Wild's Cheryl Strayed on Adapting Her Grief
Author Cheryl Strayed talks about grief, the difference between books and film and saying "yes" with journalist Emily M. Keeler
At age 26, Cheryl Strayed changed her name and packed up her life. She headed south, intending to climb home across 1,100 miles of wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail. “The transformation on my hike,” she tells me by phone from Portland, Oregon, “was about me finding my strength. It was not about becoming a different person.”
Strayed’s now-famous hike wasn’t precisely about running away, even though she had plenty of reasons to yearn for escape. The marriage she’d entered at 19 was coming undone, her existing family had disintegrated into so many estrangements, and her new boyfriend had a serious heroin habit, in which she soon found herself partaking. And four years earlier her mother, the hero of her life, had died suddenly of cancer.
This litany of hard things is familiar to anyone who has read Strayed’s best-selling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, or seen the 2014 film adaptation, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Quebec auteur Jean-Marc Vallée, which premiered at TIFF in September 2014.
“I’ve been talking about Wild for more than four years now – I mean, the book came out in March 2012,” she laughs.
“Of course,” the real Strayed tells me, “the film adds a new dimension to my story; they speak to each other in different ways.”
Strayed speaks with the oval-shaped vowels of all those good people in Midwestern America. Her voice has just a little gravel in it, and she is just as likely to reach for the word “fuck” as she is for the word “gosh” when underscoring a point. In Vallée’s adaptation, Witherspoon’s voice is bright and thin, girlish and small.
In the book, Strayed’s prose is precise and unstinting, her pain and grief artfully transformed into a vivid work of ardor and hope. Through his use of montage and flashback, Vallée elects to work within the associative frame Strayed sets up in the memoir, where every single day on the trail invites an introspection so total that at times, the wanderings of her mind overpower the physical journey. While her feet propel her forward, we see Strayed’s mind working out all that she’s left behind. Strayed’s narration is always divided, always heading in both directions at once, towards the present and out of the past.
“Jean-Marc Vallée did really well at portraying the way that you can be in the present moment but that past is always with you,” Strayed tells me. “Especially in those intersections between the present moment and the flashback, I feel like he really got the tone of the book.”
Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. (Cheryl Strayed, Wild)
In both adaptations, Strayed loses her toenails from her too-small hiking boots. She sweats and grunts through the embarrassment and torture of overstuffing the bag that will live mostly on her back as she walks from the bottom of California to the top of Oregon. Witherspoon’s Cheryl is jagged and wry; she appears in almost every second of the film, equally transfixing in the breathtaking wilderness as she is in her mother’s hospital room, in bed with a stranger, or slumped over in a chair, so enthralled by a heroin high that she can barely register that she’s being robbed at knifepoint.
“I think that the Cheryl that Reese plays is angrier than I was,” Strayed says. “I always understood it was their vision. But I cared a lot, obviously. And I did say to them, ‘oh she’s so angry!’ And they softened her a little bit in response to my feedback. She still came off as angrier than I was. But, y’know, that’s the movie!”
Like the book, the film version depicts her life. When I ask Strayed whether she was terrified of seeing her own biography onscreen, she takes a breath. “I should’ve been more afraid! I tend to just be like, 'yeah! Let’s do this!'”
That willingness to take big risks is from the real-life Strayed, who says in both the film and the memoir, “I’m the girl who says yes instead of no.” She trusted the team — Hornby, Witherspoon and Vallée — and they’d invited her into the process.
“When I got scared,” she admits, her voice dropping to a slightly more conspiratorial register, “was right before I saw the first cut of the film. Jean-Marc Vallée invited me to L.A., and I went to the editing suite there, on the Fox Searchlight lot. Before he began playing it, I was thinking, ‘Okay. The stakes are quite high for me here... The stakes are pretty high.’”
One of Strayed’s strengths as a writer is the grace with which she brings readers directly into her experiences — you can feel as she felt. You can sense her thinking, as readily as you can tell whether the room you sit in is hot or cold, humid or dry.
“You literally spend hundreds of pages inside my head, it’s totally interior,” she says. “That’s the thing I love about books the most, it’s the only art form where you can truly enter the mind of another human being…When you’re sitting across the table from somebody, even someone you know very well, you can perceive a lot of things. But you can’t perceive what’s exactly in their mind. And what a writer gets to do, through a character, is tell you!”
While Valleé’s film has a deeply psychological component, working through - and over - the way memory functions, it’s impossible to achieve the precise effect of Strayed’s book in any other medium. Where Valleé’s interpretation has a tendency to, as A.O. Scott put it in the New York Times, “dissolve into montages of memory,” Strayed’s story spins out in your mind exactly like a real memory actually does. When she is overtaken by a recollection of her and her brother attending to the grim business of killing the horse that once belonged to their mother (played so compellingly by Laura Dern in the film) it is you, too, who are overcome. The scene has a different texture In Valleé’s stunning visual treatment; the symbolism weighs a little heavier. Unencumbered with the pedantic details around killing the horse — including the abandoned plans Strayed makes with her stepfather (who didn’t make into the film’s plot) — the sight of the animal’s blood steaming the snow is married, instead, to the inside of Cheryl’s little tent as the mountain ran drips in.
“Let’s put it this way - film needs conflict more than literatures does,” Strayed says. “I had to really understand that I had written a book, and that was my artistic vision. And that the film was someone else’s.” Even so, it’s the moments where the film most closely depicts her life, and her book, that move Strayed the most.
“Like, the way I found my mom dead. How I left the hospital on St. Patrick’s day, and came back the next morning, and my mom was dead. The absolute only thing that’s different between that scene and what happened in real life — I’ve never told anyone this, I’ve never even told Jean-Marc Valleé this — is that the way that Laura [Dern]’s body in bed is pushed against the wall facing one way, my mom was facing the opposite way.”
Strayed pauses now, her voice coming back a little softer. “I approached my mom from her right side, and in the movie, Reese approaches her from the left side. Every time I watch that scene, I just cry, because it’s so real. It’s a vivid memory in my life, and it’s just like it was.”