Maybe you’d like to know real cold, Chicago
Winter and ‘Call of the Wild’ remind us of Jack London
him forward. But he ran no more than 100 feet, when he fell head first. It was his last moment of fear. When he had recovered his breath and his control, he sat and thought about meeting death with dignity.”
Jack London knew cold. Once the most famous writer in the world, his best novel is “The Call of the Wild.” H.L. Mencken, a perceptive critic, wrote: “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: clear thinking, a sense of character, the dramatic instinct, and, above all, the adept putting together of words — words charming and slyly significant, words arranged, in a French phrase, for the respiration and the ear.”
It is a powerful book, the story of a dog (half Saint Bernard/half Scotch Collie) named Buck, kidnapped from his “big house in the sun-kissed” Santa Clara Valley in California and propelled into the harsh and frozen north and the savage characters of the Klondike Gold Rush, there to come under the gentle hand of gold prospector John Thornton and eventually discover his ancient roots.
It has been the basis for many movies, the first in 1923. The latest cinematic version (the ninth) arrives Feb. 21. This “The Call of the Wild” stars Harrison Ford, looking particularly scraggy in a white beard as Thornton. The dog? It is not real. It is a CGI creation, “played” by actor Terry Notary via that technological device known as “motion-capture.”
This may not be the only liberty taken. There are some things in the trailer for the film that are not in the book: a massive avalanche and Buck’s rescue of a woman who falls through the ice on a frozen lake. There is also a fight with a bear, barely noted in the novel. Oh, Hollywood.
But allow me to push you toward the work of Jack London.
If you are afflicted with a short attention span, “To Build a Fire” is not a long story. There are two versions of it, one written in 1902 and the other in 1908. I prefer the latter because it features a dog and it is colder and there is death. It is only 6,708 words long.
I gave a copy of the story to noted local writer Peter Ferry, who has written two fine novels, “Travel Writing” and “Old Heart.” He too had read it before and upon rereading it told me, “I had forgotten just how cold ‘To Build a Fire’ makes you. I am turning up the heat.”
Jack London never knew of wind chill factors, but he knew the cold. He was only 21 in 1897 when, after some miserable California years as an oyster pirate and hobo, he made his way to Alaska in search of gold. He never found any but did accumulate the material for short stories and for “The Call of the Wild” (1903) and such other novels as “White Fang” (1906). He was wildly prolific, writing 1,000 words a day, and ever traveling.
He was a major celebrity and there is little doubt that he influenced such future writers as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair. But his views on politics and race compelled one of his biographers, James L. Haley, to write in 2010’s “Wolf: The Lives of Jack London” (Basic Books) that London was “the most misunderstood figure in the American literary canon.”
He died in 1916 at the age of 40 and though his books still sell and are taught in schools, he remains, as Haley puts it, “the mostread revolutionary socialist in American history, agitating for violent overthrow of the government and the assassination of political leaders — and he is remembered now for writing a cute story about a dog.”
The new “The Call of the Wild” movie is sure to draw some to the book, where they will read: “When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight …”
Enjoy. But know, if and when you watch the movie, that the entire film was shot in California.
Oh, well. So it goes. Winter will be over, so I am told, in a few weeks.
Harrison Ford stars as John Thornton in the latest film version of Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” The dog, Buck, is a CGI creation.
Jack London wrote “The Call of the Wild” on this typewriter, currently on display at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. It is a Bar Lock #10 dating from 1902, the oldest in the exhibition.