Book Club: Lessons We Learned From The Call of the Wild
Jack London's "The Call of the Wild" is one of the quintessential young adult novels. The story, about Buck, a dog from Southern California who is stolen and sold to be a sled dog in Alaska, has been a staple of reading lists for decades thanks to the book's combination of straightforward language and complex themes about surviving in a harsh environment.
The recent movie adaptation, written by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) and directed by Chris Sanders (LILO & STITCH, THE CROODS), preserves all the adventure and ideas of the original novel. It's a slightly more family-friendly version of the story, which makes it the ideal companion to the novel as a way to introduce your kids to this enduring classic.
From Page to Screen
[Image credit: 20th Century Studios]
THE CALL OF THE WILD makes a few minor changes to the story of the original novel, but the themes and core concepts remain consistent. As in other movie adaptations, the role of the character John Thornton — here played by marquee star Harrison Ford — is expanded from his original place in the novel. And the film softens a few events so that they're a bit less savage on screen than in the novel.
A Life of Adventure
Even beyond the context of the movie and novel versions of THE CALL OF THE WILD, Jack London's life is a rich vein of adventure. He worked as an oyster pirate and a sealing ship crew member, and was even a hobo, before the age of 19. Shortly afterward, he went north to take part in the Klondike Gold Rush. All of his experiences forged fiery personal and political beliefs and gave him incredible raw material as an author.
The Gold Rush experience in particular, and the treasure trove of stories he was told by other travelers, many of which he recorded in journals, became the basis for dozens of short stories. London saw writing as his road out of poverty and approached the work with discipline.
Throughout THE CALL OF THE WILD, Buck encounters a wide range of characters - both people and other dogs — all with widely different personalities. He learns something from each of them — when to be passive, when aggression can be useful, and above all else, how to survive. When talking about the story with children, one of the big takeaways is not only what Buck learns but how, and how the lessons and the ways in which they are learned go hand in hand.
Primitive or Civilized?
Jack London's experience and outlook led him to write about Buck would instinctually revert back to an uncivilized state in order to survive. (London would look at the opposite process in a later novel, "White Fang.") Whether you agree with London's ideas or not, the movie and novel present slightly different ways of engaging with the battle between civilization and the more primal instincts that can drive both people and animals.
Today, the most relevant theme in THE CALL FO THE WILE is perseverance. Buck keeps going in the face of harsh and difficult realities, and when situations are far out of his control. It's a potent reminder that we are all often able to achieve far more than we would ever have expected of ourselves — so long as we face up to challenges that arise.
Finding Depth in Simplicity
All this is only the beginning of what London's story offers. THE CALL OF THE WILD and the original novel both benefit from simple storytelling that belies the depth of the story. Jack London's unpretentious prose never gets in the way of his ideas, which still challenge and enrich readers more than a century after he sat down to write. For more ideas on how to approach the book, publisher Penguin has an outstanding study guide to "The Call fo the Wild," which breaks down the novel in great detail.
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All images courtesy of 20th Century Studios.