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From the Road Movie to Wilderness Travel: The Quest for Adventure on the Road and the Myth of the Heroic Traveller

Pascale Argod
Traduction de Université Bretagne Occidentale
Cet article est une traduction de :
Du road movie au « voyage sauvage » : la quête d’aventure sur la route et le mythe du voyageur héroïque [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Do road movie a "viagem selvagem": a busca de aventura na estrada e o mito do viajante heróico [pt]


The conceptions of ‘wild’, as addressed in fictional travel diary films, question our relationship with space and the form of travel that gives rise to self-transcendence through a confrontation with the environment. The lived experience of the journey of discovery (adventure, exploration, expedition) defines the travel diary genre, which has become an off-the-beaten-track tourism medium. The reference points for two American travel diary films Into the Wild (2007), written and directed by Sean Penn, and Wild (2014, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, are Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the American pioneer front. These films mark a generation of travel diarists in search of the dream and anti-travel. The return to the wild, as a cultural confrontation, formative journey and self-transcendence, is said to shape the travel diary genre, which takes the form of either a piece of self writing or an autobiographical film (sometimes called a biopic) on the experience of travelling. We thus extend the road movie genre to robinsonades and films on the experience of a natural environment. The aesthetics of the image, panoramic landscape and grandeur of nature are thought to be a legacy of the notions of ‘picturesqueness’ and the ‘pioneer front’, while the renewed myths of both the wandering hero (Benoliel, 2011) and the quest for a new world seem to have developed from the literary references of On the Road and the Beat Generation’s ‘Beat ethos’.

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1The dream of being a traveller rather than a tourist (Urbain, 1991) is nurtured by the myth of travelling to ‘terrae incognitae’. This is a paradoxical dream, however, in this age of satellite and digital technology and mass tourism. The film viewer’s tourist trips contrast with the filmmaker diarist’s out-of-the-ordinary or extreme travels. The voyage of discovery myth and the attraction of adventure and travel stories explain the popularity of the audiovisual travel diary genre. Defining this new genre (Argod, 2011) means adopting a new point of view with regard to the increase in audiovisual production since 2012, which seems to have gone beyond a quest for authenticity to mediatise extreme travel. In France, the myth of the contemporary hero and this taste for exceptional travel are in line with the French geographical tradition that emerged with the creation of the Société de Géographie in 1821. This tradition has been revived with the popularity of self-transcendence and out-of-the-ordinary travel adventures, whether on foot, bicycle or snow sleigh. The Rendez-vous du carnet de voyage de Clermont-Ferrand1 offers some good examples of this. However, what does the way in which it is presented in the cinema teach us about tourism and the traveller figure? How does cinema influence off-the-beaten-track tourism (Argod, 2016)? How do filmmaker diarists mediatise out-of-the-ordinary and extreme travel? The reference points for the two American travel diary films Into the Wild (2007)2, written and directed by Sean Penn, and Wild (2015), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, are Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the American pioneer front. These two films have proved very popular with the younger generation, who are open to mobility, film tourism (Tzanelli, 2007) and new tourism territories (Delaplace and Gravari-Barbas, 2017), such as Alaska. The success in America of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, corroborated the two awards received by the film in 2008 (the Golden Globe Award and the Lumières Award) as well as the box office ticket sales in France of 1,245,920 and the US box office receipts of 56.82 million US dollars (slightly higher than the 52.5 million US dollars for the film Wild)3.

  • 4 See the mind map and filmography in Argod’s 2011 article in the issue on ‘Le ciné-tourisme’, edited (...)

2In The Art of Sketching: 400 Years of Travel Diaries (Argod, 2014), we see how each diarist contributes to developing the genre, which varies according to their appropriation of reality, their experience of travel, their personal experience, their relationship to others and to the environment, their experience of the camera, their practice regarding reporting in images and their creativity in contact with the environment. In short, their vision of the world. In 2011, we envisaged six versions of the film genre4:

  • The mythical route to India: birth of the travel diary (Roberto Rossellini, Louis Malle, Pierre Brouwers)

  • The trial (Robert Kramer, Bernard Henri Lévy, Michko Netchak, etc.)

  • Inspirational film sketches (Pier Paolo Passolini, Wim Wenders, etc.)

  • The literary form (Chris Marker, Frédéric Mitterrand, Bernard Giraudeau, Patrice Leconte, Frédéric Leclerc with Jean d’Ormesson, etc.)

  • Ethnology and cinéma vérité (Robert Flaherty, Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin, etc.)

  • Reportage (Dziga Vertov, Chris Marker, Jean-Claude Bringuier, Raymond Depardon, etc.)

  • The scientific expedition (Haroun Tazieff, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Jean-Louis Etienne, Patrice Franceschi, Christian Clot, various members of the Société des Explorateurs Français, etc.).

3In this article, we would like to elucidate how the journey of discovery seems to determine a typology of travel diaries compiled in a defined corpus5. In what way is the notion of ‘extreme travel’, in terms of both discovering a hostile physical environment and adapting to a different human environment, inherent in the audiovisual travel diary? Does its mediatisation feed the imagination of the traveller and the tourist in their anthropological or geographical quest? How can we follow the touristic trajectory of a place (Gravari-Barbas and Grabum, 2012) or a particular type of natural space, the wild, through an analysis of imaginations and their ideological, aesthetic, philosophical and political foundations? ‘Touristic imagination and the tourist’s imagination are one and the same thing, because the tourist is at once the producer of imagination and an imagined element themselves’6. These questions emerged after the Carnets de voyage were broadcast in 2008 on the French television programme Envoyé Spécial7 on France 2, which has devoted the audiovisual and television genre to off-the-beaten-track tourism since July 20128. So, what is the touristic mediation that disseminates the audiovisual travel diary?

I. The notions of extreme travel, the wild and the journey of discovery as catalysts for mediation in the travel diary genre

4The travel diaries circulated in France on television channels, documentaries and personal accounts aim to provide access to out-of-the-ordinary travel that examines human experiences in hostile or wild environments and to promote a tourism mediation that advocates off-the-beaten-track travel in the ‘backstage’ sense, in other words discovering the reconstructed environments or secret places that lie behind the scenes of the established tourism locations (Maitland, 2013). These two conceptions of extreme or wild travel, which are addressed in both fictional travel diary films and television documentary travel diaries, question not only our relationship with reality and discovery but also the form of travel itself, including the environment or nature as defined by the senses, the means of locomotion and the traveller’s cultural and mythical references. While the travel diary itself valorises cultural confrontation (Argod, 2011), the intermediality of the genre seems to orient the travel diary film towards transcending wild or hostile environments. Extreme spaces are indeed the subject of films focusing on out-of-the-ordinary climatic conditions, unpopulated desert areas, predatory wildlife and the risk of death, providing a window onto the instinct to survive in these natural environments. This valorisation of extreme travel concerns the type of travel as well as its purpose. Would immersion in the wild, as a ‘natural’ rather than a cultural shock, share similarities with a cultural confrontation or an encounter with the Other? Does extreme travel involve the ‘extime’, a neologism coined by Tournier (2002) to refer to a private response to the grandeur of an external environment? What off-the-beaten-track adventure is the film diarist looking for, and in what way does it reference the myth of the heroic journey? How can the travel diary genre be redefined? And how can the characteristics and typology of the genre be refined with regard to the notions of extreme, the wild or wilderness, nature, adventure, truth, authenticity and off the beaten track? How do these notions feed the traveller’s imagination and hence that of the tourist, because it means engaging in a ‘tourism without geographical or physical limits in order to go beyond symbolic, imaginary or cultural limits’ (Lemasson and Violier, 2010) or, put simply, going ‘off the beaten tracks’ (MacCannell, 1976)?

5The travel diary genre, which takes the form of either self writing or an autobiographical film on the experience of travel (sometimes called a ‘biopic’), seems to be shaped by a relationship with nature and the requirement for a ‘lived journey’. We thus extend the road movie genre, which ‘combines locomotion and mediamotion within a specific cultural mobility’ (Moser, 2008), to robinsonades and films on the experience of a natural environment, such as maritime films (for example, Joachim Ronning’s 2012 Kon Tiki, Christophe Offenstein’s 2013 Turning Tide, J.C. Chandor’s 2013 All is Lost), mountain films (for example, Kevin Macdonald’s 2003 Touching the Void, Abel Ferry’s 2009 High Lane, Philipp Stolzl’s 2008 North Face) and walking films (Emilio Estevez’s 2010 The Way, Danny Boyle’s 2010 127 Hours, Priscilla Telmon’s 2012 Voyage au Tibet Interdit). It is worth noting that, in France in 2016, there were approximately fifteen film festivals focused on nature and the environment, eleven festivals specialising in mountain films9, three well-known festivals on maritime films10 and more than a dozen on adventure films, that is around forty festivals in all. If we also take extreme travel into account, the filmography11 would include some survival (or disaster) films and epics that tell the story of the life force of characters who help individuals fulfil their destiny by sometimes transforming society. The diversity of film genres12 could actually be defined according to their relationship to nature, hence the road movie, the robinsonade, the maritime film, the mountain film, the walking film, the survival or disaster film, and so on. The two American travel diary films mentioned above, Into the Wild and Wild, have moved the travel diary genre into the same literary heritage bracket as Kerouac’s On the Road, the American pioneer front and the myth of the journey of discovery and adventure.

  • 13 Claire Omhover. ‘Quelques reconfigurations contemporaines du “wilderness” dans la fiction et les ar (...)

Where harsh climate, remoteness and limited means of communication have contributed to preserving a ‘Wilderness’, this ‘Wilderness’ has become inextricably linked to the mixed sense of belonging and alienness that defines the Canadians’ relationship with nature.13

  • 14 Translation from Old English.

6Participating in the ‘wilderness’ myth (Depraz and Héritier, 2012), the territory of wild animals14 and the ambivalence of unspoiled or wild nature (Larrere, 1997), these two road movies play on the aesthetics of the image, from the panoramic landscape to the picturesque grandeur of nature. This is a trademark of the travel diary. It must inspire awe in the viewer through the poetic emotions it arouses, which are specific to the picturesqueness, in reference both to Jack London (The Call of the Wild, published in 1903) and to geopoetics (White, 1994). The myths of the travelling hero and the quest for a new world are renewed here, particularly in the road movies, because a spiritual and temporal experience is just as important as the lived spatial experience. It is an inner experience, a one-way journey during which the protagonist searches deep within themselves through contact with the ‘extime’. It is a quest that is more temporal than geographical. In the road movie, openness to the intercultural is ‘foundational to the very matrix of the genre. The fact that the protagonist is leaving everything behind, moving towards the unknown and facing radical contingencies can translate into a particularly open disposition for encountering the cultural Other and other cultures’ (Moser, 2008). In addition, there is the quest for the wild in the travel diary genre. Exploration expands the limits not only of geographical knowledge but also of self-transcendence and personal achievement. However, ‘the logic of the extreme’ is, according to Baudry (1996), all relative and a function of the notion of ‘the extreme body’ (Baudry, 1991): ‘This transcendence only ever means an improvement of this same world, limited to the same sameness’. We might therefore wonder how this medium can be relevant in expanding the horizon of ‘extreme’ knowledge and exploration.

II. Two contemporary road movies about the wild that have inspired a generation of travel diarists in search of the dream and anti-travel

7Galvanised by the success of Sean Penn’s 2007 film Into the Wild, the director Jean-Marc Vallée released Wild in 2015. Wild is a biopic of an adventurous traveller, inspired by the Charlie Starkweather character in Terrence Malick’s 1973 Badlands. The quest for these extreme journeys has rejuvenated the road movie genre by creating a travel diary genre that is closer to reality and the autobiographical, to the lived experience of travel. Backpacking tourists love to visit the Magic Bus in Alaska made famous in Into the Wild (see Reportages Découverte, broadcast on Saturday, 2 July 2016 at 1:30 pm on the French TV channel TF115, plus various travellers’ blogs, including the Alaska forum on Routard.com16). Film-induced tourism (Beeton, 2005, 2016) is therefore a consequence of Into the Wild’s reputation as one of the top ten adventure films, according to film critics. It is indeed a hymn to freedom, to roaming without a vehicle17 and to discovering the American West (cf. the Klondike Gold Rush, which Jack London participated in in 1897). Above all, it is a critique of the materialism of existence. It also references adaptations (examples include D.W. Griffith’s 1908 film, William A. Wellman’s 1935 film and Ken Annakin’s 1972 film) of Jack London’s novel The Call of the Wild, which showcases Yukon’s wild landscape. The gold rush of the late 19th century is transposed into a quest for unspoiled landscape and a return to nature, for osmosis with the nurturing and identity-affirming Mother Earth. In Into the Wild, we find the same motivations as those of backpackers (Lachance, 2015), namely the search for a sense of freedom, the quest for authenticity, the ability to adapt and to put oneself to the test and a sometimes relative originality (Le Bigot, 2016). Literary references, including Tolstoy, London and Thoreau, are present from the very beginning of the film. Indeed, this biopic about Christopher J. McCandless (who died in 1992), the hero of the biographical novel Into the Wild written by Jon Krakauer in 1996, is peppered with quotations from Henry D. Thoreau, who retired to nature in 1844 to seek the truth that leads society astray. Thoreau’s two-year experience, which he recounted in Walden; or, Life in the Woods, was at the source of the transcendentalist movement, which believed in the superiority of intuition over reason and militated for the freedom to think, be and act18. Hence, the film Into the Wild references Lord Byron (1788-1824) in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818, Canto IV, Verse 178): ‘There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society where none intrudes, By the deep Sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less, but Nature more’. Constructed in four chapters, Birth, Adolescence, Adulthood and Accessing Wisdom, the film’s narrative turns the journey into a quest for self-discovery and self-construction, as revealed by the protagonist’s pseudonym, Alexander Supertramp. In his own words,

8The main thing is, it’s not how far you go but how you get there... (Back translated from French) Give me truth [...] I read somewhere how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong [...] The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

9He wants to leave his life behind to experience the wild and live in the moment, and he keeps track of his journey in his diary (Courant, 2013) and on his camera. He notes his impressions, his emotions and the key words from his quest: ‘the freedom and simple beauty is just too good to pass up’, ‘I will get up, I will orient myself on my compass, I will go for broke’ (Back translated from French), ‘to lose myself in the depths of nature’ (Back translated from French) in order to reach ‘death in full life’ (Back translated from French), the epitaph that concludes the film. During the time he spends in Alaska in the Magic Bus, the wild, the untamed landscape (Floquet, 2012), and the solitude that accompanies this environment reveal their devastating power. They turn him into a predator in order to survive. This contrasts with time spent in society, which can be full of love and spiritual revival. The last words in his journal read ‘Happiness only real when shared’. It is as if he is denouncing the myth of Mother Nature the benefactor as ‘a parable of disenchantment’ (Hubner, 2013). Pétillon elucidated the dialectic of the road, which refers to the idea of both escape and confinement, of being enclosed and being on the run (Pétillon, 1979). The film Wild tells the story of a woman who treks on foot from Mexico to Alaska on a quest to find herself and the meaning of life following a bereavement. This biopic was inspired by the true story of Cheryl Strayed. She regained control of her life by opening herself up to the world after experiencing self-transcendence during a 1700-kilometres solo journey through the deserts of the American West.

III. The return to nature as a cultural confrontation, formative journey and self-transcendence

  • 19 See the seven films listed in the online filmography on Carnet de voyage-reportage,

10The legacy of the literary myths of Ulysses’s epic journey is that travel has become a tool for formative learning, emancipation, liberation and discovering self-transcendence. The return to nature or confrontation with the natural elements prompts an awareness of what separates the civilised and the wild, society and the individual. This dual confrontation is said to be formative as a result of the personal journey of discovery that travel fosters when it involves a confrontation with the wild or another culture. Ulysses’s journey has been the subject of two famous adventure films, Mario Camerini’s 1954 Ulysses (in Italian, Ulisse) and Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1997 The Odyssey, which went on to influence a number of maritime expeditions and films. However, it is the robinsonades, the various adaptations of Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), that have taken us on extreme journeys in the cinema, including George Mélies’s Robinson Crusoe in 1903, Luis Bunuel’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1954 and Rod Hardy and George T. Miller’s Robinson Crusoe in 1997. Daniel Defoe was inspired by the real-life adventure of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who lived alone from 1704 to 1709 on an island in the archipelago off the coast of Chile. Extreme living conditions on a desert island in a hostile environment triggers the survival instinct. The individual must battle not only against their new environment but also against themselves. The numerous adaptations of Johann David Wyss’s novel The Swiss Family Robinson and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies evidence the fact that film productions19 are inspired by the theme of the one-way journey. However, it is the road movies that ask the pertinent questions about the journey as a tribute to individualism and self-denial. This is clear in the closing lines of Wild:

What if I was never redeemed? […]. I found my own way out of the woods. And I didn’t even know where I was going until I got there, on the last day of my hike. Thank you, I thought over and over again, for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know […(of the future, marriage and children)]. I knew only that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. That seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. My life, like all lives, mysterious, irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.

11Moreover, the relationship seems to be authentic,

  • 20 Jocelyn Lachance, ‘Le rapport à la temporalité du backpacker’, Téoros [Online], 32-1 | 2013, Online (...)

Because, in the backpacking context, there would never be a relationship forced or imposed on the subject by external constraints. Moreover, authenticity also affects the subject’s relationship with themselves insofar as the journey would reveal new, authentic aspects of themselves (Noy, 2004: 85-86).20

  • 21 See Muriel Cerf’s book, L’antivoyage, published in 1974, which recounts her travels in India in 197 (...)

12The audiovisual travel diary, with its ‘cultural bifurcations’ (Gin, 2008), is marked by the notion of interculturality (Argod, 2011), notably through the various road movies (since 1992 and the release of Fernando E. Solanas’s film El Viaje [The Journey], which inspired Walter Salles’s 2004 The Motorcycle Diaries and a Franco-Moroccan road movie by Ismaël Ferroukhi entitled Le Grand Voyage in 2004). However, the cultural confrontation that is a feature of the travel diary is replaced in the audiovisual travel diary by a confrontation with the wild. Our two American examples advocate anti-travel21 as a formative journey and source of wonder. Chanvallon elucidated the return to nature in her social anthropology and ethnology doctoral thesis:

  • 22 Stéphanie Chanvallon, Intermède: Retour vers la Nature - Des ‘remédiations’ à la peur. In Anthropol (...)

Moving closer to Nature implies, among other things, either that we have overcome or that we are in the process of overcoming our fears and that we are engaging in a dynamic of self-exploration within our own limits and an exploration of the relatively unknown. Fear can also remain unconscious and may or may not be awakened in a situation, in situ, presenting us with a challenge, pushing us to our limits, shaking up our representations and our certainties. […] This observation allows us to anticipate on the notion of reflection, or mirroring. What we experience in Nature, whether it is fear or a feeling of osmosis, reflects what is inside us. It reveals our way of being in the world, our memory of past experiences. It gives resonance to everything that touches our being and everything that is called on to be ‘awakened’, understood, transformed and transcended. […] This state of mind may even become creative, perhaps allowing the individual to see beyond the ‘banal’, to access an unfamiliar beauty, to see in a different way. Perhaps it is this ability to feel wonder again, to love, to absorb and to be inspired by what is around and within us?22

13The return to nature as a scientific geographical construct that fosters self-transcendence is fundamental for explorers such as Christian Clot, a member of the Société des Explorateurs Français, who explains the attraction of unexplored lands:

  • 23 Extract of Christian Clot’s interview on the French television programme Ma Vie est une Aventure on (...)

lands with complex climates that are difficult to access, which involve a lot of work to advance across the complex terrain. Hostile lands that make you feel like you’re discovering new things all the time, that you’re going back to the origins of the world. […] without a map, it takes time to clear a path. Time and acceptance. It’s the feeling of fulfilment when you reach the end of the exploration, of knowing how to fight and overcome obstacles, of pushing yourself to the limit.23

IV. The aesthetics of the image, of the panoramic landscape and of the grandeur of nature: the legacy of the notions of ‘picturesqueness’ and the ‘pioneer front’.

14Pushing the border towards the West in order to extend the pioneer front forged American culture and the American nation. The West was being settled and developed by humans facing the wilderness now represented by Alaska in Into the Wild. Wide open spaces and harsh landscape are at the heart of American mythology. In Into the Wild, they are the subject of the tracking shots and panoramic views that are reminiscent of the picturesque Alpine views painted by English watercolour artists. This notion of ‘picturesqueness’ in the art should be linked to the notion of authentic, true images in cinematographic art and more especially to ‘staged’ touristic authenticity (MacCannell, 1976), which has become a form of ‘communicative authenticity’ (Cohen, 1979). The director’s comments in Into the Wild: The Experience (17 min) showcase the quality of the images, which were achieved through shooting in situ, on the one hand, with a skilful management both of the climatic calendar at each stage of the film from Mexico all the way up to Alaska and of the harsh shooting conditions and, on the other, with a lightweight camera carried on the shoulder to produce cinéma vérité (Graff, 2011), a technique inherited from Dziga Vertov and promoted by Edgar Morin.

  • 24 Jean-Claude Vernex, Du voyage de l’œil à l’appréciation du paysage: le pittoresque comme une des or (...)
  • 25 William Gilpin, Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; And on Sketching Landsc (...)

15The term ‘picturesque’ is an old one. It appeared in France in 1708 in its Italian sense ‘pittoresco’, which describes ‘a composition that is striking to the eye’. The term was accepted by the Académie Française in 1732 and defined in 1726 by the Encyclopédie as ‘a piquant and singular choice of the effects of nature’, in short, a particular way of relating to nature24. From 1730 to 1790, British landscape art, which was free of any academicism, highlighted the irregularities and strangeness of nature as noted by the aristocrats and artists travelling in Italy who admired the paintings coming out of the School of Rome. We know the influence Claude Lorrain’s in situ paintings had on nineteenth-century landscape realism. Picturesqueness implies the staging of self as both an actor in and viewer of the world, which is perceived as sublime (Klingender, 1988). It brings together the picturesque, the poetic and the romantic to encourage contemplation, to speak to the mind and stimulate sensibilities and to offer a palette of emotions, including surprise. The picturesque site aspires to feelings of admiration and fascination, and these must be accentuated in the perspective adopted by the artist until it becomes a so-called picturesque view: ‘that which pleases by some quality is likely to provide an advantageous subject for painting’25. Moreover, the American artist Edward Hopper inspired the road movie (Hurault-Paupe, 2007) as well as representations of the wild and the solitude of wide open spaces. In filmmaking, the notion of ‘picturesqueness’ is conveyed both through the editing, which produces synthetic, rhythmic and rhetorical effects, and through referencing cinema vérité (Graff, 2011) by staying as close as possible to the landscape. Director Sean Penn, who could have been drawing on Mario Ruspoli’s words (Gauthier, 2010), said on the subject: ‘Being invisible, making yourself part of the landscape, merging with the crowd is fundamental for the director who seeks to approach reality (Back-translated from French). In addition, the internal deigetic sounds, where the source of the sound is visible in the image, and the ambient sound of the scenes being played have been prioritised for the sake of authenticity and realism (Gauthier, 2010), in order to stay as close as possible to the lived experience.

16The notion of time is essential in accessing the poetics of travel. The autobiographical narrative must convey a style and a framework to communicate a message and retrace a journey, since physical effort has a symbolic dimension. This ‘nomadic’ rite becomes a rite of passage. For Jean Didier Urbain (1991) and Marc Augé (1997), it is essential to experience wonder and learn to see again. A journey requires non-knowledge. It requires spending some time in a place, before you move on to the next, so that you can immerse yourself in that place and exchange with the population, the bewilderment and the boredom. A journey implies creating a distance from the world, which results in ‘a break with the ordinary, inducing an aesthetic consciousness (Back translated from French). This aesthetic of Otherness is what makes it possible for the writer-traveller to write. They are receptive to all these details that allow them to represent a different reality to the reader. According to Kenneth White (1994), openness to and interest in the world facilitate the poetics of travel, which in turn allows us to understand the world. For Franck Michel (2005), travel is an encounter with the Other that enables us to access the myth and fight against the banalisation of the world.

V. The renewed myths of the wandering hero and the quest for a new world: the legacy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the Beat Generation’s ‘Beat ethos’26

  • 26 The term ‘Beat’ comes from the street language of drug addicts and was used in 1948 by Kerouac to m (...)
  • 27 See the novel’s itinerary in the file on Jack Kerouac on the website.
  • 28 See John Byrum’s 1980 film Heart Beat.
  • 29 See Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with Moloch, the high-finance building.
  • 30 Article published in the French newspaper Le Monde (Le on 8 September 2008. The manuscrip (...)

17The two films Into the Wild and Wild were inspired by the pioneers’ conquest, which fundamentally marks American literature through works such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The ‘backpacker subculture’ (Richards and Wilson, 2004) is said to be at the origin of road movies. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1922-1969) is the mythical work of all globetrotters27 ‘The open road is life. It replaces the ancient “trail” of the pioneers in their advance on the West’ (Back translated from French). It continues the long folk tradition of the American journey. Clearly identifiable as a work from the Beat Generation, it recounts the story of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Lu Anne Henderson’s 1949 Hudson car trip from New York to San Francisco (6,200 km) in three days and three nights. The ethnographic writer (Bibeau, 2004) Kerouac rediscovered his natural and spontaneous flow as he wrote On the Road in 1951. Neal Cassady was full of admiration for this famous first draft. Kerouac typed for three weeks without stopping on a 40-metres-long continuous scroll fed into his typewriter to maintain the internal jazz rhythm28. The major works produced from 1957 onwards by the Beat Generation were Kerouac’s On the Road and The Dharma Bums, Ginsberg’s Howl and Burrough’s Naked Lunch. They are symbols of freedom, of protest at bourgeois values and of revolt at world greed29. Sur le chemin30, which Kerouac wrote in French in 1952 when he was in Mexico City, was to be a preliminary draft of On the Road. Kerouac reworked Sur le chemin in 1953 and proposed a French version under the title Sur la route, which subsequently inspired a film adaptation, released in 2012 by Walter Salles.

  • 31 The earliest works include John Cassavetes’s 1958 Shadows, Shirley Clarke’s 1961 The Connection, Ke (...)

18The road movie style was inspired by the Beat Generation, which, under the impetus of Jonas Mekas, developed an underground cinema in 1955. This brought together twenty-three independent directors seeking to free themselves from the diktats of Hollywood and to make cinema a means of personal expression rather than the product of an industry. As such, the road movies were the fruits of a counter-culture and a political and social protest31. They were inspired by the Beat theme of the quest for self through wandering and the transcontinental drift on Route 66, and they introduced a new type of hero, the ‘magnificent loser’, borrowed from On the Road (Migozzi, 2000). In 1969, Easy Rider, starring Dennis Hopper (director), Peter Fonda (producer) and Jack Nicholson, became a cult film for the Beatnik generation. It marks the birth of the road movie, presenting the journey of three hippy motorcyclists who plan a trip in search of a lost America (Benoliel and Thoret, 2011). It is the romantic myth of the open road as the ultimate escape from the past. Mobility was synonymous with wandering and the desire for non-conformity. Individuals used the journey of discovery to go off and find themselves in order to then shape themselves in opposition to the social norm. Wandering, marginality and freedom allowed them to experience America. In preparation for shooting Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders became a filmmaker-traveller and travelled the American West for three months to photograph the filming locations. He also travelled across the world before directing the film Until the End of the World. His approach was that of a traveller, camera in hand, in search of his film. Before creating his work of art, he would make notes and sketches as part of his research. This approach is said to be reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix’s travel diary Album d’Afrique du Nord et d’Espagne, a historical model of the genre created in 1832 (Argod, 2012) in the tone of the travel diaries of the romantic and orientalist painters. He produced a ‘little book of inspiration’ in preparation for his work of art.

  • 32 Sylvain Tesson, La géographie de l’instant, Editions Des Equateurs, 2012. p 43.

19In short, extreme journeys are thought to be motivated by a desire to experience the wild, to move from the cultural back to the natural and to self-transcend in order to reach the ‘truth’. This exploration of the unknown beyond our physical and mental limitations is thought to convey both a contemporary heroism, that of the figure of the traveller as explorer-adventurer (Venayre, 2002, 2006) as opposed to the tourist, and a temporality that is specific to the experience of the hypermodern subject. According to Tesson, ‘we distil time to free ourselves from space’32. This journey of discovery (which is both a response to The Call of the Wild and a desire to be On the Road) to expand our horizons is said to be as much a change of world for the explorer as a construction of self for the adventurer. It is about encouraging off-the-beaten-track, backpacker-type, out of the ordinary, unconventional travel, with no guide. The travel diary genre stems from this definition of extreme travel (mind map and filmography) and is positioned somewhere between creative documentary and fiction since it recounts a journey in images. The journey is, after all, only a receptive view of the world, an interrogation of reality inherited from Jean Rouch’s work. The travel diary, as a little book of inspiration, an artistic quest in preparation for a work of art or a philosophical or anthropological reflection on the world or the Elsewhere, deals with reality and the formation of the individual rather than fiction, despite the 1960s road movies trend. In fact, according to Walter Moser,

  • 33 ‘Le road movie: un genre issu d’une constellation moderne de locomotion et de médiamotion’, Walter (...)

As a symbolic form, the road movie valorises modernity, especially the moment of mobility, of breaking free of fixed times and spaces and therefore of a certain form of renomadisation, at least momentarily. It is the moment of flight from the ‘iron cage’. In this sense, the beginning of some road movies, such as El Viaje (The Journey) (Fernando Solanas, 1992) and The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004), merely transpose the formative novel to the cinema.33


A touristic practice of discovery: transcending the extreme of the world through the experience of travel

  • 34 See the two filmographies available online in the research notebook: Pascale Argod, Carnet de voyag (...)

20Based on the notion of ‘extreme travel’, we have profiled the audiovisual travel diary genre as fictional film, but it can also be compared with the documentary34. In addition, despite the plurality of genres (biopic, road movie, creative documentary, travel programme, reportage, ethnologist film, etc.), the travel diary is above all a narrative in images of the lived experience of travelling, and, as such, it is autobiographical. This production, most often a creative documentary, valorises freedom and the unconventional, the authentic and the picturesque, the original and the creative. The transformation of the traveller who confronts reality is often at the heart of the account. Through their lived experience, this audiovisual genre wishes to achieve the notion of touristic and communicative authenticity. Whether transcribed in the form of a road movie or a creative documentary, the wild has stamped its seal on both the quest for adventure on the road and the literary myth of the heroic traveller, inherited from Ulysses’s journey and the robinsonades. Two films, Into the Wild and Wild, have established wild travel as a search for the dream and anti-travel, the quest of travel diarists. These works combine three characteristics: the return to nature, the aesthetics of the image and the renewed myth of the ‘wandering’ hero. These three features all have their literary and artistic origins and form a cultural melting pot containing the robinsonade, the picturesque and above all the Beat ethos of the Beat Generation, which formed in the wake of Kerouac’s On the Road. Self-transcendence, a panoramic landscape and the quest for a new world turn nature into a manifesto for extreme travel. An appetite for adventure and the journey of discovery is mediatised by the evocation of extreme spaces. This genre (Argod, 2009) is based on the definition of both the quest for travel and the interaction of three notions, namely the environment, the autobiography and the narrative depicted in (sometimes epic) images. Observing the terrain, discovering other cultures and viatic imagination are the attractions of the travel diary, which probably circulates values of travel that go beyond the notion of the wild and the fears to be overcome. As a revelation of self, a path for discovering real-life experiences, a passport to the Other and a construction of self and freedom, the travel diary becomes a tool for evaluating our being in the world (Argod, 2014).

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Filmographie classée par ordre de citation dans l’article

Sur le carnet de recherche "Carnet de voyage -reportage"(P. Argod) sur dans la rubrique "Corpus intermédia", juin 2016 :

Penn S., 2007, Into the Wild, 147 minutes. Paramount Vantage [US]

Vallée J.-M., 2014, Wild, 126’. Fox Searchlight Pictures Pacific Standard [US]

Ronning J., Sanderg E., 2012, Kon Tiki, NO, 120’. Recorded Picture Company, Roenbergfilm, Nordisk Film Production A/S, DCM Productions [GB, NO, DK].

Offenstein C., 2013, En solitaire, BE, 96’. Gaumont, Les films du Cap, TF1 Film Production, Scope Pictures, A contracorriente Films. [FR, BE, ES]

Chandor J.C., 2013, All is lost, 106’.Universal studio [US]

Macdonald K., 2004, La mort suspendue, Touching The Void,FR, 106’. Darlow Smithson Productions [GB]

Ferry A., 2009, Vertige, FR, Sombrero Productions, Canal + [FR]

Stolzi P. , 2008, Duel au sommet, Nordwand, DE, 126’. Dor Film West, Medienkontor Movie gmbH, Dor Film [DE, CH]

Boyle D., 2011, 127 heures, GB, 94’. Cloud Eight Films, Darlow Smithson Productions, Decibel Films [GB, US]

Estevez E., 2010, The way la route ensemble, ES, 123’. Filmax, Castelao Producciones, Producions A Fonsagrada [ES]

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Salles W., 2004, Carnets de voyage : Che Guevara, Diarios de motocicleta, 120’.

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1 The 17th Rendez-vous du Carnet de Voyage, held from 18 to 20 November 2016, was a Europe-wide event with international influence: Its president, Jean-Pierre Frachon, is a mountaineer, renowned for his ascent of the Seven Summits.

2 All references relating to the films and videos cited in this study are grouped together in the filmography at the end of the article.


4 See the mind map and filmography in Argod’s 2011 article in the issue on ‘Le ciné-tourisme’, edited by Alain Grenier, p. 117-125 (9 pages).

5 Attached here as an appendix and available in Argod’s research logbook, Carnet de voyage-reportage, on

6 Idem. Unless specified otherwise, this and all subsequent quotations from French sources have been translated from the French.

7 See the 75 travel diaries online:

8 See the title Vacances chez les pygmies for France 2 programme’s ‘le carnet de voyage d'envoyé spécial’, Thursday 19 July 2012.


33rd Festival du Film de Montagne in Autrans from 30 November to 4 December 2016:

Regards d’altitudes, 21-23 April 2016 in Barcelonnette:

10 Festival international du film maritime, d’exploration et d’environnement, FIFME mid-December in Toulon:

Festival international des films de la mer FILMAR in Hendaye, 16-17 March 2017:

The 8th Festival International de Films Pêcheurs du Monde was held in Lorient from 14 to 20 March 2016:

11 See the selection in Argod’s research logbook, ‘Carnet de voyage -reportage: intermédialité, interculturalité, médiation, patrimoine’, available on under the heading Corpus intermédia, June 2016:

12 See Argod, Filmography on extreme travel and defining film genres according to their relationship to nature, June 2016:

13 Claire Omhover. ‘Quelques reconfigurations contemporaines du “wilderness” dans la fiction et les arts visuels du Canada anglophone’. In Les cultures du déplacement: séminaire du 14-16 juin 2012. Edited by F.S. Fournier, C. Chatagner, C. Bernié-Boissard, D. Crozat. Presses Universitaires d’Aix-Marseille, PUAM, 2014, p. 79-91.

14 Translation from Old English.



17 drifters (Cohen, 1972); nomads (Cohen, 1973); wanderers (Vogt, 1976).

18 The name of the Transcendentalism movement, which comes from a work by Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), revolutionised American philosophy and literature.

19 See the seven films listed in the online filmography on Carnet de voyage-reportage,

20 Jocelyn Lachance, ‘Le rapport à la temporalité du backpacker’, Téoros [Online], 32-1 | 2013, Online since 15 December 2015 URL:

21 See Muriel Cerf’s book, L’antivoyage, published in 1974, which recounts her travels in India in 1970, long before the French travel guide Guide du Routard made its appearance. It opened up the route to India for French hippies.

22 Stéphanie Chanvallon, Intermède: Retour vers la Nature - Des ‘remédiations’ à la peur. In Anthropologie des relations de l’Homme à la Nature: la Nature vécue entre peur destructrice et communion intime. PhD thesis. Anthropologie sociale et ethnologie. Université Rennes 2; Université Européenne de Bretagne, 2009. French. p. 224-228 <tel-00458244v2>

23 Extract of Christian Clot’s interview on the French television programme Ma Vie est une Aventure on France 3, presented by Cécile Gauthier. Posted on YouTube on 14 May 2010.

24 Jean-Claude Vernex, Du voyage de l’œil à l’appréciation du paysage: le pittoresque comme une des origines culturelles du paysage. In: Le Globe. Revue genevoise de géographie, tome 144 Voyage, tourisme, paysage, 2004, pp. 57-66.

25 William Gilpin, Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; And on Sketching Landscape: To Which is Added a Poem, on Landscape Painting, London, 1792 (back-translated from French).

26 The term ‘Beat’ comes from the street language of drug addicts and was used in 1948 by Kerouac to mean ‘beatific’ or ‘cool’ in the jazz beat or in the spirit of renunciation.

27 See the novel’s itinerary in the file on Jack Kerouac on the website.

28 See John Byrum’s 1980 film Heart Beat.

29 See Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with Moloch, the high-finance building.

30 Article published in the French newspaper Le Monde (Le on 8 September 2008. The manuscript was found by Gabriel Anctil in the archives of various New York libraries.

31 The earliest works include John Cassavetes’s 1958 Shadows, Shirley Clarke’s 1961 The Connection, Kenneth Anger’s 1963 Scorpio Rising and films by Andy Warhol.

32 Sylvain Tesson, La géographie de l’instant, Editions Des Equateurs, 2012. p 43.

33 ‘Le road movie: un genre issu d’une constellation moderne de locomotion et de médiamotion’, Walter Moser, Cinémas: Revue d'études cinématographiques/Journal of Film Studies, Volume 18, number 2-3, Spring 2008, p.7-30

34 See the two filmographies available online in the research notebook: Pascale Argod, Carnet de voyage - reportage: intermédialité, interculturalité, médiation, patrimoine,, 2012.

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Pascale Argod, « From the Road Movie to Wilderness Travel: The Quest for Adventure on the Road and the Myth of the Heroic Traveller », Via [En ligne], 14 | 2018, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2018, consulté le 25 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Argod

Docteure en sciences de l’information - communication, enseignante-chercheuse au MICA de l’université Bordeaux - Montaigne (

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