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Reese Witherspoon Isn’t Nice or Wholesome in Wild, and That’s What Makes It Great

9 minute read

One of the many quotes that graces the screen during Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling eponymous 2012 memoir, comes from Joni Mitchell’s 1971 song “California.” “Will you take me as I am? Will you?” the lyrics go — Mitchell and Strayed, by proxy, pleading for acceptance from the Golden State. How Strayed was, at least when she set out to hike 1,100 miles on California’s Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 1995, was this: Still mourning her mother’s death from cancer four years earlier. Newly divorced from a man she loved but hurt anyway, sleeping with almost any guy who wasn’t him. And one day clean from a drug habit that had evolved from relatively harmless experimentation to shooting heroin.

So when Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, asks if California will take her as she is, she’s also asking us, the audience. Will we take this foul-mouthed, cheating, destructive woman who refuses to apologize for the ways in which her grief has turned her inside out?

Witherspoon, who spearheaded and produced the adaptation, took on the project in large part because of Strayed’s unbridled honesty. “I’m really proud of how brave Cheryl was to tell the whole truth and even the parts that are maybe hard for people to digest,” she said in an interview. And she promised Strayed she would honor that truth. In an interview with Kathryn Schulz in New York Magazine, Strayed recalls when Witherspoon approached her about making the movie. “She said, ‘I promise you I will get this movie made quickly, and I will protect you, and I will honor you,’” Strayed quotes Witherspoon. “‘I will make this a film that we are all proud of, and I will not turn you into some dumbass chick on the trail complaining about her muffin top.’” And though Witherspoon clearly had a personal stake in taking on Wild — developing a rich and complex role for herself, which has already generated Oscar buzz among critics — the adaptation has broader implications when it comes to the hotly-debated topic of just how likable female characters must be.

The likability of female characters in literature has been discussed almost ad nauseum, at least with regard to fiction. There’s enough material, surely, to fill a college syllabus on the topic (professors, take note). To summarize recent arguments: Last year, novelist Claire Messud called out a Publisher’s Weekly interviewer for labeling one of the characters in The Woman Upstairs “grim,” a poor candidate for friendship. Messud responded emphatically that we don’t expect friendship material of male characters written by male authors. Meg Wolitzer, the critically-acclaimed author of The Interestings, called fiction with characters who are “stand-ins for your best friends” a “disturbing trend.”

Bristling at these remarks, author Jennifer Weiner, whose body of work consists largely of books with sympathetic heroines, wrote a defense of likable characters. Writing about the phenomenon onscreen, Slate’s Willa Paskin suggested that the whole debate had confused the meaning of the word itself. “Likability is often used as a synonym for nice and safe and dull,” she wrote, “but that’s a corruption of the word: Who really likes that?”

For all the quibbling around female characters in fiction, likability is less often discussed in the realm of memoir, where the writer chooses not how plucky or prickly her protagonist gets to be, but only how much of her own unsavory past to disclose. The reader’s experience is similar — in both fiction and nonfiction, they must ask themselves whether they wish to spend 300 pages (or two hours at the movies) with the protagonist (or antagonist, as the case may be). But in memoir, there’s an implicit agreement between writer and reader that the writer isn’t going to gloss over transgressions and sugarcoat shortcomings. And in confessional writing, a classification some might assign to Wild, that soul-baring quality generates a kinship with readers. As Strayed explained to Schulz, memoirs can be solipsistic if they shy away from the truth. “But if you go into that deep truth,” she says, “you aren’t talking about yourself. You are talking about what it is to be human.”

For Wild to work as a movie, and for confessional memoir to pack the same punch onscreen as it does on the page, honesty must trump likability. Empathy, if the audience ends up having it for Strayed, is a result of the character’s wholeness, not her wholesomeness. Witherspoon needed to play Strayed as raw and shattered by grief as she is in the book. She had to refrain from smoothing over the rough edges in an effort to make this the kind of film families head to the theater to watch after Christmas dinner. She says she eschews the notion that she’s “America’s sweetheart,” and this role, perhaps more than any other, required her to distance herself from that title.

And she did. Witherspoon’s Strayed is, at times, even more abrasive and defiant than the Strayed in the book. In a flashback to a pre-hike session with a therapist, Witherspoon’s Strayed spews vitriol at the therapist that, in the book, is contained to internal monologue. In the movie, a scene in which she finds out she’s pregnant results in a screaming fight with an exasperated friend, whereas Strayed on the page responds to the news with tears of desperation. In keeping with the source material, she doesn’t hold back with the expletives. Even her spiritual doctrine is that “God is a ruthless bitch.”

That Witherspoon’s Strayed is sometimes more caustic than the real Strayed may be attributed, in part, to the movie’s need to dramatize flashbacks and memories recalled in reflective prose. But it’s also a deliberate choice that favors the unedited mess over the bright-eyed Pollyanna. Whether, as a character, Strayed is likable is less important than whether she is real: complicated and fallible, sexual and empowered, unrepentant for the past and uncertain of the future. This movie doesn’t work without the brokenness, because it’s all about the hike to healing.

At the same time, although she is distancing herself from it, there is one way in which Witherspoon’s sweetheart credibility makes the story successful onscreen. The memoir is narrated by the early-40s Strayed looking back on her 26-year-old self. She has the benefits of hindsight and maturity to make her more palatable as a narrator than the younger Strayed is as a character. In the movie, we don’t have this older, wiser narrator. There is some voiceover, but the narrator and character in the book are essentially blended into one in the form of Witherspoon. Lacking the guidance of Strayed version 2.0, it helps to have an actress who is generally liked by the public to soften — if only slightly — the image of the younger Strayed.

But what makes Wild the movie more remarkable, in some ways, than Wild the book, is the fact that it got made at all. Confessional memoirs written by women are always susceptible to criticism (see: Lena Dunham, Katha Pollitt, Elizabeth Wurtzel). But there’s nevertheless a sizable market for them (see, again: Lena Dunham, Katha Pollitt, Elizabeth Wurtzel). It’s a much bigger risk, financially speaking, to turn these women into characters on the big screen. Whereas Strayed received a modest advance for her memoir, the movie had a budget of $5 million — not exactly the $250 million The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies had to play with, but not a paltry sum, either. It’s a large wager to gamble on the possibility that would-be moviegoers might be put off by a heroine who is, in the words of one Amazon reviewer who likely won’t be purchasing a ticket, “self-indulgent, whiny, promiscuous,” and “lacking a moral compass of any kind.”

We’ve certainly seen thorny female characters driving successful movies in recent years: Gravity’s Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya (Jessica Chastain) and The Hunger Games trilogy’s Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), to name a few. But these movies all had other draws: Gravity’s stunning computer generated images of space, Zero Dark Thirty’s patriotic appeal, the heart-stopping action of The Hunger Games. In Wild, aside from some beautiful shots of the trail and a stellar supporting performance by Laura Dern as Strayed’s mother, Witherspoon’s Strayed, likable or not, is pretty much the whole show.

The never fully realized Bridesmaids effect — the hope that that movie’s box office success would lead to a trove of female-driven comedies — suggests that it’s not safe to assume that a box office windfall for Wild will singlehandedly turn the tide for female-driven dramas. Of course, there are other issues at play — most notably the dismal statistic that only 16 percent of those behind the camera in Hollywood (including writers, directors and producers) are women. Even Wild was written and directed by men (Nick Hornby and Jean-Marc Vallée, respectively). But perhaps a repeat of Bridesmaids’ success will compound the message it only partially succeeded in transmitting: that female-driven movies sell tickets.

In the end, the movie itself is not about whether California will take Strayed as she is, but whether she will take herself as she is, healing her wounds through self-acceptance. And if audiences hope to see more fully formed female characters onscreen, it is we who must take her as she is — all the way to the box office, and in droves.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com