That’s not to say there haven’t been one-woman-and-her-dog offerings over the years. Toto is the constant companion to Dorothy Gale in L Frank Baum’s Oz novel series and its various film and musical adaptations, while the famous little orphan Annie also has a trusty canine sidekick called Sandy in Harold Gray’s 1924 comic strip and her other incarnations. More adult studies of the bond between woman and dog have included the 2017 film Megan Leavey, about a Marine and her combat dog, and Sigrid Nunez’s 2018 novel The Friend.
But nevertheless, women have been relatively marginalised in this type of story, which more frequently focuses on a bond that revolves around heroism and masculinity, as well as the expression of male vulnerability.
Stories of domestication
In the case of the 1991 White Fang film, the central relationship is between Jack, an amalgamation of several characters from the novel, and the eponymous wolf-dog, who take turns saving one another. White Fang prevents Jack from being attacked by a grizzly bear; Jack then rescues White Fang from being used by illegal dogfighters, and later, after being nursed back to health and tamed, the mutt repays the favour by protecting his master from being gunned down by the same criminals. This scene is echoed by a fight sequence in the more recent Call of the Wild adaptation in which Buck, a St Bernard–Scotch Collie mix, kills the attacker of his latest human companion Thornton (Ford) by pushing him into a burning cabin in the Yukon Valley. In fact, the original White Fang novel was written after the success of Call of the Wild in 1903 as a mirror to London’s debut, which explored the return of the domesticated dog back to its wild nature.
“I have the idea for the next book I shall write… not a sequel to Call of the Wild. But a companion to [it],” London said in a letter to George P Brett. “I’m going to reverse the process. Instead of the devolution or decivilization of a dog, I’m going to give the evolution, the civilization of a dog – development of domesticity, faithfulness, love, morality, and all the amenities and virtues.”
London looked at the brutality of nature and man through the eyes of his eponymous half-breed wolf, who is raised by his mother until they are taken in by an indigenous tribe and separated. Having to fend for himself much of the time, White Fang becomes harsh and solitary and then even more feral when he is sold to a dog fighter. It is only when a rich young man (in the book, called Weedon Scott) saves him from this life and gives him the warmth, love and patience to learn a tamer way of being that the wolf-dog finds peace and purpose by man’s side.