David Stuart Davies looks at Jane Austen's 'Emma', the latest classic to get a makeover on the big ...
must be a famous adage somewhere that states that eventually all great novels
will be scooped up by film makers and brought to the screen. Some books, like Little Women, for example, are scooped
up more than once, too often perhaps in some cases. Now it is true that Jack
London’s The Call of the Wild, which is
about to hit the cinema screens, has been filmed several times before
but that is due to the unusual and fascinating nature of the tale. The most
striking aspect of the book is that the main character is a dog. This is Buck, half
St. Bernard and half Scots Collie. It is he, rather than his owner, John
Thornton, we care about most as we observe the dog’s transition from a clumsy
pampered pet to a ferocious feral hound in the Klondike, the leader of a pack
of wolves. And London’s brilliant storytelling skills ensure we are empathising
with him all the way.
first discover Buck as the spoiled domestic pet of a California judge who dotes
on the hound but then he is stolen and passes through a sequence of owners with
whom London is able to illustrate the highs and lows of humanity. Eventually, Buck
is sold to be a sled dog in Alaska and eventually becomes the property of John
Thornton who treats him kindly and trains Buck to deal with his new tough
environment. During this process, a remarkable strong bond develops between the
master and his hound.
reacts to the savagery of the environment becoming progressively feral and is
forced to dominate other dogs in order to survive. By the end he sheds the
veneer of his civilised past and relies on primordial instinct and newly learned
experience, emerging as a leader in the wild and eventually finding his true
place in the world. It is a route, London seems to suggest, that humans
also have to take in order to survive.
the narrative London (1876 -1916) is able to explore the nature of the
relationship between humans, animals and their environment. In this way the
author is able to express his belief that humanity is always in a state of
conflict, and that the struggles of existence strengthen man’s nature and
character. Though The Call of the Wild
has often been classified as a children’s book, its themes and overarching
narrative will easily absorb the mature reader.
main setting for the novel is the Yukon in Canada during the Klondike gold rush
during the 1890s. At the age of twenty
one Jack London travelled there with his brother-in-law in the hope of striking
it rich. He spent almost a year in this harsh part of the world and the book
resonates with the atmosphere, the bleak unyielding landscape and the tough way
of life which London captures in rich prose. However, London’s time in the
Yukon was detrimental to his health. As with many men in the goldfields, he was
undernourished; this led him to contracting scurvy and developed a constant
gnawing pain, which affected his hip and
leg muscles. The struggles and ailments he suffered during his time in the
Klondike led him to rely heavily on alcohol and drugs, all which contributed to
the author’s early death at the age of forty one. Despite his short life,
London was a prolific writer, having written over fifty books in twenty years
as well as numerous short stories, essays, plays and poetry.
The Call of the Wild was first serialised in the Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1903.
It was an instant success and London achieved overnight fame. He received $2,500
for the rights of the novel, which was published by Macmillan.The
respected critic H L Menken wrote of the book: ‘No popular writer of his time
did any better writing than you will find in Call of the Wild… Here, indeed, are all the elements of sound
fiction: clear thinking, a sense of character, the dramatic instinct, and above
all, the adept putting together of words – words charming and slyly arranged,
in a French phrase, for the respiration of the ear.’
if that quote doesn’t send you rushing off the grab a copy of this magnificent
book, I don’t know what will!
success of The Call of the Wild led
London to pen a kind of sequel. In 1904 he wrote to Macmillan proposing a
second book, White Fang, in which he
wanted to present a reverse version of Buck – a dog who transforms from wild to
tame: ‘I’m going to reverse the process… Instead of devolution of
decivilisation… I’m going to give the evolution, the civilisation of the
dog.’ It’s good to see that both doggy
tales are paired in the Wordsworth edition.
first adaptation of The Call of the Wild
was a silent film made in 1923. The 1935 version was the first sound film to
feature the story. It starred Clark Gable in the expanded role of John
Thornton. The film omits many of the episodes from the novel, concentrating
instead on the romantic involvement of Thornton with a young woman who has been
abandoned by her husband. The movie trundles to a syrupy happy ending. A
grizzled Charlton Heston essayed the role of Thornton in a 1972 movie which was
actually filmed in Finland and stayed close to the original text.
The new 2020 version of the novel is a mixture of live-action and computer animation, starring Harrison Ford as John Thornton and Terry Notary (an actor/movement coach who usually portrays animals in films such as The Adventures of Tin Tin and The Hobbit Trilogy) will ‘play’ Buck through motion capture. This adaptation is based on the 1932 movie which gave greater prominence to John Thornton than in the novel. This enables the star, Harrison Ford, to take a greater slice of the action than London allowed.
This high profile movie proves that with Jack London’s Buck there is life in the old dog yet!
Image: © Twentieth Century Fox/Entertainment Pictures Contributor: Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo