The problem with Jack London has always been that while he was a compelling storyteller with a vivid imagination, he was also a racist, or at least a writer who embraced racial ideas about the superiority of Anglo Saxons and the inferiority of African Americans, Asians and Latinos. Most of the racism that’s embedded in The Call of the Wild, London’s 1903 best selling novel, has been expunged from the latest cinematic version starring Harrison Ford as John Thornton, the prospector in the Yukon who cares more for the wilderness and dogs than he does for gold.
Indeed, the 2020 film, which has a computer-generated canine hero, is as politically correct in its own way, as London’s story is politically incorrect at least by today’s standards. Still, no criticism of the movie will prevent London fans from watching it and raving about it, flaws and all. To the faithful, London can do no wrong. He might have clay feet, but he’s still their god.
I saw the movie in Sonoma, California, where London is a local hero and can do no wrong. Not many members of the audience had read The Call of the Wild. Also, they don’t know much about London himself, but they think they know that he was a great writer.
This is not the first time that The Call of the Wild has been transposed from the page to the big screen. The 1935 version stars Clark Gable, Loretta Young and Jack Oakie. The 1973 remark features Charlton Heston. The 1996 version has a voice over by Richard Dreyfus and stares Rutger Hauer. Each movie carves out a territory of its own, and reflects the era in which it was made. None are true to London’s Weltanschauung, which he forged from his own rough-and-tumble life in Oakland and from his reading Nietzsche, Darwin and Marx.
The latest version offers a fairy-tale for our own era of global warming and environmental disaster. It describes a world with near pristine wilderness, the abundance of wild species, and little if any degradation of the natural world. It’s unreal. In the Yukon in 1898, London witnessed the wanton destruction of the landscape by mining and miners “digging, tearing and scouring the face of nature.” At the same time, London argued that the Yukon offered unparalleled opportunities for capital and labor to work together to create wealth and jobs.
Screenwriter Michael Green and director Chris Sanders are two savvy moviemakers. While their version is a remake, it’s also a critique of The Call of the Wild. In the novel, Indians kill the prospector, John Thornton. In revenge, Buck kills some of Indians—he’s an Indian killer—and enjoys the slaughter. Monsieur Perrault, the French Canadian mail courier, has been turned into a jolly African-American. His female companion on the trail looks like she might be a Native American, or at least a “half-breed,” as London would have called her. In 50 books, London never created an African-American character, though an African-American ex-slave raised him and he called himself a “white pickaninny.” He was cheeky.
On screen, Harrison Ford looks and acts like an old explorer. He’s no longer a youthful voyager in outer space, nor an intrepid archeologist. As John Thornton, he plays everyone’s favorite uncle who spouts words of wisdom. “You’re not my pet,” he tells Buck. “Do what your want.”
Teddy Roosevelt, who was no fan of London’s work, would probably be bored out of his mind with the latest movie. More than a century ago, he accused London of faking it as a nature writer. London took the bait, rose to the occasion and defended the veracity of The Call of the Wild and White Fang.
”I endeavored to make my stories in line with the facts of evolution,” he insisted. “I hewed them to the mark set by scientific research.” While he staked his career to pseudo-science, he also touted empire and fumed about the “savages” of the colonial world. Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, formed The Anti-Imperialist League. London never joined. Others founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). London insisted that “colored people” had never advanced, that African Americans were closer to apes than humans. 1903, the year that saw the publication of The Call of the Wild, also saw the publication of The Souls of Black Folk in which the author, W. E. B. Du Bois, observed, “The problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color-line.”
Ironically, though London is best known for his embrace of the wild, he lived like a highly civilized country squire with servants and field workers on a vast estate he called Beauty Ranch where he ruled the roost paternalistically. In an essay titled “The House Beautiful,” he argued that he had to have servants—they were a necessity— but that their rooms would have light and fresh air and not be “dens and holes.” He added, “It will be a happy house—or else I’ll burn it down.” It burned down, anyway, either by accident or arson. By the age of 40, London had burned himself up, but not before he made a fortune as a writer and became world famous on the back of the dog, Buck.
No twentieth-century American fiction writer poured out prose more beautiful than London, and no writer was more attached to the notion that someone had to be the top dog. No wonder that his own daughter, Joan, thought that if he had lived into the 1920s he would have become an admirer of Mussolini. The London faithful will have none of it.
Screenwriter Green and director Sanders have made a beautiful movie, and, though it’s not true to London’s political and social ideas, it does honor the spirit of adventure that pushed him to the Arctic and the South Seas. Moviegoers might enjoy the scenery and the special effects that make Buck look and sound like a real dog – almost.
Jonah Raskin is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution.