The Legend of the Wolf: A Trip to Hollywood


Jill Missal / Wolf Song of Alaska Volunteer

In the last installment of our series on the development of the wolf's bad reputation, we discussed the roots of human's unfounded fear of the wolf. We told of werewolf fables and folktales involving the wolf, and you may have wondered just how much impact such old tales have on our thinking today. Perhaps those particular stories don't affect our thinking much today, but modern tales of bloodthirsty, rampaging canines are alive and well in our society.

Hollywood is the greatest perpetrator of such tales today, churning out dozens of movies about werewolves and wolf attacks with little attention paid to the facts. Movies about werewolves are most common, and range from comedic (Teen Wolf) to terrifying (Wolf). Most leave the viewer a negative impression of wolves, whether or not the wolf in question was a wolf-man, a real wolf, or an animal spirit.

I viewed a number of movies in the course of my research (sounds tough, huh?) and discovered that movies that are sympathetic or even neutral towards wolves are few and far between. Although most of them were very good movies, I viewed them for accuracy in the depiction of wolves.

Wolf (1994, Michelle Pheiffer, Jack Nicholson) is a werewolf movie which begins with Jack Nicholson's character being bitten by a wolf and subsequently developing wolfish traits, which, predictably, lead to his metamorphosis into a wolf. There is a terrific scene in this movie which depicts that character's discovery of his newly heightened senses of smell and hearing. The barrage of sounds and smells he endures almost makes the viewer glad for his or her dull senses! Unfortunately, another "wolfish" trait that Nicholson picks up is savagery and uncontrolled bloodthirst. In his wolfish state, he is depicted relentlessly hunting a deer, killing it, and leaving the carcass uneaten. This, as we know, is uncommon behavior for real wolves, who usually eat at least part of what they kill. Even what wolves don't eat is utilized in some way by the denizens of the ecosystem in which they dwell. A great movie, but made with only a passing nod to real wolves.

Wolfen(1981, Albert Finney, Gregory Hines) contains some beautiful scenes of real wolves and even a credible mechanical wolf, but falls short of the factual mark. It is a horror movie about a homicide detective who realizes that a pack of wolves is to blame for the murders of several people. The wolves are actually the spirits of native Americans protesting the development of their lands, but are, once again, depicted as marauding, vindictive predators. The viewer even receives a speech from one of the characters about man's inhumanity toward nature, especially the victimized wolves. But even this sympathetic character is torn apart by the ravaging animals, for no other reason than his presence. A few mixed signals there.

One of the few movies I viewed that showed wolves in a different light was White Wolf (1993, Mark Paul Gosselaar, Matt McCoy). The wolf plays a very minor part in this movie, but acts as a guide for a group of teens lost in the woods. The wolf in this movie is a symbol of good luck and a friend to the characters. But, one does have to admit that this scenario is as unlikely as Wolfen's. White Fang (1991, Ethan Hawke) is a screen adaptation of Jack London's novel. This is another movie with mixed messages about wolves. White Fang, of course, is the movie's canine hero (actually a wolf-dog hybrid) who becomes a young adventurer's loyal partner, saves him from all sorts of misfortunes, and patiently waits for his young master's return from the big city. In a creative twist, White Fang even has a run-in with Buck from London'sThe Call of the Wild. Although White Fang is viewed in a positive light, the pack of wolves depicted in the film is not. They are portrayed as stalking three men and a dog team until nightfall, when they send in a decoy wolf to draw the sled dogs out and slaughter them. Predictably, the wolves also set upon and kill the human traveler who tries to save the fated sled dogs. Perhaps to apologize for this bit of bunk, we are treated to a disclaimer at the end of the movie that reminds the viewers that a case of a healthy wild wolf attacking a human has never been verified. Although not everything involving wolves is realistic, I recommend this movie because of the wonderful animal actors and the commendation given to the producers by the Humane Society on their superb treatment of the animals used in this film.

Never Cry Wolf(1983, Charles Martic Smith), the well-known adaptation of Farley Mowat's entertaining novel, was by far the most sympathetic wolf movie I watched. The movie's main character, a young, inexperienced biologist, is sent to the Alaskan bush to determine if wolves are responsible for the decline of a caribou herd. The biologist observes a small pack of wolves and soon learns to understand their behavior and structure of their society. He sees them as a family (especially after they have pups), but the movie does not sugar coat the facts of the wolves' carnivorous behavior. They are shown hunting caribou and other animals, but never in a way that makes them look irrationally vicious. Truths about wolves are stretched sometimes, however; the biologist discovers that the pack exists for a time solely on mice, an unlikely occurrence.

There are countless other movies involving wolves, wolfmen, and werewolves, but the unfortunate conclusion I drew from my viewing is that Hollywood features that portray wolves truthfully as a part of the cycle of nature are extremely few and far between. Many wolf movies are worth watching, however, for their photography of wolves and scenery.

With so many movies disparaging wolves, it is no wonder that wolves' bad reputation persists. Viewers uneducated in wolf behavior may not realize that many facts are ignored or left out. It is up to people like you and me who are educated about the wolf to teach others of the wolf's beauty and importance.