The most popular American writer of his too-brief heyday, Jack London died just over a century ago at the age of 40, his health seriously deteriorated by the long-term wear of alcohol, tropical maladies, and other ails. Yet he proved to be a very modern celebrity, using every tool available—including film—to expand his brand.
During the last half of his life, motion pictures outgrew their initial identity as a presumedly short-term novelty. The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, greatly advancing “flickers” as both an art form and a political lightning rod. By then, the media-savvy writer had appeared on-screen several times, and movie versions of his stories were already ubiquitous.
This year will bring two high-profile adaptations of London’s work—both very different from anything he could have imagined. In yet another take on The Call of the Wild, a big Hollywood hybrid of live action and computer animation is reportedly budgeted in the realm of $100 million, and Martin Eden, a daring Italian adaptation of London’s autobiographical novel, has won prizes on the festival circuit.
DOG’S BEST FRIEND
The first known adaptation of London’s work was 1907’s The Sea Wolf, with at least three more versions following during the silent era alone. The next year saw the first of many celluloid takes on The Call of the Wild, this one by future Birth director D.W. Griffith, no less. London’s books went on to become popular with movie makers and remain so today. The rugged outdoor adventures with which he’s identified arguably have an appeal more broad and timeless than even the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, whose adaptations remain plentiful but are usually aimed at a narrower audience. Whole TV series as well as numerous films have been spun from London’s stories.
Call was London’s breakthrough, and it remains his most popular book. It tells the tale of Buck, a Saint Bernard–Scotch shepherd mix whose indulged life on a wealthy judge’s estate in Northern California’s Santa Clara Valley ends abruptly when a duplicitous employee abducts him to sell to traders at the height of the Klondike gold rush. Shipped off to Alaska, he proves strong and adaptable enough to survive in his grueling new role as a sled dog. But in the end, he “goes native”—joining a wolf pack and leaving the world of human command and devotion behind.
Though there’s little record of his comments on the matter, London doesn’t appear to have been bothered much by the fact that the film adaptations made during his lifetime were seldom faithful, to put it mildly. America’s most highly paid author, he was also a spendthrift in constant need of cash. His primary concern regarding such movies seems to have been, simply, that he get paid more for them. He’d been the victim of some bad early deals, a result of his underestimating the new medium’s commercial potential.
Despite having been read by innumerable schoolkids, Call has been treated with particular disregard on-screen. Somehow, a story about a dog passing through myriad owners’ hands became a vehicle for Clark Gable in 1935, then Charlton Heston in 1972, to name just two examples. Their character—Buck’s final, ideal master, John Thornton—only surfaces in the book’s last third. But, the occasional marquee breakout of a Rin Tin Tin, a Lassie, or a Benji notwithstanding, it seems to have been considered impractical to build a live-action movie around a canine protagonist. Better to build up a conventional, two-legged hero and relegate Buck to a “man’s best friend” supporting role.
The forthcoming Call was one of relatively few planned productions to survive Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, yet studio reps were atypically closemouthed given its scheduled (at press time) February 21 release date. Still, one can guess the general direction of this first non-toon feature from Chris Sanders of Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon, and The Croods, particularly as it stars Harrison Ford as gold prospector Thornton and Terry Notary as Buck—more or less. Notary is a motion-capture actor known for providing the emotion behind such digitally enhanced nonhuman characters as Rocket in the recent Planet of the Apes movies.
Thanks to technological advancements in the same computer-generated imagery that made those apes more expressively interesting than their human counterparts, there’s reason to hope Disney’s Call will be more faithful to the novel than prior versions. As London conceived him, Buck is a credible hound but also a complex character: his instincts toward survival and loyalty are abetted by considerable intelligence, including a capacity for scheming and vengeance. Though it will likely downplay some of London’s more brutal content for the sake of family audiences, this Call may nonetheless have the will and the tools to finally go where arguably no prior adaptation has gone—to the source, in maintaining Buck’s point of view as its own.
Today, London’s identity remains firmly what it was during his life: he’s seen as a writer of adventure tales set in exotic locales whose real-life experiences as a global sailor and a would-be gold miner greatly informed his fiction. It’s little surprise, then, that the forthcoming adaptation of Martin Eden, a fictional tale of one writer’s rise from poverty to fame, sports any number of nakedly autobiographical elements.
In part because it’s the archetypal “portrait of the artist as a young man” (published seven years before James Joyce claimed that phrase), and partly because its titular hero wrestles with issues of class, economics, and political allegiance, Martin Eden remains popular in nations with a taste for the literature of proletarian struggle. It was adapted as a Russian TV movie in 1976, then three years later as an Italian miniseries. Now it’s back as a big-screen Italian production scheduled to reach U.S. cinemas this spring.
This second narrative feature by documentarian Pietro Marcello transplants a story specifically set in the turn-of-the-last-century San Francisco Bay Area to, primarily, Naples—a working-class port city with a long-established gentry. Martin (Luca Marinelli, who won the Best Actor prize for the role at 2019’s Venice Film Festival) is a roughneck whose yearnings for something finer are awakened by a chance introduction to a wealthy local family, in particular the beautiful daughter, Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy).
To make himself “worthy” of Elena’s love, Martin embarks on a course of self-education so exciting to his hitherto-dormant intellect that he decides he’ll be a professional writer. But he soon discovers that creativity is valued far less than money by the supposedly “liberal” Orsini family, who also disdain his class origins more than they’ll admit. It’s only when Martin becomes a roaring success à la Jack London that they’re willing to accept him—something he no longer wants.
The novel’s air of rebellion against a socioeconomic status quo makes it “the” Jack London tome for many outside the United States. Close ties between trade unions and communist sympathizers that were expunged here decades ago never quite vanished in Italy. Thus, in Marcello’s geographic reinvention of Martin Eden, the labor-focused political discourse makes perfect sense. The director also makes the story more universal by fudging its time period, introducing an escalating number of anachronistic audiovisual details over the course of the film. The aristocratic Orsinis are most firmly located in the fin de siècle, becoming the past that Martin sees receding behind him once he’s crawled out of the peasant mire, where nothing ever advances. By the end, he’s a 21st-century man. Meanwhile, Elena remains dressed for the Edwardian era, both literally and in antiquated spirit.
That epoch-blurring gambit doesn’t always work, particularly as the film renders its own narrative increasingly abstract by interpolating archival footage of Italian (and world) events from the past century. But our protagonist always feels alive as played by Marinelli. In his performance, Martin’s lust to think and create is inseparable from his physical restlessness; his writing is viewed as if it were some kind of marathon endeavor, a test of manly endurance. Like London himself, this Martin fights for both the common man and his own right to be as uncommon as possible. He’s at once against the wealthy and an aggressive pursuer of wealth.
There are at least four other major London screen adaptations currently in the works. You have to wonder how this beloved California author would react to learning how popular he’s remained so far into the future—beyond, of course, the certainty that he would be negotiating for a profit-sharing chunk of the box office.
Dennis Harvey reviewed The Last Black Man in San Francisco for Alta, Summer 2019.
• Directed by Chris Sanders
• Starring Harrison Ford, Terry Notary
• Theatrical release date: Feb. 21
• Runtime not available at press time
• Directed by Pietro Marcello
• Starring Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy
• Initial release date: Sept. 4, 2019 (Italy); Apr. 17 (USA)
• 129 minutes
Three outstanding Jack London adaptations
By the Law (1926): London was hugely popular in Russia, and not just because of his professed socialist sympathies. Lev Kuleshov’s classic silent is an adaptation of “The Unexpected,” a short story of snowbound madness in the Klondike gold rush–era Yukon.
The Sea Wolf (1941): Ida Lupino and John Garfield play fugitives who find themselves trapped on mad captain Edward G. Robinson’s seal-hunting ship. It’s an atmospheric thriller by Michael Curtiz, who the next year would direct Casablanca.
White Fang (1991): Grease director Randal Kleiser’s pleasing Alaskan adventure tale features a young Ethan Hawke as the novice gold prospector who rescues a wolf-dog hybrid from criminal abusers.