The Call Of The Wild – the story of a teenage dog coming of age that has endured over 100 years

Based on Jack London’s legendary adventure and the 1935 film adaptation , The Call Of The Wild is a cinematic experience of a lifetime, a hybrid of live action and animated filmmaking employing cutting edge visual effects and animation technology

Prior to its publication as a short novel in 1903, Jack London’s adventure-  saga about a dog named Buck was serialized in “The Saturday Evening Post” magazine.  Translated into 47 languages, it has never been out of print since, an enduring example of classic American literature. Following in the footsteps of four other film adaptions and a TV series, this latest film adaptation is directed by Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) from a screenplay by Michael Green (Murder on the Orient Express).  

Novelist, journalist, social activist, and a pioneer in the world of commercial magazine fiction, John Griffith London, also known as Jack London, was also an innovator in the genre that would later become known as science fiction. He was one of the first writers to become a worldwide celebrity and earn a large fortune from writing and his short adventure novel Call Of The Wild was published in 1903, which was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1903, published in book form, and the book’s great popularity resulted in its film debut in 1923, followed by several more cinematic adaptations, and is now retold on the big screen. 

The Call Of The Wild vividly brings to the screen the story of Buck, a big-hearted dog whose blissful domestic life is turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted from his California home and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Canadian Yukon during the Gold Rush of the 1890s. As the newest rookie on a mail delivery dog sled team–and later its leader–Buck has embarked on an extraordinary coming-of-age journey that will lead him to ultimately discover his true place in the world and become his own master.

For screenwriter Michael Green, “it’s not for nothing that The Call of the Wild became part of the great American canon.” 

“It speaks to people on many different levels.  It’s a great travel-adventure story in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson.  It told people about places in North America that they’d heard of, but had only seen pictures of. There had been a mania in America about the Klondike Gold Rush.  Newspapers couldn’t print enough stories about it.  People weren’t even aware that it was built on the back of dogs. It’s the story of a teenage dog coming of age, becoming a grown man.

“There’s a time in every dog’s life where they have to protect themselves, where they have to protect their pack, protect their human. And there’s a wolf instinct inside them that some dogs have greater access to, but pushed in the right direction they all find.  Then you have a dog like Buck who has to go through some terrible and hard experiences to find that within himself.”

Michael Green

Producer Erwin Stoff ‘s father first introduced him to The Call of the Wild,  reading it to him as a young boy in Romania.  Flash forward many decades and thousands of miles away to Los Angeles and one weekend I was on the phone with Michael Green discussing what movie he’d like to write next. He said he wanted to write something very cinematic that had a lot of visual elements and wasn’t dependent on ‘quippy’ dialogue.  He actually sent me a graphic novel about wolves and I said if that’s the world we’re going to be in, we should think about The Call of the Wild.”

“I think the reason this story has endured for over 100 years is that like all great literature, it has some universal elements,” explains Stoff.  “It’s about loss, the curing of loss, home and being ripped away from home and perhaps most of all, finding a better and stronger version of yourself.”

“Emotionally and thematically, it is this notion of — how the most innocent of creatures who never lets himself be affected by anything negative brings out the very best in all of us.  And how that improves everybody’s life.  Everyone whose life Buck touches is better for it and I think that’s an incredibly powerful emotional trigger.”

“Michael was able to change and accentuate enough to make it cinematic, says Stoff.”

What attracted Michael Green to this film was the fact that the story had been told in different versions through the years, but never the entire book from beginning to end and always from the point of view of the humans rather than the protagonist, Buck.

Green recalls, “I sat down with Erwin and said wouldn’t it be amazing to tell a story that’s largely about knowing exactly what a character is about and what he’s up to without relying on dialogue. 

“We wanted to see if we could tell Buck’s story visually.  We didn’t need him to talk; we didn’t need to have a voice over.  Rather, we needed to be clear about what Buck was after at any given moment.  As long as we knew what Buck was trying to accomplish in each scene, from moment to moment, we knew you could follow the story.  Although he would come across wonderful humans played by incredible actors, they were going to be an enhancement to Buck’s story.

Says Chris Sanders, who makes his live-action directorial debut, “The Call Of The Wild is all about a character that has unexpected things thrown at him, things that you and I would probably recognize as just the sort of stuff life does. Unexpected challenges can either defeat you, or make you stronger, and that’s what happens to Buck. Rather than being defeated at these different turns, Buck keeps going and eventually finds a place where he belongs.  Buck doesn’t just survive, he prevails, and he does so with his gentle character intact. It so closely relates to what we are going to all go through in life. We’re always going to be traveling in uncertainty, unexpected turns and stuff like that.”

Chris Sanders

“Even though it’s a childhood classic,” says Sanders, “it’s not a fairy tale. It’s a gritty story of survival and perseverance and whether you’re young or old, I think you either have or will experienced these sorts of things. You sense that there’s a truth inside this story that that you might be living yourself.  And I think that’s why this story endures.  It’s a story of a character uncovering strengths that he didn’t know he had.”  

In this 21st century screen version of The Call Of The Wild, Buck would carry the emotional arc of the entire movie, so he needed to be completely believable in all circumstances.  To make that happen, Stoff and Sanders early on hired acclaimed visual effects producer Ryan Stafford, also an executive producer on the film, and visual effects supervisor Erik Nash, a three-time Academy Award- nominee.

Initially planned as mostly CGI-driven, the filmmakers decided instead on more of a hybrid approach incorporating more actual photography to blend with digitally-created dogs and other animals. This new approach would require Buck, the film’s lead character who carries the emotional arc of the story, to be much more authentic. 

Harrison Ford, best known for having created two of the most popular and iconic big-screen heroes in motion picture history, Star Wars’ Hans Solo and Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Indiana Jones, was attracted to the project for several reasons.

First, he liked the prospect of doing a film for younger audiences. Second, he was intrigued by how the filmmakers would be creating Buck and the other dogs by computer, and how that necessitated his having to act opposite a human dog stand-in.

Says Ford, “One of the most interesting details of shooting this film is that there were no dogs to work with, there was a human stand-in for Buck, to organize my eye line and to give me someone to participate with emotionally. It was at first a bit challenging, but then became quite good fun.

He adds, “I spent more time with Terry than I did with anyone else on this film. We helped each other accomplish what the other needed. I was acting for him as he was acting for me. We were there for each other.”

Director Sanders says, Harrison really brought a ton to the party.  In the  book, Thornton goes through certain situations with Buck, but I don’t think his character is super well defined.  And I think one of the wonderful things that Harrison did throughout this whole process was he was able to find that character, create that character. And really define what it was going to be. From the very beginning, he and I would have these very deep discussions about his character.”

From these conversations, Ford understood that his character’s place in the story was to redeem humanity in the eyes of Buck, after his experience with an abusive owner.

 But for the actor, who currently has three small dogs and has had dogs all his life, what was especially appealing was that the film was not only about Buck’s transformation, but also his character, John Thornton’s, as a result of his relationship with Buck.

Ford explains, “One of the things I am always looking for in a project is what I call an emotional exercise for the audience. A chance to participate in a story where they recognize themselves and generate the power of emotional understanding in the audience.”

Describing his character, Ford says, “John Thornton is a man who became uncomfortable in his life and in his world. He was unable to bear the pain and the burden of his circumstances. So he fled from his home down south to the Yukon, where he can find gold and strike it rich, and for another strongly emotional reason: his young son had always wanted to explore the wilderness. But he goes there really to find some peace and solitude.”

He continues, “Then he meets Buck, and they become companions in this journey, emotionally bonded, and they face danger and adventure together.  I was touched by that journey and the relationship between these two characters.

The Filmmakers

Born into an artistic household in Colorado, director Chris Sanders grew up drawing and penning short stories. Although Chris drew throughout school and served as the cartoonist for the Arvada High School newspaper, he hadn’t considered art as something he could do for a living. But when his grandmother found a random article about the California Institute of the Arts (or CalArts) in the Denver Post, everything changed.

Chris applied for and was accepted to CalArts’ Animation Program, and went on to work for Marvel Productions, and then Disney Studios. He worked as a story artist on The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, before he was made head of story on Mulan.

Near the end of Mulan, then-Head of Feature Animation Tom Schumacher asked Chris if there were anything he wanted to develop. “I remembered a story from eighteen years before that I had tried to write as a children’s book, but had given up on, because I couldn’t compress it into a short story format. Over a sushi dinner at the Walt Disney World Swan Resort, I pitched that story — a tale of a strange forest creature, shunned by all, and unaware of his own origins. Tom liked it, and when he suggested I relocate the tale of the lonely little monster into the human world, Lilo & Stitch was born.”

Chris wrote, boarded, and directed Lilo & Stitch with Dean DeBlois. In 2006, Chris left Disney Studios to join the filmmaking team at DreamWorks Animation. When he was given the opportunity to direct How to Train Your Dragon, he jumped at the chance.

Born March 12, 1962 in Colorado Springs, Chris Sanders was the middle of three children. Chris remembers, “Art was the dominant thing in our house as we grew up. My dad was always sketching and painting — mostly abstract stuff and Buck Rogers-style spaceships. On Friday nights, we all sat at the dining room table around big glasses of water and painted as a family. We were always welcome to draw at my dad’s desk, and we had a constant supply of Blackwing pencils and computer paper he had liberated from the office where he worked.”

When he wasn’t drawing or gathering things from other people’s trash, Chris used a manual Underwood typewriter to tap out short stories. “Tiny tales that usually ended in misfortune, misery, and disaster. I proudly passed the finished work out to my family. Rather than seek emotional counsel for me, they just asked for more stories, which I happily supplied, trying to invent new accidents more terrible than the last.”

At DreamWorks, Chris also wrote and directed the comedy-adventure feature film The Croods with Kirk DeMicco, which was released on March 22, 2013.

In 2015, Chris made his publishing debut with the young-adult novel “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist,” a concept created by Chris’s wife and co- author, Jessica Steele-Sanders. In addition to co-writing the book, Chris also provided the character designs and cover illustrations.

Screenwriter Michael Green is a film and television writer and producer.

Green most recently wrote the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and he co-wrote Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve, Alien: Covenant, directed by Ridley Scott, and Logan, directed by James Mangold.  The latter earned Green a nomination for an Academy Award.

In television, Green is the creator of NBC’s Kings and co-creator of Starz’s American Gods, adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel.  He has produced and written for such shows as Raising Dion, Heroes, Smallville, Everwood and Sex and the City.