Screenplay by Nick Hornby; book by Cheryl Strayed
By Jess Walter
This “Wild” is a beautiful thing: haunting, honest, profound.
And it gave me an idea: I should write a book in which I propose there are two ways to adapt a book into a film.
The first I’ll call the Bob Seger (“What to leave in; what to leave out” — “Against the Wind”), where a team of writers cuts a lot, adds a little, combines some characters, changes the “slightly doughty housewife” to “a sexy ex-spy,” and answers endless rounds of notes (“What if she’s still a spy?”).
The second I’ll call the Bob Dylan (“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.” — “Not Dark Yet”). In the workshops I’ll teach ($4,000 per person, no refunds) I will admit I don’t have a clue how to do the Dylan, except to convey the actual pain (or joy) behind the beautiful thing.
Thankfully, I will have an example of the Dylan Method to show: “Wild.”
“Wild” features most of the elements those endless notes are supposed to weed out — solitude, regret, obsession, subtlety, memory. Time swirls and loops, and emotion is expressed in monologue, in voiceover, in the quiet contemplation of nature. “Finish the sentence,” Cheryl tells her ex-husband, launching the story. “Why do I have to walk a thousand miles?”
That’s the kind of suspense that drives real life, and which comes to us in this film through moments of unexpected kindness, revelations of sorrow, songs that stick in our heads, and ultimately, an earned grace.
We use the word “faithful” to describe a proper adaptation. Faith isn’t a thing to screw around with. People loved the book because they connected with Cheryl Strayed’s journey, with her self-destruction and salvation. This script and film take that journey along a new, vital and lovely path.
“You can put yourself in the way of beauty,” Cheryl’s mother says to her in the film. Which brings me back to my first thought: This “Wild” is a beautiful thing.
Jess Walter is the author of eight books, most recently, the New York Times No. 1 bestseller, “Beautiful Ruins,” and the story collection “We Live in Water.”