Take one of Hollywood’s longest-serving stars, add one of the US’s classic literary texts, throw in a few Oscar-winning crew behind the scenes and you surely have the recipe for a great movie.
What are we talking about? Harrison Ford starring in the latest adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, directed by How To Train Your Dragon’s Chris Sanders, with two-time Academy Award-winning cinematrographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List) behind the lens.
The story comes from London’s adventure novel written almost 120 years ago. It was first adapted for the big screen in 1923 then again in 1935 (starring Clark Gable). In 1972 another version starring Charlton Heston was released. A Charlie Brown cartoon has been based on it, there’s an ainme version from 1981 and in 1997, Ford’s Blade Runner sparring partner Rutger Hauer starred in another. While Ford re-read the book before filming, he stayed away from the other movie adaptations, preferring not to be influenced.
Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a dog that moves from his simple, domestic life in California to be part of a sled pack during the gold rush in the Yukon, Alaska. It’s there that he meets Ford’s character John Thornton and they form an instant bond.
While others are searching for gold, Thornton is searching for redemption, understanding and peace after the death of his son. The epic tale uses animals to explore themes of the human condition.
London is a huge figure in American literature, but parts of his life, and some of his works, are now considered problematic. A socialist, who called for the government to be overturned and for political leaders to be assassinated, some of his more radical views have been overlooked in favour of this cuddly story about a dog.
Ford, known for saving the day in roles such as Indiana Jones, Han Solo and Blade Runner’s Deckard, explains why he’s taking on this more down-to-earth role.
Did you read the book when you were at school?
In high school, which I would consider the right time to read it by yourself. But if you’re going to be in the company of your parents, then I think there’s an earlier opportunity, and that’s the film that we’re making. We’re making a film based on The Call of the Wild that younger children can enjoy.
Thornton and Buck have a very special relationship. Are you a pet-lover too?
I have always had dogs. We are presently down to three from four. They’re all rescues, shelter dogs or found in the street. Two little terrier mixes and some sort of pug.
What kind of relationship do you have with them?
It’s different with each dog – Juno and January are brother and sister but they have quite different personalities, and Mugs, the little pug, is nearly blind, maybe deaf, so he’s a little different right now.
Did your pets influence the decision to make the movie?
It’s more about storytelling. It was the opportunity to do something different, to play a character different to one I’ve played before, and to work with talented people.
What did you think when you re-read the book for the role?
That it successfully captures and explores its themes. Though, to be honest, I know a little too much about Jack London now.
Does that make you think differently about his work?
No, it just makes it really interesting that there’s that complication in life and in men and in the world. They do say don’t meet your heroes. There’s a lot of heroic context around the name of Jack London, but the reality is something quite different.
There’s a recurring theme of nature versus nurture in his work. What do you think?
Right now we’re more aware than ever that the weight of the human population on this planet is disadvantaging nature’s capacity to serve mankind. But we’re a part of nature, not above it. Nature doesn’t need people – people need nature. All of the problems that we’ve created for ourselves on this planet would be solved without our presence. Nature could recover if we get out of the way, but we like living here – we should treat where we live with respect and understanding. What happens in one place has an influence on everywhere else on the planet.
But that doesn’t seem to matter in the Star Wars universe, does it?
I think the context in which that character was useful to the telling of the story existed in the community of other characters. There was the callow youth, the wise old warrior, the beautiful princess… and there was the wise guy. And I was him. I think the character was useful to the narrative that was established. I was quite happy to see the character be sacrificed for an emotional complication. So I’ve served my purpose in Star Wars, served my time in a galaxy far, far away, and now I’d like to come home and do what you do at home.
Call of the Wild is in cinemas from February 20.