Adapting 'The Call of the Wild'
In around a month, Jack London’s short novel, The Call of the Wild, will debut as feature film (for the second time, following an adaptation starring Clark Gable in the 1930s). Here, the dog at the heart of the story, Buck, will be computer animated, while the role of John Thornton will be played by someone used to playing intrepid explorers of different descriptions, one Harrison Ford.
With the release of the film still a month away, we cannot say much about its treatment of any one aspect of the source material. What we can do, though, is ask what it is about the book that means it is being remade in this period. Inevitably, adaptations raise questions not just about the original, the source material, and the time of initial composition, but what it is about our own age that sees the text appeal to this day.
Technical concerns jump immediately to mind. With the ability to animate Buck, there is the potential to go beyond what you can do with a real dog portraying him. The importance of this is that Buck was always somewhat anthropomorphised and had human thoughts and emotions. With CGI now ubiquitous in contemporary cinema the possibility exists to replicate the human emotions and perspectives that exist within the canine central character.
Beyond the technological improvements that make this an attractive proposition, one wonders what the cultural impulses are to make this story now. We are, after all, in a very different position from that in which the story was set – the Gold Rush is confined to history now, and Americans are not streaming forth into the wilds of Canada looking to strike it rich. Nor, really, does this seem to be a moment in which the desire to escape from civilisation, to ‘light out for the territory’, seems to be particularly pronounced. There is always something of that impulse in certain elements of American society but in comparison with previous eras, this does not seem to be particularly vivid today, and migratory patterns seem to be more towards the Sun Belt than from East to the (particularly frozen) West.
A novel, then, that sees a character return to nature – that sees him answer the call of the wild, as the title of the book would have it – looks rather curious at the moment (and I say this as someone who has had a lot of affection for the text since childhood). On the one hand London was a socialist, and the word has undergone something of a rehabilitation in recent years, not least because of the appeal in some quarters that Bernie Sanders has; but on the other, London like many of his contemporaries was interested in eugenics, and the book contains themes in keeping with what we might consider a kind of social Darwinism.
This, ultimately, is the area in which we need to be thinking in 2020 – what is the purpose of remaking a text that plays out ideas from Nietzsche in the modern age? And perhaps more crucially, what do we have to reconcile in our own enjoyment of a text revolving around our own ideas – and, if the film goes on to be successful, how do we go about reconciling the ongoing appeal of such ideas?
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University