'Call of the Wild' stars Harrison Ford and a good dog named Buck. Jack London would hate it.

This fuzzier 2020 screen version manages, almost despite itself, to function as an effective critique of the London novel's obsession with manly strength and grit.
Harrison Ford in "The Call of the Wild."
Harrison Ford finds a very good dog.Twentieth Century Fox
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By Noah Berlatsky, cultural critic

Jack London's 1903 novel, “Call of the Wild,” is about the brutal, animal realities beneath the thin veneer of civilization. “Call of the Wild,” the 2020 movie, is mostly about cute CGI dog reaction shots. The book is a classic; the newest movie adaptation not so much. But for all its weaknesses, the family friendly, ingratiating, empty-headed 2020 screen version manages, almost despite itself, to function as an effective critique of the London novel and its obsession with manly strength and gritty grit.

The movie's basic plot follows that of the book. It's 1897, and the Alaska gold rush is in full swing. Buck, an enormous domestic dog, is kidnapped from his home in California and sold to pull sleds in the Yukon. He adapts to his new surroundings, and listens to the call of the wild, which brings out his buried hunter wolf instincts.

Jack London's 1903 novel, “Call of the Wild,” is about the brutal realities beneath the thin veneer of civilization. “Call of the Wild,” the 2020 movie, is mostly about cute dog shots.

The novel sees Buck's journey into atavism as a triumph over civilized weakness and pretense. Buck's first beating at the hands of a cruel master is treated as almost a religious conversion: "That club was revelation… The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect," London writes. London also exults in "the decay or going to pieces of [Buck's] moral nature" as the dog learns to steal food from humans and other dogs alike. "It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings," London says. But in the north, "under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool." Buck becomes a tougher, more awesome, more interesting dog because he comes to understand the hungry necessity of selfishness, cruelty and mercilessness.

The movie is having none of this. Buck's brutal encounter with the club is not celebrated, but quickly passed over in silhouette. As for the decay of Buck's moral nature, it simply doesn't happen. London celebrates Buck learning to steal from the other dogs; in the film, Buck shows he is a special dog by deliberately sharing his meal with a less fortunate companion (the other dogs are all, appropriately, stunned by this display of generosity.) Buck is so gentle, he won't even kill a rabbit he's chased down. Forget the law of club and fang; this is the law of cute and nuzzle.

In its slobbering rush for kid-friendly credentials, the film carefully skirts the book's fiercer aspects. Defeated dogs quietly retreat rather than being torn to pieces by the pack. Feckless city slickers are just embarrassed, rather than killed, by their lack of knowledge on the trail. And so forth

In place of London's harsh truths, we get dog antics and heroics. Buck, in the movie, is a kind of super dog, rushing to rescue a human from drowning or the sled from an avalanche. He even saves a wolf from being washed away in some rapids. And when he's not performing noble deeds, he's getting into adorable mischief: decimating a table laden with food or hiding the liquor from good master John Thornton (Harrison Ford.)

But while the film’s decision to eschew cruelty is calculated, so was London's decision to emphasize it.

Thornton lost his young son to illness years before the start of the film, and Buck effectively becomes his surrogate son. Instead of a story about the triumph of the wild over civilization, the movie becomes a tale about grief, reconciliation and healing. Or more precisely, those themes stump around each other in the snow, confusing the tracks and never quite getting back to camp. Stripped of London's mean-spirited violence, the movie version of “Call of the Wild” doesn't have the propulsive inevitability of the original. Instead, it meanders, from adorable set piece to adorable set piece. The movie is the equivalent of looking at WeRateDogs online, except that the writing on the WeRateDogs account is better.

It would be easy to say that the problem with the movie version of “Call of the Wild”is a lack of realism. London showed us life stripped to the sinew. The movie shows us life with the skin stripped away to reveal the inner plush toy.

But while the film’s decision to eschew cruelty is calculated, so was London's decision to emphasize it. The city slicker death scene was particularly gratuitous in the book, reinforcing a very clear moral: city folk are bad and must be punished! The movie chooses, again and again, to avoid violence and protect its characters from death. The book in contrast chooses blood and bone whenever it can. London even conjures up a tribe of senselessly violent native people to murder Buck's master so he can fulfill his date with atavism. Raw truth in this case means racist pulp stereotypes.

At the end of book and film, Buck is loose in the forest, free and masterless. London loved the idea of a too civilized creature being transformed by cold and hardship and instinct into "a killer, a thing that preyed." He liked the idea of a life that punished frivolity and rewarded true toughness and strength. The movie has a gentler, fuzzier, vision. It's less compelling in many ways. But that big, crass, CGI dog is a reminder that London's original Buck, and London's novel, aren't necessarily more true because they're more cruel.