Heeding the call

For the first time in months, I went out for dinner last Saturday night, this time to the Cheeses. Notwithstanding it was months since we’d done this, it was pretty typical. We had dinner – home-made pizzas (their kitchen – house – is completing renovation), a beer, a bottle of wine, then another, some cheese and some chocolate. We talked and shared stories and laughed and finally sat down to watch a movie together.

The movie we settled on was the latest version of Call of the Wild, this one starring Harrison Ford, and a CGI Buck.

This is based on a classic story by Jack London, and one of my favourites (another of his stories, To Build A Fire, is one of the best stories ever). It’s set in Alaska during the gold rush in the 19th century and basically is about a dog that gets abducted from his safe suburban home and taken to the Klondike to become a sled dog. It’s all about his trials and tribulations, about the bond between man and dog, and ultimately about Buck giving in to the ‘call of the wild’. It’s a beautiful, occasionally harsh, tragic, but heartwarming tale that anyone who loves dogs must love.

I’ve watched several versions of the story made into movies, and the best are those who keep it simple and let it speak for itself. I’m a fan of Harrison Ford and, though he’s older than the original protagonist in the story, he’s the right type. I found it an entertaining hour or so, but much diluted from the essence of the story. (Let me warn of spoilers ahead).

This is a Disneyfied version of the story, right down to Buck not even being a real dog. He’s CGI, and pretty good, but obviously so all the same. It makes him a bit cartoonish and robs the character of the spontaneity a real dog would bring. It’s now a family movie, which means some of the harsher elements have been taken down a notch or two, and even a basic part of the story changed.

There’s a vindictive and quite foolish character who is integral to the resolution of the movie. He doesn’t exist in the story, and when the main human character – here played by Harrison Ford – dies, it’s quite different. In the story there’s a clean and simple brutality to it – he’s murdered by Indians and Buck, discovering the body, wreaks his vengeance. In the movie there are no Indians – perhaps they’re the politically incorrect option – and instead, the deranged character fatally wounds Ford. Buck arrives in time to kill the murderer (indirectly – no blood, no violence) and in time to comfort his friend and master before he dies. It may as well be in soft focus.

Buck then goes out into the wilderness to fulfil his destiny.

The movie is a long way from the direct and uncompromising language of the original story. I understand what they’ve done and why they’ve done it, but as a purist who loves the story, it seems pretty lame. It’s counter to the essence of the story also – that this is a harsh and deadly environment that only the tough can endure. Even for them, it can be brutal, but that’s the simple truth. In the end, it’s an environment in which Buck finds meaning because it awakens in him his primal self, and he ‘returns’ to the wild in which once he came from.

It’s a noble message and reading the story it’s uplifting. You’ve been devasted by the parting of man and master – they had a great bond – but the payoff is that Buck returns to nature, that great and wild thing we’ve civilised out of our life.

Walking home from the Cheeses afterwards it reminded me of a quote from Seneca:

Show me that the good life doesn’t consist in its length, but in its use, and that it is possible—no, entirely too common—for a person who has had a long life to have lived too little.

Basically, it’s not how long you live, but how you live while you’ve got it. I guess we can all choose to live our life according to our desires, but for me, it’s always been a simple question. From very young, I was aware that just to be alive was a rare gift, and that one day it would end. The trick, as I figured it, was to live as well as possible in the time I had.

I was the adventurous type, and so for me that meant an enquiring life – travelling and reading and asking questions and trying things out and never backing off. From my current perspective, it feels that I’ve led an interesting life that at times has been challenging, and at times deeply rewarding. I don’t regret much, though I sometimes wonder how things might have been different. The life I have is a result of trying things, of plunging in and testing things out. It’s how I wanted to live and though there are notable gaps, I think I’ve lived a full life.

Most people are more cautious and conservative than me, and each to their own. I get impatient and restless. Others don’t. What seem to me lives that are happy but dull are perfectly adequate to the people who own them. Sometimes I find it hard to comprehend, but sometimes I’m envious too of such simplicity.

I wonder how much they have asked of themselves, or what their expectations of life were. Did they dream once, or never? Did they quest and give it up one day because it was too hard? Or not sensible? Or was it ever thus? We’re all different, but until we test ourselves, we don’t really know what’s inside us. So I reckon.

So it was with Buck. His life was set. He was happy and pampered. Then he was taken from comfort and thrust into the wilds of Alaska. There he found his strength and used it. There he found true companionship on the brutal edge of existence. And there he found the wild calling to that part of him deep inside and hidden from everyday view. In the end, he responded to the call to be himself truly, and to be amongst his type.

If that’s not a metaphor for human lif,e I don’t know what it is. For most of the time and for many of us, we’re happy and pampered and living in relative comfort, and that’s where it stops. Hopefully, the time comes when we hear that call, and respond to it. And maybe that explains something of what we’re seeing in the States at the moment. The moment has come to step out of the comfort zone and make a stand. It’s a worthy cause, and it’s good for our soul.

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