The following contains spoilers for the new film version of The Call of the Wild. And the book too if you haven't read it.
It's been over 100 years since Jack London's The Call of the Wild was first published. In that time, the story has been adapted a number of times for both the big and small screen. The newest big screen version stars Harrison Ford in the main human role and uses all the modern tricks of movie making to create Buck the dog (and main character) via digital effects. But how exactly does the new movies' story compare to the one written by Jack London?
As one might expect, the new movie makes a handful of significant changes, many of which are perhaps unsurprising considering the ways the world has changed in the century since the book was first published. Here's a rundown of how the new The Call of the Wild movie compares to the book that inspired it, with the film's most significant changes.
Buck Has More Backstory
One area in which the new film might actually improve on Jack London's book is that the film really gives its main character an arc. While both book and movie start out in the same place, with Buck the property of a Northern California judge, the movie shows us a Buck who has so totally embraced his comfortable lifestyle that he's become a little out of control. Buck does whatever he wants, clearly without considering the consequences of his actions. It makes the transition to Buck's hard life in the Yukon feel that much more jarring when it happens.
In the book, we don't get to know Buck very well before he is taken, and the judge, played by Bradley Whitford in the film, is only ever referenced. We just learn what and where Buck is and then he's off, Although, in the movie, Buck is taken by a stranger who knows he can make money off him, in the novel Buck is kidnapped by one of the judge's gardeners who has a gambling problem and needs the money to pay debts.
We Meet Harrison Ford's Character Much Earlier
In the film, as soon as Buck arrives up north, he has his first run-in with Jack Thornton. Buck returns Thornton's lost harmonica. Then, later while Buck is part of the sled team delivering the mail, the two meet again. These moments, along with the narration done by Harrison Ford, are creations of the film. In the Call of the Wild book, Buck and Thornton don't cross paths until the events that lead directly to the pair becoming companions, which are fairly accurate to what happens in the book.
Jack Thornton doesn't arrive until quite near the end of what isn't a particularly long book to begin with. Odds are that, especially since Harrison Ford is in the movie, there was a desire to not leave his appearance until the end of the movie, so these scenes were added in.
Buck Lets Spitz Live
One of the biggest changes between the book and the movie is the level of violence on display. The film is rated PG and so the amount of blood shown on screen and the abuse that Buck experiences is commensurate with that rating. It also means that Buck himself is a much kinder dog in the movie than he is in the book. In the film version of Call of the Wild, when Buck joins the sled dog team delivering the mail, we see instantly that Spitz, the lead dog, doesn't like Buck, and clearly there is going to be a confrontation. When that confrontation comes in the film, Spitz injures Buck pretty severely, but when the other dogs come to Buck's aid, he's able to overcome Spitz and defeat him. The beaten dog runs off, never to be seen again.
In the book, Spitz meets a much more definitive end. While Spitz does start to win the fight between the two (which in both versions is preceded by a chase after a rabbit) Buck eventually takes control, but Buck doesn't stop and let Spitz live. Buck kills his rival, and not simply because he has to, Buck also wants to lead the team and he has to kill the current leader to do that. The sympathy we see in the film version of Buck is largely absent in the book, because Buck has already begun to embrace his wolf-like nature.
Francois and Perrault Are Much Nicer Masters
Buck's first masters in both the book and movie of The Call of the Wild are named Francois and Perrault and the pair work for the U.S. Mail delivering letters in remote parts of the wilderness. In the film, Francois and Perrault are a woman and a man, a couple who deliver the mail together. In the book, they are both men. Also, in the film, they are mostly kind masters, in the book, they're much harder.
In Jack London's book the pair are more than willing to get violent with their dogs when they feel it's necessary. While Perrault and Francois in the movie are largely oblivious to the hostility between Buck and Spitz, in the book, the pair are well aware of it, and they actually let the dogs work out their own disagreements (read: fight each other) only stepping in when necessary to keep them from actually killing each other. When Spitz doesn't return after Buck kills him, the pair don't need to have seen the fight to know what happened.
All The Other Dogs (And Hal) Survive
As mentioned previously, there's a level of violence in Jack London's novel which is significantly reduced in the film adaptation. This even happens with activity that the movie doesn't bother to show us. After Harrison Ford's Jack Thornton joins the story proper, he saves Buck from the completely clueless Hal (Dan Stevens) and his sister Mercedes (Karen Gillan), which does happen more or less as it does in the novel. Thornton also warns them that the ice is thin and libel to crack under the weight of the sled, but they won't listen.
Later, a disheveled Hal returns to town and attacks Jack. He informs us that the ice did crack and the sled did sink. His sister and her husband died, and the dogs "ran off." This one's for all the dog lovers in the audience apparently, because in the book, the dogs die with everybody else. In fact, in the book, only three other dogs survive this far with Buck, the rest having died during the trips with Francois and Perrault. In fact, in the book, Hal himself also dies, so this scene never happens.
Harrison Ford's Character Is Alone
In The Call of the Wild film, Harrison Ford's Jack Thornton is a man living in the Yukon territory, where so many are searching for their fortune, but Jack is not. He moved there simply to be alone because he lost a son and could not bear to be around other people. This back story is created specifically for the film, as Jack Thornton in the book is a different man.
Jack Thornton in The Call of the Wild, the book, is a man looking to make his fortune like most everybody else. What's more, he's not an entirely lonely soul. He has two friends in Jack London's novel, Pete and Hans, and the three of them, along with Buck and a sled full of dogs, go looking for a fabled lost cabin. In the film, we just get Jack and Buck heading off into the wilderness just to explore, and coming upon the cabin by happenstance.
Jack Is Killed By Hal
Hal survives The Call of the Wild much longer in the film, because he ends up becoming the film's main villain. He follows Jack, assuming he is hiding a major gold find, which turns out to be true, though not intentional. Hal and Jack get into a fight that burns down the cabin, and Buck arrives just in time to make sure Hal burns with it, though not in time to save Jack.
In the book, Buck returns from one of his excursions with the local wolf population to find Jack, along with Hans and Pete, all dead at the hands of a local Yeehat Indian tribe. Buck proceeds to kill several of the natives in vengeance. He then joins the local wolf pack since he has lost all his ties to humanity, though he continues to attack the Yeehats on a regular basis, because apparently Buck holds a grudge. Clearly, this ending would not play well today, which is why we got the change.
There's A Lot More Action
I'm sure this will come as a shock to you, but this Hollywood version of The Call of the Wild added in entire action sequences that don't take place in the novel. There are two main sequences that never happen in the book. First, when Francois and Perrault are crossing an iced over lake, Francois hits a thin spot, and falls into the ice cold water. Buck then jumps in to save her and nearly drowns himself. Honestly, if the Francois from the book had fallen in the lake, Buck would have likely let him go.
Later, after Buck is leading the sled team, a random avalanche comes roaring down the mountain, and Buck makes the decision to head for a cave rather than to try to outrun the fall. This sequence is also a completely new addition to the story, but it makes for an exciting moment.
The basic structure of The Call of the Wild, the story of a domesticated dog that reclaims its heritage and history, remains intact in the film version, even if some of the details have been condensed and changed. In the end, the new Call of the Wild, with all its changes, is one of the more faithful versions of the story to make it to the screen. This movie, like the book, is a story about a dog, the men are just along for the ride.