When Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild, serialized in 1903 in The Saturday Evening Post, it made adventure story history. The short novel became an international sensation, and it’s never been out of print.
It’s the story of a dog, and the man who loved him.
London spent a year in the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory, where the 1890s Gold Rush triggered a stampede of more than 100,000 prospectors to Canada. According to London’s novel, “these men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.”
Both the book and latest movie version of The Call of the Wild begin with a pampered pooch named Buck (140 pounds, the son of a St. Bernard and a Scotch shepherd), living a cushy life on a California estate. Sold into dogsled slavery by a venal gardener with gambling debts, Buck is shipped north, where he quickly learns the law of club and fang. Beaten into submission by dog traders and dogs that were “ill-tamed wolves,” he’s bloody but unbowed.
The new movie makes cinematic history with a CGI (computer-generated imagery) dog. All scenes were filmed with the role of Buck acted by Terry Notary, an animal performer who also did ape movements for the Planet of the Apes series and many others. What was it like acting with a human acting like a dog? “We could connect,” said Omar Sy (Jurassic World), a French actor who plays a dogsled driver delivering mail in the frozen north.
Directed by Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon), the film melds the stories of Buck and a man who can relate. John Thornton, portrayed by a grizzled Harrison Ford, is a city dweller whose son has died. Grieving, he comes to the Yukon not for gold, but to seek isolation and solace. Instead, he finds Buck.
JACK LONDON’S ADVENTURE STORY
In the book, Thornton has no back-story, and saves Buck from being beaten to death after the dog collapses from fatigue. The movie trades bloody dogfights, Buck’s “kill or be killed” situations and Indian massacres for feel-good interactions.
The book’s most moving sections describe the love Buck feels for Thornton: “The strength of Buck’s gaze would draw John Thornton’s head around, and he would return the gaze, without speech, his heart shining out of his eyes as Buck’s heart shone out … It seemed that his heart would be shaken out of his body, so great was its ecstasy.”
When I looked for The Call of the Wild in my local library, I discovered it in the young adult section. My librarian told me she’d read it as a class assignment when she was a girl, as did many other youngsters.
What were they thinking? I’ve never read a book more descriptive of violence, animal cruelty and blood lust. It’s the story of a dog that reverts back to instinct, back to the primordial, undomesticated animal he used to be. You’ll never look Fifi in the eye again without realizing she will eat you if she has to.
So enjoy the movie, but, seriously, read the book. And read White Fang while you’re at it, too. Also inspired by London’s time in the Yukon, it’s the story of a wolf dog who becomes domesticated — sort of.
The Call of the Wild is now in theaters, rated PG.