Better in the Original

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Like the dog at the center of the movie, The Call of the Wild has a hard time knowing where it belongs. Based on the Jack London story about Buck, a domesticated dog kidnapped by traders and sold into service in the gold rush to the Yukon, its foundational work is a dark story of involuntary servitude and oppression. But its PG rating and its playful, animated dogs with their big brown eyes give it the tone and ambience of a Disney movie — which, despite its 20th Century Fox distribution label, it is, since the two studios recently merged. This is but one difference between book and movie, most of them injurious to the heart of the story, despite the filmmakers’ faithfulness to the storyline.

When we first meet Buck in the movie, he is a privileged but unruly pet, joyfully wreaking havoc in the home of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford), racing through the house, knocking into furniture, and destroying the company feast. Like Helen Keller’s family in The Miracle Worker, no one seems disciplined enough to discipline him, and their nonchalant tolerance of his lumbering ways is comical. By contrast, London’s Buck is a “regal aristocrat” who “was neither house dog nor kennel dog; he had command of the whole realm . . . [and] was king . . . even over the humans.”

This is but one difference between book and movie, most of them injurious to the heart of the story.

In the movie, Buck is ordered to stay outside after ruining the family party and is then kidnapped by an opportunistic stranger and shipped to the Yukon, where sled dogs are in high demand. He changes owners several times, eventually ending up with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who narrates the story in voiceover.

Buck’s first owner, “the man in the red sweater,” teaches him “the rule of law”: when escape proves impossible, he learns to work and obey in order to avoid a beating with the club. Next, Perrault (Omar Sy), a postal employee, purchases him to help carry the mail 500 miles between Skagway and Dawson. Perrault treats Buck well, and Thornton tells us in voiceover that “Buck grew in confidence and began to enjoy the work.” His next owner is Hal (Dan Stevens), a young dandy from the East who has traveled to the Yukon with an inexperienced partner, a fashionably dressed wife, Mercedes (Karen Gillan), and all the comforts of home, including a Victrola. He also has a map that he believes will take him to a river of gold. He is determined to get there before anyone else does.

Stevens is usually a fine actor with emotional depth, one who chooses his parts carefully and seldom disappoints. But in this movie he is the mustachioed villain from Saturday morning melodramas, complete with menacing snarls, bullying threats and catastrophic ignorance of his surroundings. It was disappointing to see such a fine actor in such a two-dimensional role. Ford, grizzled and aging, is a bit of a disappointment too, but he’s never been a particularly deep actor emotionally.

There is much to like about this movie, yet just as much that bothers me.

Eventually Buck and John Thornton find each other and they forge a strong friendship. Significantly, Thornton does not purchase Buck but rescues him from Hal and invites him to share his cabin. Thornton becomes Buck’s friend, not his master; in the book, Thornton is almost godlike in his care for Buck and Buck’s devotion to him. Thornton understands Buck and “the call of the wild” that will eventually cause them to part. As Buck chooses a mate from among the wolves (or she chooses him) Thornton tells us, “Buck [through cross-breeding] will make the wolves smarter and more confident.”

There is much to like about this movie, yet just as much that bothers me. I love the way most of the women are portrayed; they are trackers, postal workers, vendors, prospectors, household managers. and yes, a foppish Eastern wife. Women are an integral, valued part of the community, working, contributing, and pulling their weight. Perrault’s gruff and austere partner in the book, François, becomes Françoise (Cara Gee), a likeable and lighthearted woman, in the film, and it works just fine. It is such a refreshing contrast to the impression my students have of 19th-century women as mere chattel with no rights or opportunities beyond marriage and motherhood. If movies like this one begin to change that misconception, I will be happy.

The scenery, filmed mostly in British Columbia, is also gorgeous, and the aurora borealis colors the sky, as it does throughout the book. The CGI is impressive too; if it weren’t for those big, brown, overly expressive eyes, I might have thought the animals were real. The use of animation also allowed the artists to recreate the dogs the way London imagined them, with the dog Solex missing an eye, for example. Perrault, who happens to be black, and Françoise, who appears to be Native American, provide the strongest and most exciting chapter in the film. And Harrison Ford is fine as the mountain man who understands Buck’s need for belonging because he, too, has a sad backstory of loss and heartbreak.

Did it have to be a selfish and insensitive rich dandy? Couldn’t it have been the dumb, inexperienced lummox Hal actually represents?

But I have a problem with the way the film sidesteps what I see as the main theme of London’s story. The Call of the Wild is not only a study of brutal naturalism and evolutionary survival of the fittest, but also an allegory of slavery. In the book, he is sold into servitude by a treacherous gardener’s helper — someone from his own household whom he had learned to trust. The story gives Buck human emotions, and London makes the point that captivity and starvation cause Buck to abandon the moral principles he learned in society and to steal food from his teammates in order to survive — a point Viktor Frankl also makes in his concentration camp memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. The other dogs on his team are also given human names like Joe, Dave, Billy, and Curly, and human personalities as well. In sum, London deliberately personified the animals to create a fable about the dehumanizing effects of slavery, or at least of captivity.

Thornton’s opinion that Buck “grew in confidence and enjoyed the work” and the movie’s transformation of Perrault into a kindhearted owner troubles me, as it suggests that slavery was somehow “good for them.” Eventually Buck is freed and “returns to his ancestors,” the wolves, where Thornton tells us that the wolf pack will become smarter, more confident and more courageous, presumably because of the DNA they receive from Buck’s domesticated European genes. (Of course, they should be called cousins rather than ancestors, but I won’t quibble about that.) To me, the praise sounds a little too much like those who opined that Frederick Douglass was smart because his father was white. Even the suggestion that Buck (and thus the slave population) should go back to the land of his ancestors is woefully out of date. On the other hand, I think it was wise to make the villain a white man instead of the Indians who attack Thornton in London’s book. But did it have to be a selfish and insensitive rich dandy? Couldn’t it have been the dumb, inexperienced lummox Hal actually represents?

The movie follows the storyline of the book fairly faithfully, but the lighter tone and flatter characters possibly imposed by the PG rating removes the harsh, physical reality of the story. The race against a falling avalanche and the plunge down a waterfall, for example, feel more like a Disney ride than a life-threatening danger. Much is lost, also, of Buck’s conflict for supremacy with lead dog Spitz. The “ecstasy” (as London describes it) of their bloody battle, which is foreshadowed throughout his chapter with Perrault and comes to a head when both dogs are chasing a white rabbit for food, is as essential to Buck’s self-discovery of his “dominant primordial beast” as Frederick Douglass’ battle with the hated overseer Mr. Covey was to Douglass’ discovery of inherent freedom. Buck’s battle is not only against the jealous Spitz and the oppressive restraints of civilization, but against the brutal elements of nature that would starve and freeze him if it could. “Mercy,” Buck realizes, “is for southern climes.” Through London’s gripping prose, we can see, hear and feel every slash of muscle, every crunch of bone, every visceral cry of the primordial wildness coming out in Buck. Yet in the movie, Buck lets the rabbit go, and Spitz merely slinks away; the battle would be too frightening for children’s eyes.

No matter how hard they try, no filmmakers can do justice to this book. The prose is just too good, the characters and emotion and philosophy too rich and deep.

The Call of the Wild is an OK movie, but it isn’t going to make back the millions the studio had to spend in CGI, now that PETA makes it nearly impossible to use live animals in films any more. Its theme is too heavy for the children its PG rating was intended to attract, and it isn’t what I would call a family film, despite those first laugh-inducing scenes of Buck bounding joyfully through the house. But in order to win that PG rating the filmmakers had to soften certain scenes and themes, as when Hal’s headstrong willfulness seems to lead to his sled dogs’ death, and perhaps Mercedes’ death, too — or so we assume; we don’t actually see their fall through the ice. That scene could have been tense, thrilling, and heartbreaking. But because it might have been too scary for children (I suppose), it doesn’t appear. Apparently a scene involving snakes was also cut, since the credits list a snake wrangler, although no snakes appeared in the film.

I don’t entirely blame the filmmakers, however. They did the best they could, as have others who have attempted to adapt this book for film, to capture a story that is essentially told through the perspective of a dog. I would recommend this Call of the Wild for a lazy Saturday afternoon at home with the kids when there’s nothing else to do. But better still, I recommend that you pull out your old, worn copy of The Call of the Wild, or download an audio version, and experience it again. That’s what I did after watching the movie. And I came to this conclusion: no matter how hard they try, no filmmakers can do justice to this book. The prose is just too good, the characters and emotion and philosophy too rich and deep, Buck’s gradual discovery of freedom too thrilling. It’s a story to be imagined, not watched.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Call of the Wild," directed by Chris Sanders. Twentieth Century Fox, 2020, 100 minutes.



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