In 1923, renowned British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” His reply was: “Because it’s there.”
Stories of Everest climbs are no longer as scarce as they were in Mallory’s days, but few are as heartwrenching as the account written by Jon Krakauer after the expedition in 1996, which turned out to be one of the most memorable disasters in the mountain’s recent history.
Not that there have been few of those: the mountain has claimed over 250 lives since people began trying to scale its peak. But I guess the story told by the film, based on Krakauer’s famous book Into Thin Air, is the best known from that era (that’s what happens when you take a journalist on an expedition with you!).
It’s not an easy subject to translate into a film, so I really wasn’t sure what I would feel about this adaptation. I have a tendency to get very irritated with film adaptations that don’t reflect the book the way I think it needs to be represented, and that was definitely a possibility with this one. Then of course there’s the fear that the director, Baltasar Kormákur, won’t have the faintest idea about the compulsion to climb and conquer mountains, and will therefore miss the whole point of the story.
I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed the way I thought I would be, and I walked away from the cinema with a renewed yearning for high altitude – a dubious response to such a tragic story, I agree, but I’m a climber, so I knew that would happen.
Of course, I have issues with some elements of the film, that’s not to be avoided. I wasn’t convinced by the character of Scott Fischer, for example – the lack of exposure he got on screen, the way his character wasn’t allowed to develop and flourish, and even, frankly, the choice of actor. I also felt some other parts of the story were dropped after an initial mention, making them a bit redundant (the sub-story with the South African team, for example) – either commit to it, or leave it, I would say.
But that’s by the by, because despite its commercialisation and the typical Hollywood over-sentimentalising, the film nearly made me cry by the end, and that’s despite me knowing the story. I think the tragedy of the 1996 climb is so powerful, and the mistakes we see in hindsight so painful to watch, that it almost doesn’t matter how well the film is made.
That sounds like I’m belittling the efforts of the director though, but that is not at all my intention. He did a lot of things right. He stuck to Krakauer’s account of the story, which in my opinion is the key. He succeeded in creating a spectacle out of the words on the page that almost makes the viewer feel the crippling cold, headaches and lack of oxygen up above 27,000 feet, and he managed to create at least some likable characters.
The over-sentimental tone of the film, though perhaps not quite in the spirit of mountaineering, is necessary to translate the story into something accessible to the masses, and not just the relative minority of mountaineers sitting in the cinema and feeling chilled to the bone by the mere images of the cold, unwelcoming mountain terrain. The over-reliance on family stories sort of fits in. And anyway, that family connection and the painful connection to ‘real life’ was a key and memorable part of the book for me, it may just have been exaggerated somewhat in the screen adaptation.
I loved the humanity of the film, the personal heartbreak it lays bare, the sacrifices made to the mountain and the difficulty of managing inter-human relations on an expedition like this. The human error that always becomes our undoing.
When I criticise, I do so because it is in my nature to be over-critical, and because I see it from the point of the view of a climber that has often contemplated what it would be like to “do” Everest.
And I doubt I’ll ever stop wondering, but I also doubt I’ll ever let the compulsion drive me to the top of an 8,000m peak.
Everest is too expensive and commercialised anyway, but that’s not it. There are plenty of other 8,000-ers I could work towards. But the stakes are just too high.
For me, I think that’s what this story is ultimately about.