Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 20th Century Studios and Global Classics.
Jack London’s 1903 novella The Call of the Wild, first published in four installments by the Saturday Evening Post, was different from the many other sentimental animal stories that were popular at the time. “Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing,” the book begins and takes off like a shot into the milieu of the Alaskan Gold Rush, where dogs and men test themselves against hardship with varying degrees of success.
The story—about a kidnapped California ranch dog named Buck, his transformation into an Alaskan sled dog, and his adoption into a wild wolf pack—was tragic, philosophical, wistful, and brutal. Generations of schoolchildren have since been assigned The Call of the Will and struggled to understand what it all means. Now Disney has removed the guesswork by releasing a new film adaptation directed by Chris Sanders and starring Harrison Ford that contains none of those confusing London-esque qualities, instead turning The Call of the Wild into an extremely legible dog-man love story. Here’s a rundown of the major differences.
London’s Buck sees a lot of it. When he first encounters the “man in the red sweater,” an anonymous character who handles dogs on their way north to be sold to prospectors, he’s beaten and beaten, “blood flowing from nose and mouth and ears, his beautiful coat sprayed and flecked with bloody slaver.” Later, Buck sees a friend and fellow Southland transplant, Curly, get “almost literally torn to pieces” by a group of husky dogs. Buck’s contest with Spitz, the dog he challenges for leadership in the second part of the novella, is characterized by bites that “rip and tear the flesh to the bone.”
The dog body count in this book is extremely high. In several instances, owners mercy-kill dogs who sicken or fail on the trail. When Buck’s team is sold to a trio of Southlanders who are utterly incompetent backwoodsmen, the consequence is that the entire team (save Buck) dies all at once, when they crash through melting ice that can’t support their weight. Since we’ve spent pages becoming familiar with the different dog characters and rooting for their cohesion as a team, this is a horrifying turn of events. But in London’s scheme of things, this is the “law of club and fang,” and it’s important for Buck to come to terms with his relationship with it in order to survive.
In true Disney fashion, the film purges almost all of this. The man in the red sweater hits Buck only once. The fight between Buck and Spitz ends with Buck holding Spitz down, and then Spitz walking away into the woods. The dogs on the trip with the Southlanders also escape into the forest, rather than dying in the river. Without this interrogation of the nature of brutality, this version of The Call of the Wild becomes much more like the other dog stories London decidedly wasn’t writing: sentimental and moralistic.
Perrault and Francois
In London’s novel, Buck’s first owners in the North are Perrault and Francois, a couple of rough but kindly men who deliver mail for the Canadian government. Perrault is French-Canadian, and “swarthy,” and Francois is “a French-Canadian half-breed, and twice as swarthy.” They speak broken English. London describes Perrault as a “little weazened man,” and Francois as a “black-faced giant.” Perrault’s first exclamation upon laying eyes on Buck is: “Sacredam! Dat one dam bully dog! Eh? How moch?” Buck feels no “affection” for them, but “grew honestly to respect them.”
In the movie, Perrault and Francois (now Francoise) are played by Omar Sy, a French actor whose parents are from West Africa and who at 42 definitely isn’t at all “weazened,” and Cara Gee, a Canadian actress who’s Ojibwe. Sy’s Perrault loves the dogs to a fault, and gives several sentimental speeches about the importance of mail delivery in the Klondike. Gee’s Francoise is prickly and standoffish, but eventually comes over to Buck’s side after he rescues her from a fall through the ice. If there are added difficulties that come from being two people of color—and in Francoise’s case, a woman of color—working in the Klondike during the Gold Rush, we never see them.
Harrison Ford’s character, who is also a heroic figure in the book, appears several times throughout the movie. He first encounters Buck when the dog is loaded off the boat that brings him to Alaska, then again when he’s purchased by the foolish and cruel Hal (Dan Stevens), and finally when he saves Buck from Hal’s clutches. Ford’s character also narrates the story. This is a departure from the book, which confines Thornton’s presence to the stretch of the tale when he and Buck are together. In the book, Thornton is a good human to Buck, and Buck loves him madly—but he’s still one stop on Buck’s journey, not the destination. But that’s a hard thing for a movie starring a human movie star to pull off.
The Thornton character gets a much more extensive—and cheesy—backstory in this film. Ford’s Thornton is drinking too much, recovering from the death of his son, and the movie follows a classic Hollywood “man rescues dog; dog rescues man” narrative. At one point, Buck even physically removes the bottle from Thornton’s hands and buries it in the snow. One of the things the movie Thornton learns from his time with Buck is that he no longer cares about gold. He finds a fruitful claim with Buck while on a journey they undertake simply because Thornton’s son had an affection for adventure stories. He then dumps all of the gold they’ve panned back into the river, declaring “Enough gold for groceries for life; that’s all a man needs.” Jack London, socialist, might actually agree with that sentiment, but the John Thornton of the book was never such an idealist: He was happy to find gold, when he did.
Race and representation
London was intimately familiar with the pseudo-scientific ideas around human hierarchy and eugenics of the time from reading the popular books about these concepts that educated people considered au courant. But he was also a socialist, and his published writing usually came down on the side of the oppressed. “London was capable of uttering abhorrent crudities in support of white superiority,” writes Jeanne Campbell Reesman in her study Jack London’s Racial Lives: A Critical Biography, “while a majority of his short stories are rich with imaginative insight into the lives of racial Others.”
When it came to writing about Native Alaskans, London wavered between criticism, condescension, and outrage over their treatment at the hands of white settlers. The novella The Call of the Wild features Yeehat Indians—not a real tribe, but a fictionalization of the Native people London encountered when he was in the Klondike—as antagonists, but also objects of pity. The influx of whites during the Gold Rush, London’s Klondike stories make clear, was a disaster for the Native tribes .At one point in The Call of the Wild, a pack of wild dogs from “some Indian village,” “half-starved,” attack the camp where Perrault and Francois are resting for the night, making off with half of the “grub.” “Never had Buck seen such dogs,” London writes. “It seemed as though their bones would burst through their skins.”
The Yeehat kill John Thornton, his other dogs, and his whole camp of prospectors when Buck is away running with the wolves. Buck massacres many of these aggressors, a scene the book portrays as a final act of separation from his domesticated past. The book ends with London describing the Yeehat’s stories of the “Ghost Dog,” who strikes fear in their hearts: “It has cunning greater than they, stealing from their camps in fierce winters, robbing their traps, slaying their dogs, and defying their bravest hunters.”
All of this is purged from this movie. No “Yeehat,” no starving “Yeehat ” dogs. Definitely no wild Buck, periodically returning to wreak revenge on “hunters found with throats slashed cruelly open.” Instead, the prime antagonist becomes Hal, a (white) tenderfoot dandy who resents John Thornton’s interference with his abuse of Buck. The only Native characters are Francoise, who’s never overtly identified as such, and an unnamed man in a bar who comes to Thornton’s defense in a fight with Hal. In trying to sidestep anything vaguely problematic, the film offers a bizarre vision of the historical Northwest, in which miners and mushers of all races and genders toil for gold in a landscape open for the taking.
What it feels like to be a sled dog
“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise,” London wrote, describing how Buck felt hunting a hare with his teammates. “And such the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” The scenes in the movie where Buck and his team, under Perrault’s direction, run well—when they coalesce as a unit and stream through the snowy woods, barking in joy, the viewer carried along right behind them—are an absolute pleasure to watch. This may be the one thing from the book that the movie gets absolutely right.