Same Story, Different Title
What do Sean Penn’s _Into the Wild_ and M. Night Shyamalan’s _The Sixth Sense_ have in common? Much more than you would probably think.
Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, Cyrano de Bergerac and Roxanne—the history of storytelling contains stories that, although different in subject matter and approach, are supported by the same basic story structure. The Main Characters in these stories work through the same kinds of personal issues while their plots tick along to the beat of the same drummer.
You know that feeling you get when you’re watching a movie and you say to yourself Wait a second! I’ve seen this before!! That’s what we’re talking about here. Strip away the storytelling from the structure of the story and you’ll find the same narrative bones.
So it was with this knowledge that I excitedly began working on this article—an exploration of how two completely different films actually shared the same basic structure. Unfortunately, things do not always work out the way you had hoped. Halfway through writing this, I discovered that the two stories were not exactly the same. There was a small, yet important, difference in how these two films ended structurally.
Still, I had put in too much work into the article to simply let it go. Instead of hitting delete, I decided instead to incorporate the difference as best I could. So think of these two films as almost being exactly the same. Almost.
Similarities Between the Main Characters
Where these two films do coincide is in their depiction of the personal issues affecting their Main Characters. While one is a ghost story and the other is decidedly not, both central characters deal with the same exact thematic material.
Both offer Main Characters who grow into change
Some characters grow into their resolve, while others grow into change. Through his experiences in the Alaskan tundra, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) grows to a point where he can finally claim full ownership of his real name. By signing his real name to the base of his goodbye note, Chris gives proof that he has been changed by his experiences. Beyond the superficial physical differences, the Chris at the end of the film is fundamentally different from the Chris we meet at the beginning.
Likewise, Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) is changed by his experiences with the young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), ultimately growing to a point where he can finally accept his own death. The Malcom who first met Cole could not react to the rolling wedding ring the same way the Malcom at the end did. The blinders had been graciously lifted.
Both feature Main Characters with major chips on their shoulders.
Malcom feels the weight of his own personal issues.
Unlike a character like Scrooge whose problems stem from something he is lacking (charity), Chris and Malcom suffer the weight of some pretty heavy baggage. Chris cannot escape from the poor example of family life that he was exposed to as a child. Those early years inform and compel him to make the problematic choices he makes. In a similar vein, Malcom carries the burden of a failing marriage and his failure with his patient Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg). Both characters share the feeling that if they could somehow get out from underneath it all, everything would be OK.
Both have Main Characters who prefer taking action to solve their problems rather than internalizing them.
Some characters prefer to do their work inside, others outside. Without a doubt Chris is a man of action. Beset by flood waters he burns his remaining supply of cash, removes and trashes the license plate off his car, and begins heading down the open highway.
Malcom is also man of action—preferring to research and investigate the circumstances surrounding Cole’s life instead of contemplating them within his head.[^error]
[^error]: Subsequent analysis of The Sixth Sense found a more accurate understanding of Malcom's personal Main Character Throughline in the Mind Domain. See the Storyform for The Sixth Sense on Subtext.
Both Main Characters prefer using Holistic problem-solving techniques over logical.
Chris’s adventure was an effort to find the connection between things and hopefully figure out how it all fits together. He had no set plan, or step-by-step itinerary before he left. He left everything behind and just went, hoping that somehow just by being out there in that environment, he would find the balance that he felt his life was lacking.
Malcom uses the same kind of technique to solve his problems:
Malcom is not using logic here to figure out what is wrong with Cole. Instead, he’s focusing on improving the relationship between them. There’s no real goal here except to create some equitable balance between the two of them. The magic trick is an attempt to make Malcom seem less like an adult, and more like a friend—someone perhaps Cole might open up to. This is the essence of the holistic problem solver: more interested in the connection between things than the things themselves.
Both stories center around Main Characters who find themselves trapped in a problematic situation.
Chris comes from money—a situation that is intolerable for a young man of his sensibilities, especially with all the chaos and strife occurring in other countries. His solution is to run off to Alaska, to be completely alone, cut off from the outside world and stuck in a world of his own. Ultimately, it is that situation that becomes his undoing.
Similarly, Malcom finds himself trapped in his own problematic situation—stuck between the world of the living and the world of the dead. His body, and the source of his problems, lies in the fact that his body lies in stasis, unable to move on or move back. But unlike Chris, Malcom eventually finds the strength to emerge from this world into a new one.[^mind]
[^mind]: Again, this original analysis is in error. Malcom Crowe's personal issues stem from the belief that he is alive (Main Character Domain of Mind, not that he finds himself trapped in death.
Regardless of the differences in how their stories ended, the source of their personal problems stem from a fixed external situation.
Both Main Characters share concerns with the past, with what was happened.
Chris seems preoccupied with the awful home life he and his sister experienced. Forced to watch his parents bitter fights made Chris himself a bitter person—unworthy of love.
Malcom too suffers the concerns of a problematic past. His own murder comes as a result of his failed treatment of Vincent. That, and the aforementioned problems with his wife contribute to the blindness that keeps Malcom from realizing what is really going on around him.[^memory]
[^memory]: While similar in feel to Chris's Concern of the Past, Malcom's personal problem lies within a Main Character Concern of Memory—namely, that he represses the truth of what happened to him that night.
Both Chris and Malcom find themselves struggling to overcome that which has happened.
Both take a very personal look at thematic issues of dark predictions.
Informed by these bitter pasts, Chris and Malcom find themselves faced with dire predictions of what may come.
Chris can see what is in store for his life and he hates it. Walking past a bustling nightclub in downtown L.A. he spies a young man, almost the same age and in a suit and tie, smiling and laughing it up with his buddies. Chris begins to imagine himself in that same suit and tie with that same smarmy smile. Disgusted with the thought of what his life could be he immediately leaves town.
Likewise, Malcom shares the same issues what he thinks is going to happen. His marriage is headed for a divorce (or at the very least, his wife is headed for an affair) and there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do about it to make amends. The future looks dark for both of these principal characters.[^evidence]
[^evidence]: Malcom's real issue is a Main Character Issue of Evidence—regardless of what he finds thrown in front of him, he continually ignores it for fear of unravelling his own personal justifications.
Both Main Characters suffer from matters of perception.
Both Chris and Malcom think they know what is going on, but they really don’t. Chris is boisterously confident in his belief that life is best lived alone, that only simpletons and confused people would want to engage in relationships. This perception of how things work is the source of all the problems in his personal life.
Malcom too suffers from his own problems of perception: he thinks he’s still alive. Cole, of course, knows the real answer but also knows that he can’t come right out and say it. Like Chris, the way Malcom thinks things seem to be causes him the greatest amount of personal pain.
Similarities Within Plot
Having shown how thematically similar both Chris and Malcom are, attention now shifts towards plot. While from a personal perspective the two films are almost identical, objectively the two stories are 75% the same.
Both stories move along as a result of actions that happen, not because of decisions.
While Chris makes some monumentally bad decisions, they all come as a result of being forced to by actions that occur. The flash flood, the discovery of the bus, the beating by the railroad guy, and the killing of the moose all propel the plot of this story forward. The rushing water blocking his return to civilization is what finally pushes this story towards its fateful climax.
The Sixth Sense also finds itself governed by actions. Vincent’s shooting of Malcom, Cole’s imprisonment by the bullies at the birthday party, and the discovery of the murderous mother all move the plot forward. Ultimately it’s only when Cole reveals to his mother that yes, she makes her mother proud “everyday” that the story finally comes to a close.
Which brings us to the major difference between the two stories.
The Major Difference
As mentioned in the opening to this article, I started out believing these two films were exactly the same structurally. In my original analysis I felt that, although it was tragic what happened to Chris, the story itself seemed to be a resounding success. Chris set out to understand the meaning of life and he found it. Not only that, he found the ability to overcome his own personal issues with his family name.
But something still didn’t feel right. I couldn’t resolve my analysis with the feeling that there was some tragedy to his story, beyond what obviously happened.
The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, failed to share any of these tragic properties. Malcom, Cole’s mother, they all finally figure out what was really going on with Cole—that he really could see dead people. And of course, Malcom resolved his own angst with his wife and his own death. Both personal and impersonal were resolved.
This is where my original analysis of Into The Wild began to break down.
It all comes down to whether or not one interprets Chris’s quest to Alaska a success or a failure. Personally, or I guess you could say spiritually, Chris’s quest was a success—that can’t be denied. But there was still the matter of that “bittersweet” ending to the story, that feeling of joy mixed with tragedy. As I started to really think about it and after I ran some of my notes by story theorist Chris Huntley, I began to realize that the two stories weren’t exactly the same. The explanation?
One was a Triumph story, while the other was merely a Personal Triumph story.[^virtue]
[^virtue]: Personal Triumph stories can also be understood as Stories of Virtue.
Triumph vs. Personal Triumph
Triumphs and Personal Triumphs are just two of the ways a meaningful story can end. Both stories feature Main Characters who come away resolved, triumphant in overcoming their own personal angst. The article How To End a Movie covers Triumphs in greater detail, while Writing the Personal Triumph naturally covers the second. The main difference lies between whether the story at large ended successfully or ended up a dismal failure.
The Sixth Sense ends in a resounding Triumph—everyone comes to realize why Cole is acting so strange: he really can see dead people. Into the Wild, on the other hand, ends with only a Personal Triumph—Chris succumbs to starvation before he can make his way back to civilization.
Why was his return so important?
If you look at Chris’s role in the story as Protagonist—the prime mover of the story—the kid with the wanderlust, you can see that his trip to Alaska was indeed an effort to understand what life was all about. But is was key that he bring that understanding back to the world. Everyone in the film was concerned with Chris’s journey of understanding. Even his family, who we rarely see, had a part in this larger story. His newfound understanding meant nothing without being able to share it with those he knew.
After all—that was what he discovered wasn’t it? That true happiness only exists when it is shared.
This is what his real-life mother Billie and father Walt had to say when interviewed by Outside Magazine:
BILLIE: Chris did not understand or agree with the way the world was going, and he wanted to change it. He wanted to change it since the beginning of high school. WALT: He wanted to change it as a little boy. BILLIE: He also understood that to change things you needed to understand them. And he wanted to learn about life from the ground up.
From this perspective it is easy to see that Chris, in his role as a Protagonist, failed in achieving the goal he set out for. Malcom, in his role as Protagonist, succeeded. He was able to share what he had found.
The interesting part here is that both Protagonists were searching for the same kind of goal: namely, some kind of understanding. Again—polar opposites in subject matter, kissing cousins in story structure.
Personally Chris overcame much (which we’ll get into in a second), but overall he failed in his attempt to bring that understanding back into the world. This is why Into The Wild feels so bittersweet. On the one hand we have Chris failing to make it back home with his newfound knowledge; on the other we have him ascending gleefully out of this world.
Which brings us to the last, and probably most emotionally fulfilling similarity between these two films.
Ending on a High Note
Both Main Characters find resolution to their own personal angst by finally realizing what is actually going on.
As mentioned previously, both Chris and Malcom suffered from problems of perception. Malcom had the “he’s really dead” issue while Chris had the feeling that all relationships were toxic. Chris constantly fought with his father and refused to accept that he himself had any connection with what he considered a horrible man. He went so far as to completely change his identity, taking on the name “Alexander Supertramp” in an effort to erase any last semblance of his previous life. His perception of himself blinded him to the truth he was so desperately seeking.
In this way it is easy to see that these two Main Characters were suffering through the weight of the same kind of personal baggage. And in a continuance of that similarity, both found transformational relief in what was really going on.
Malcom, of course, discovered that he had been dead the whole time. And we, sharing that surprise with him, were able to experience one of the greatest twists in cinema history. With this new appreciation of reality, Malcom was finally able to move on.
Chris found the ability to move on as well. Signing his real name to the bottom of that letter signified that he was finally at peace with all that had happened to him. No longer would he be driven by this perception he wanted people to have of him; to be identified as “Alexander Supertramp.” His personal issues dissipated the moment he accepted the reality that he lived in—the reality of who he truly was—Chris McCandless.
Triumph of the Heart
So there you have it—an exhaustive look into the similarities between the structures of these two films. Again, the analysis didn’t work out quite as wonderfully as I had originally hoped but I think there can be some great insight gained into how two completely different films were built upon very similar story structures. If Chris had somehow managed to find a way back across that river than my original intentions for this article would have ended in a resounding success.
As it were though, Chris did not. But in the tragedy of that failure came a personal triumph that was more meaningful than any comparative story analysis. Into the Wild failed to share the same commercial success that The Sixth Sense did, but scrimped not in the telling of an emotionally compelling and complete story.
Filmmakers and writers everywhere would agree, that is all the triumph one needs.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
This section assumes a working knowledge of the Dramatica theory of story.
When you examine the kinds of problems that can beset a character you find that they’re either internal or external, changing or static. These four combine to give you four different ways of looking at a problem: externally static, internally static, externally changing, or internally changing.
The heart of what really creates problems for both of these Main Characters lies in the fixed external world, or if you prefer, a problematic situation.
It is interesting too to point out that both films feature Male Main Characters who solve problems holistically. For the most part, Male Main Characters solve problems logically, using typically Male problem-solving techniques. When the techniques differs from the gender, as it does in both these films, the story as a whole will feel strange and a little off the norm. This is not necessarily a good thing – sometimes going with the less obvious is enough to peak interest and uniqueness in the film.
Similar storyform elements: MC Resolve: Change, MC Growth: Stop,MC Mental Sex: Female, Story Driver: Action, Story Continuum: Spacetime, and Story Judgment: Good.
The difference, as described above, is the Story Outcome which is Success in The Sixth Sense and Failure in Into the Wild.