by Alvin G. Burstein
For decades, H. L. Mencken adorned the public sphere as an acerbic social, political critic and literary critic. Said to have coined the term Booboisie, he opined, “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
When he wasn’t spearing the electorate, he harpooned literary icon Henry Adams thusly, “Take any considerable sentence…and examine its architecture. Isn’t it wobbly with qualifying clauses….Doesn’t it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder?”
Clearly, he wasn’t a man given to formulaic praise. That gives his evaluation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild special weight: “No other popular writer of his time did any better writing than you will find in The Call of the Wild. Here, indeed, are all the elements of sound fiction.”
I had read the book as a young boy, remembering mostly the emotional scene when his owner, having staked his all on the ability of his sled dog to pull a load of a thousand pounds, pleads with the animal, “As you love me, Buck.” And Buck rises to the occasion. The dog lover in me still feels misty about it.
Before seeing the 2019 film, I re-read the book. The focus of this review will be on their differences.
The film’s visuals capture the majesty of the north land in a spectacular way. But the novel’s focus on Buck’s transition from favored status to forced servitude, to dedicated but savage sled dog, to mystical lupine master are trivialized and blurred in the cinematic version. Buck is an almost cartoonish, a clown, in the film’s opening scenes turning his being beaten into obedience into a different kind of humiliation.
The novel captures the harsh physical demands of sled dogs’ lives and their desperate, urgent need for food of any kind in ways that the film glosses over. The book also highlights the compelling force of habitual accommodation—what William James called the great flywheel of behavior—that eventuates into Buck’s dedication to his role as leader of the dog team.
The most striking divergence between the two accounts has to do with the fate of John Thornton, the object of Buck’s love. In the book, Thornton is killed by Indian savages, upon whom Buck wreaks murderous revenge. In what is a nod to current convention, in the film Thornton is shot by one of Buck’s early Alaskan exploiters, and dies while Buck attempts to comfort him.
Plot-wise, the manner of Thornton’s death distracts from one of the book’s central foci, the deep ancestral call that draws Buck away from what most would call civilization into a savage and primitive state, one with its own stark beauty.
And on a personal note, the dog lover in me wanted to see Buck’s response to Thornton’s “as you love me.” That scene, alas, is omitted in the film.
I can’t imagine what H. L. Mencken would have to say about the movie. What I say is, “Read the book.”