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Film Version Offers A New Look At Jack London's 'Martin Eden'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Jack London's tales of wilderness adventures like "The Call of the Wild" made him a literary star more than a century ago, but London came to resent his success and wrote an autobiographical novel about the rise and fall of a writer named Martin Eden. A new film version shifts the story to Italy. As Bilal Qureshi reports, the focus remains the same.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Italian actor Luca Marinelli says like many American teenagers, he grew up with Jack London's classic novels of the outdoors.

LUCA MARINELLI: In Italy, these two books of Jack London like - I will say the titles in Italian. "Zanna Bianca" and "Il Richiamo Della Foresta" - so "White Fang" and "The Call Of The Wild" - I hope I pronounce it good. These are very famous, but they are considered like book for children, no? But as I discovered after that, there was a lot more behind that. And I started really to fell in love with this kind of writer, writer that where - how can you say? - (speaking Italian) - so adventurous man.

QURESHI: Jack London drew on his own adventures for "Martin Eden," his most personal and most political book, says Dennis Zhou, who wrote about the film for Artforum.

DENNIS ZHOU: He worked as a sailor. He did a lot of odd jobs when he was growing up. He left school very early, and he became a kind of autodidact. And part of the book is about him just sending out stories every single day, every single week to try to get them into magazines. And he eventually strikes it rich and becomes a famous writer but kind of at the expense of his former self, his kind of class identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEATTLE SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "NO. 1. LENTO ASSAI")

QURESHI: As in the original novel, this new Italian Martin Eden grows up in poverty, a working-class sailor living with his sister, writing stories by night and getting rejected at every turn. One day, he saves the life of a rich young man in a fistfight on the docks of Naples. He's invited for dinner and falls in love with the family's lifestyle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARTIN EDEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Italian).

QURESHI: The books, the conversations and their daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: Luca Marianelli plays Martin Eden.

MARINELLI: He met this girl, and he start to climb this very high mountain. And when he reached its peak, he saw what he was not able to see from below. And so he start to run away a bit from this situation. And then this run - it begins to be like falling.

QURESHI: Martin Eden becomes disillusioned with the world that once seduced him. He confronts his girlfriend's family over the hypocrisy of an elite that cultivates culture but has no commitment to real equality between the classes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARTIN EDEN")

MARINELLI: (As Martin Eden, speaking Italian).

QURESHI: Dennis Zhou says the new film's emphasis on class echoes Jack London's own beliefs.

ZHOU: I think that he's sort of misunderstood because he had this personal narrative of a kind of pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps, American individualistic success. But his politics are actually very different. And he was always a dedicated socialist, and he was a working-class guy and always wanted to depict workers with dignity. And I think that he was never able to reconcile these two different threads of his life, and I think "Martin Eden" was one of his ways of dealing with that issue.

QURESHI: Like London, filmmaker Pietro Marcello is a self-taught artist, and he says this story is a metaphor for anyone who struggles to make their own way in the world.

PIETRO MARCELLO: (Through interpreter) When I started off, I did everything to make movies. I learned how to produce them, how to shoot them, how to edit them. And this film or this story is definitely a praise to self-taught artists, those who don't learn in schools or in academies but in the real world.

QURESHI: Marcello started his career as a documentary filmmaker, and he uses many of the same techniques in "Martin Eden," says actor Luca Marinelli.

MARINELLI: We love to improvise. And if I had an idea, for example, to run in the fields with the kids with a bicycle, Pietro was running and holding the camera on his shoulder and following us.

QURESHI: Marcello also interlaces realistic images of peasant life with flickering old film footage, some of it archival and some of it made to look like scenes from a lost Italian era. Critic Dennis Zhou says the cumulative effect of all this is to shed new light on Jack London's novel.

ZHOU: I think a lot of the political themes in the novel I wouldn't really have noticed as much unless it had been couched in this Italian film. So I think there's something very, very useful to be said about that, which is to have a foreign filmmaker take an American source material, tweak it slightly so that it becomes refreshed and new for American audiences.

QURESHI: "Martin Eden" premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, where it won the top acting prize. It's been widely praised, and filmmaker Pietro Marcello says that's because its story still resonates.

MARCELLO: (Through interpreter) It is a story of a boy who becomes a man through literature and redeems himself through literature. But at the same time, he ends up being a victim of the cultural industry. And this is a very of-the-moment issue with the world of influencers and social media, and that's what makes the book so relevant.

QURESHI: Now with "Martin Eden's" American release, a story that began in Oakland, Calif., more than a century ago is coming home, although this time with subtitles.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEATTLE SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "NO. 1. LENTO ASSAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.