Thursday, March 23, 2017

Casting the Movie while Reading the Story

A big wolf called "Old Gray" has been killing cattle--sometimes for food and sometimes for fun--for years, but no one has ever managed to catch him. But a tracker named Brink is going to give it a try. Brink's not interested in the five thousand dollar reward being offered by local ranchers. Tracking is simply what he does.

"The Wolf Tracker," written by Zane Grey in 1930, is an atmospheric and suspenseful short story with a fascinating protagonist. Brink doesn't hate wolves or take bloodthirsty joy in killing. Instead, he's a solitary man who enjoys being alone in the wilderness, pitting his skill against the animals he tracks. Brink will spend the next six months on the trail of the wolf and not consider a second of it to be wasted time.

From the story: Brink had only dim remembrance of home and family, vague things far back in the past. He never loved a woman. He had lived apart from men, aloof even when the accident of life and travel had thrown him into camps or settlements. Once he had loved a dog. Seldom did his mind dwell on the past, and then only in relation to some pursuit or knowledge that came to him from the contiguity of the present task. 

I like Grey's novels, though I sometimes feel he can be a little too verbose in his prose. But under the discipline of a short story, his descriptive powers are excellent and, as we follow Brink in his six-month quest to find and kill the wolf, we are immediately caught up in the quest along with him.

What's neat about the story is its realism regarding Old Gray. Many "man vs animal" stories portray the animal with human-like intelligence and cunning. It's not wrong to do that if it makes a good story, but here Zane Grey takes a more realistic approach. Old Gray is smart and cunning--but he's not a person. When the hunt reaches its climax, the wolf reacts as you would expect a desperate animal to act.  There's no clever tricks to be played on the man. He's not really an equal opponent to Brink, because he can never match a human being in intelligence. "The Wolf Tracker" plays that up, but does so without losing any dramatic tension or making the conclusion any less stunning.

I don't believe "The Wolf Tracker" has ever been made into a movie or TV episode. A quick search did not turn up an episode of  the 1956-1961 Western Zane Grey Theater with that title, though I suppose it might have been adapted with a different title. While I was reading it, though, I began to picture a specific actor as Brink. It seems to be that if the story had been dramatized in the 1960s or 1970s, Charles Bronson would have been the perfect choice for the lead role.

Bronson was acting in the 1950s, of course, but I don't think he was quite grizzled enough to play Brink at that point in his career. For a 1950s Brink--maybe Randolph Scott.

If the story had been filmed soon after it was written in the 1930s, then I'm not sure. Gary Cooper, perhaps--but his natural friendliness might block him from really bringing across Brink's solitary nature. Gee whiz, the decade that brought us the best actors ever and I'm having trouble casting a specific role?  That's downright embarrassing.

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