in The Big Year in 2011, playing three twitchers who race around the US competing to see who can tick off the most birds in a year. Again, the film is fictionalised – although not enough to include any jokes or twists – but it’s based on a factual account by a Pulitzer-winning journalist, Mark Obmascik. Another journalist to get in on the act is Elizabeth Gilbert. She went travelling for a year after her marriage broke down. She didn’t just bag a new husband, but a memoir and a Julia Roberts movie, 2010’s Eat Pray Love.

These sightseeing, navel-gazing projects have a few traits in common. They leave the impression, in some cases, that the writers were thinking less about spiritual enlightenment than a hefty publishing deal: Gilbert’s expedition was funded by a $200,000 advance. The books themselves tend to be Oprah-endorsed bestsellers with short, catchy titles and long, uncatchy subtitles (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail; Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain; Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia). And, crucially, there’s nothing more at stake for any of the writers than there was for Tony Hawks when he hitchhiked around Ireland with a fridge.

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