Film & TV

Turning The Call of the Wild into a Sappy Love Story

A scene from PBS’ The Call of the Wild (PBS)
The word ‘virility’ appears throughout London’s classic tale of survival. Trigger alert.

Harrison Ford’s recent movie adaptation of The Call of the Wild flopped at last month’s box office, and now the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) got $75 million as part of the Senate’s emergency-relief compromise package. Thoughts about these catastrophes came together with the PBS segment on Jack London’s novel The Call of the Wild that was part of the program The Great American Read. It was kill-time viewing for the Chinese coronavirus quarantine, but the coincidence rings an alarm.

The Great American Read was an eight-part series from 2018 designed to encourage literacy among boob-tube watchers, continuing the CPB’s enlightenment mission — Sesame Street for everybody. So London’s 1903 novel, included among the program’s list of “America’s 100 Best Loved Books,” was presented like storytime hour, and the novel’s virtues were explained by surprise literary expert Chelsea Clinton.

One dismaying, and condescending, CPB trend was its decision to include celebrity figures in the lineup of go-to liberal talking heads typically seen in PBS docs. Using celebrity to fight illiteracy mostly promotes celebrity. Chelsea Clinton’s appearance on The Great American Read exposes CPB political bias, and her book testimony promotes Clintonian it-takes-a-village propaganda. (Was Hillary busy on another ghost-written book?) Chelsea’s obtuse reductionism offends the pleasures and legacy of American literature as much as the Disney film does, the latter reducing London’s characters to CGI animation + Harrison Ford.

What’s gone wrong in both Millennial film culture and official cultural broadcasting can clearly be seen in relegating The Call of the Wild to a made-up literary category that PBS inanely labeled “Enduring Love.”

London’s fierce imagination gets soft-pedaled by being presented through a politically correct lens. Chelsea begins with a reminiscence from junior high: “I remember it so vividly being positioned as a book that the boys would probably really like, which of course meant that I went home and read all, like, 100 pages of it that night.” A photo insert showed teenage Chelsea reading while lounging on a White House stairway.

She continues:

I wanted to have something that a girl could say in class the next day. The boys in the class just wanted to talk about how awesome it was that he [Buck, the book’s wolf-dog protagonist] was in the front of the pack and that he was a great hunter. Yeah, yeah, we could talk about that, but let’s not lose sight of the fact this is really a beautiful love story in some ways, too.

But this is not literary, it’s Disneyana that entirely misses the point of art — of reading — as a daunting, intellectually challenging adventure.

If a schoolgirl attitude toward literature, looking for feel-good nostrums and teenage love, is the best that PBS musters, can government-sponsored media truly promote education? Can the CPB ever advocate for reading to combat the illiterate nonsense of Hollywood’s commercial narrative compromises?

In Disney’s Harrison Ford film version, the significance of London’s anthropomorphic storytelling is lost to Pixar-style techno gimmicks, as seen in last year’s Lion King reboot. London articulated the animal psyche so brilliantly that it gives insight into the human thought process as well. Much has been revealed recently about London’s social attitude and his outdated racial politics, which PBS ignored. But The Great American Read also overlooked the genius of London’s expressivity by which Call of the Wild’s canine protagonist symbolizes the instinct for competition and survival. The story of Buck, who is more than a pet or beast of burden, has extraordinary human parallels.

The scenes of Buck’s mistreatment resemble, to a remarkable degree, the ingenuity in American slave narratives. This complicates London’s noted racism and undermines politically correct convention to demonstrate that strong art can provide analogies to the most complex human experience. But Chelsea’s emphasis is pure sap: “How much are we kind of shaped by either the presence or absence of love or nurture in our lives . . . how love really is eternal in its purest form.”

Shanna Peeples, identified as 2015 Teacher of the Year, continues the nonsense:

I think that this story, too, is one about sacrifice, and so in that way Buck is sort of a stand-in for almost a child type of a character. That the love [of master John Thornton] toward Buck in areas is the love of a father to a son. If you read it that way, it makes sense that he would put himself on the line to make sure this dog survives.

Here’s where PBS’s liberal politics are unhelpful. Art is misinterpreted as mush, and the complications of London’s personal history and creative depth are disregarded — an example of schoolhouse triteness that leaves students unprepared to deal with actual history or the modern world. It’s like describing Moby-Dick as Wall-E.

Through PBS’s quasi-feminist equality, Chelsea replaced the commentary of any man or boy. Is it fear of perpetuating “toxic” masculinity? But that’s precisely what Call of the Wild explores and makes exciting and understandable. London’s Darwinian saga says, “Mercy did not exist in the primordial world. . . . Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard his call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it.”

What is the CPB afraid of? The word “virility” appears throughout London’s book, culminating in what the author describes as “a certitude of direction that put man and his magnetic needle to shame.” Chelsea boils this down to “It is so important to treat each other with kindness, compassion, respect, decency, love.” She’s campaigning, but for what? This call for cultural conformity proves that PBS programming is not apolitical.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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