by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
Jack London (1876-1916) was a new kind of writer. He had lived the rough, untamed life he put into his stories. When Call of the Wild was published in 1903, London became a superstar writer, the Stephen King and John Grisham of his day.
This year, the Fresno County Public Library’s The Big Read, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is a series of programs centered on London, his writings, his world, and Call of the Wild.
For past Big Reads, I wrote plays based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe. This year, I am adapting Call of the Wild for the stage, which is not the simple task that it might seem.
“Call of the Wild? That should be easy. It’s been made into a bunch of movies, hasn’t it?”
Yes, but most of them don’t stay very close to the book. Clark Gable had a crack at it. Charlton Heston and Rick Schroeder each starred in a version, and there have been animated movies and a TV series. It is easier for filmmakers to focus on the human characters than on the rest of the story. Believe me, the book does not have a scene where the virile prospector shares a bathtub with a goldfield prostitute.
A year or two ago, there was a staged version at Oxford University in England. More than half of the Internet-posted pictures relating to the production show scenes with the family that owned Buck, the dog, before he was taken north to pull dogsleds, relationships that only merit a handful of sentences in the original text of London’s novel.
One of the problems with dramatizing Call of the Wild is that the main character is a dog, and there are other dogs and wolves in the story. How do you put animals onstage?
Do you train a pack of dogs to work on command? The brutality and fighting of Call of the Wild would cause PETA, the Humane Society, and the SPCA to descend on the production in a rage. I assure you, no animals were harmed in the making of this play.
Do you use puppets? I am a puppeteer, and I did think of the possibilities of using puppetry to create the illusion of animals the way Julie Taymor did with the stage version of The Lion King. It takes a lot of training and a lot of time and a lot of money to do that, so we kept looking for a solution, although some elements of shadow puppetry are employed in the show.
Do you put people in dog suits? There are many canine characters in Call of the Wild. If they were all in doggie suits, it would look pretty silly, like making a musical out of singing and dancing cats in a….Let’s just say that we didn’t do that.
Do you say, “These actors are going to play animals, and these actors are going to play people. Let’s pretend, okay?” That could work. If you have a terrific animal trainer like our talented choreographer Diane Engeln, and great actors like Rob Lippert, who plays Buck, it isn’t hard to imagine that the people on stage are sled dogs mushing their way across the frozen Yukon in Fresno…in March.
“Do the dogs talk to each other, like in Disney movies?”
“The show will be cute—right?—with all those dogs in the snow?”
This story takes place in sub-zero temperatures, in a land where the law is the club and the fang. It is a brutal environment, and there are brutal actions. Dogs fight and are killed, people die, and the only Golden Rule is the one that says, “Where gold is concerned, there are no rules.” This is not a play for children under the age of eight years, and might be too intense for sensitive children younger than twelve. There are some things that disturb me…and I wrote the play.
“In your Twain and Poe plays, you tried to use only the author’s words. Were you able to do that with Call of the Wild?”
London described some scenes without providing the actual words the characters said, so some dialogue had to be invented, based on Jack London’s descriptions of the events. A few additions were to explain things that the text did not clarify
“How did you get the entire book into a play that runs under 90 minutes with intermission?”
I didn’t. I had to cut things. Even though the book only runs between 70 and 120 pages in length, depending on the size of the pages and the type, there were sections that I took out. In London’s text, a female dog goes mad and has to be killed. There are not many female characters in the story, and they all seemed to die in unpleasant ways, so I decided that I did not want to show that particular death.
Some events in the book would be difficult to do with our style of production. In the original, Buck has trouble getting used to running on snow. To protect the dog’s paws, one of the sled-drivers makes booties for Buck that he puts on him before the day’s travel, and when the man forgets to put them on Buck, the 140-pound dog lies on his back and waves his legs until the booties are tied on. It’s cute, but acting out that sequence with a human Buck would have looked ridiculous, so it had to go. One scene would have needed about twenty wolves, and there isn’t that much room on the Sanctuary stage where it will be performed.
Some speeches are not taken from Call of the Wild, but from the writings and speeches of Jack London. Not everything in the play is Jack London, and the play is not all of Call of the Wild, but I hope it will be enough to make people say, “Don’t I have a copy of that book, somewhere? I ought to read it again.”