For whom is this version of The Call of the Wild intended? Highly sensitive pre-teens? The movie does not seem intended for adults, unlike Jack London’s story, which was surely influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Although the dog Buck inspires interest and sympathy in either case, he does not quite evolve, in the movie version, from domesticated dog to the killer wild animal that heads a wolf pack. It feels unlikely that the movie dog Buck would answer the call of the wild.
For starters, Buck’s initial owners in the movie (after Buck is abducted from Judge Miller’s home) are especially respectful of Buck. This isn’t true to the original story, in which these owners aren’t particularly attentive to any of the sled dogs. Their attitude to the dogs, including Buck, is closer to indifference than respect. On the other hand, Buck’s owners in the movie, Perrault and Francoise, do have appeal, especially the radiantly smiling Perrault, who sees Buck’s uniqueness and, in time, gets Francoise (in the original story, Francois) to see it, too.
Secondly, in the movie, after Perrault introduces the sled dogs to Buck, they mostly fade into the background. In the story, the dogs don’t fade out. One dog, Dolly, goes mad after contracting rabies and has to be killed, while another dog, Sol-leks, is one-eyed and rages at any dog that approaches him from his blind side. Most memorable is the ongoing rivalry between Buck and lead dog Spitz, which ends in a deadly fight between the two. In this fight, Buck first maims and then kills Spitz, thus becoming the “Dominant Primordial Beast” of the chapter title. In the movie, Buck only scares off Spitz, who leaves the pack of dogs—who can leave the pack, since, in this version, Spitz retains the use of his legs. The harm is much reduced. Consequently, the Buck of the movie does not become the dominant primordial beast that would be at all inclined to answer the call of the wild.
Third—the Buck of the movie is not more important than John Thornton, Buck’s final owner, who, in this movie version, has a past involving a dead child and separation—perhaps a divorce—from his wife. He drinks too much. He plays a harmonica. He keeps a journal. He seeks adventure—more interested in uncharted wilderness than in the Yukon’s gold (The Call of the Wild is set during the 1890’s Gold Rush in the Yukon.). He does not, however, have anyplace particular to go, and he feels this keenly. This is an important story, and Harrison Ford makes an engaging John Thornton, but it is a story and a John Thornton that are only in the movie. In the book, John Thornton appears more than halfway through, and he has no past. He doesn’t drink too much, play the harmonica, or keep a journal. He does not seem to have either love of adventure for adventure’s sake or any existential angst. He gets the reader’s interest largely because he gets Buck’s loyalty, and Buck has been the focus of attention since the book’s first sentence.
Fourth—well, that’d be telling. Enough to say, the movie heads in one direction, whereas the book headed in another. This is not a surprise. The question really is, does the movie succeed on its own merits, given that it isn’t much like the story? The answer: the movie partly succeeds. The story about John Thornton is an interesting, important story to tell; Harrison Ford’s face of experience is both poignant and to the point. Meanwhile, the natural world of the Yukon—which a camera can show more effectively than words—is unutterably beautiful; a movie audience can readily understand Thornton’s attraction to the Alaskan wilderness. Buck, however, remains a question mark. Whereas Buck’s evolution in the book from domesticated dog to wild animal is clearly delineated by Jack London, this crucial evolution isn’t delineated in the movie and so Buck’s decision to run off and join a wolf pack is, at best, mystifying…
…and it shouldn’t be. My guess—because a dog, not a man, is the main character in The Call of the Wild, the story is hard to film. IMHO, the book makes good sense—read the book.
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.