Sean Penn/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
The wilderness survival story has spent the past 200 years biding its time in the literary margins, making way for the flash and flourish of its cousins in literary fiction and the headline-grabbing allure of memoirs about recovering from dysfunctional families and/or drugs. But over the past decade or so, these nonfiction firsthand accounts of mother nature’s endurance tests have had a late-blooming surge in popularity, summiting bestseller lists with ease and capturing the pop cultural imagination.
Hollywood has been particularly keen to answer this collective call of the wild, snatching up the rights to true tales of doing battle with the elements, both recent and classic. A few months back, Reese Witherspoon began developing a film based on Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling account of hiking 1,100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail. Then Peter Sarsgaard announced he’d make his debut as a writer-director with Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, a compulsively readable ethnography of life among the tribe of Tarahumara Indians who have turned long distance running into an art form and sacred ritual. And just yesterday came the news that Sean Penn, who last ventured into this woodsy terrain via the adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, has enlisted for a second tour of duty in the man v. wild battle field with an adaptation of Crazy for the Storm, Norman Ollestad’s incredible story of becoming the sole survivor, at age eleven, of a mountaintop plane crash that killed his father and his treacherous descent back to civilization.
This flurry of films based on harrowing true tales set in the great outdoors will arrive long after this back-to-nature movement first took hold on TV, catapulting “Survivor” to the top of ratings charts and the likes of Bear Grylls and Survivorman Les Stroud to cult hero status.
So what’s fueling this progression of nature memoirs from the page to screens big and small? We’d be willing to bet that in a time as technologically baroque as this one, where most of the industrialized world spends increasingly more time staring at screens and processing the world through mediated and virtual experiences, the physical world, with its attendant danger and soul-cleansing beauty, has acquired an increasingly exotic allure. There is also something primally appealing about the prospect of spending one’s days grappling with solving real-world problems related to staying alive rather than the manufactured woes that stoke our stress levels and drive our desire to escape into alternate realities — drug, alcohol, or Hollywood-induced.
In some ways, this spate of wilderness survival memoirs has come along just when we need it most to soothe the savage, sedentary beasts we’ve become. As longtime devotees of this genre, this seems like an opportune time to serve up our top ten favorite true tales of surviving the elements. (Disclaimer: This list is limited to relatively recently published works and not meant to include classics, like Thoreau’s Walden.) Naturally, we invite you to offer your thoughts on our choices and weigh in with your own.
1. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
2. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
2. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
3. Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollstead
4. The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
5. Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan
6. Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase
7. Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
8. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
9. Four Corners by Kira Salak
10. West with the Night by Beryl Markham