I got a letter from a dog once. Sammy the Labrador. Entitled ‘Be Good Not Naughty’, the letter informed me that dog training services were now on offer at a kennel we’d recently booked our own pup into. Sammy extolled the virtues of the training, saying his mum and dad ‘never go mad on me anymore’ because now he’s ‘a good dog, not a naughty one’. The letter was written completely in Sammy’s voice and to this day, it was the most memorable and effective piece of direct mail I’ve ever received.
Now, picture that letter as a book written entirely in the voice of one dog over four separate incarnations and you’ll get close to the genius that is A Dog’s Purpose. I say genius although some may describe the writing style as facile and simplistic. To those people my retort would be ‘cool your literary jets - the narrator is a dog after all’. Any book that manages to make the reader laugh and cry while considering the meaning the life, deserves to be written and read.
A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderful tale (no pun intended) told entirely from a dog’s perspective. But the book doesn’t only dwell in the realm of cute, furry and funny, it goes well beyond that to explore some of life’s biggest questions, ‘why am I here?’, ‘what happens when we die?’ and ‘will there be bacon?’
These questions are explored in all four incarnations of our canine narrator, first as the stray Toby, then as Bailey, Ellie (a girl-dog this time) and finally as Buddy. Each incarnation imparts certain lessons that build on one another until the denouement when Buddy finally puts together the reason for his serial existence.
A Dog’s Purpose has recently been released as a feature film with the screenplay co-written by the author of the book, W. Bruce Cameron. I didn’t know that when I saw the film but it makes sense. The movie is also told completely from the pup’s perspective and many of the lines straight from the dog’s mouth (so to speak) are exactly the same as the print version. That makes for a nice sense of continuity for those who have read the book before seeing the movie while those that haven’t would be none the wiser.
The storyline was mostly the same too with only minor changes for the purposes of distilling a 320 page book into a 100 minute feature film. However, that distillation seems to do away with the book’s subtle yet emphatic daisy-chain of lessons learned by Toby/Bailey/Ellie in their lives, culminating in Buddy’s final awakening about his purpose. This is a great shame to my way of thinking.
The book gives the reader a strong sense that the experiences of each of these dogs are leading to ‘the big answer’. As a serial reader of many ‘what’s-it-all-about-Alfie?’ spiritual texts, I recognise that pattern and have come to expect and look forward to it. But this gentle epiphany-ridden journey was not as evident to me as a viewer of the movie version of A Dog’s Purpose, despite the film being very enjoyable.
To me it was another disappointing example of nuance being lost in translation from text to screen. Instead of the slow build experienced by the reader, the viewer ends up being pummelled in the last scene with worthy yet clumsily rendered advice from a dog about the secret of life. ‘Be here now’ is the final message of the film, vastly different from the written word, delivered on screen as if from some guru, albeit a four-legged one.
That heavy-handedness aside, there are many scenes in the book and in the film that are subtly and powerfully portrayed. One that springs to mind is when our canine narrator observes that humans are very complicated beings. In his own simplistic, doggy way, Bailey implies that humans make things that should be simple, like love, kindness and doing what makes you happy, much more complex than they need to be. Therein lies the genius of A Dog’s Purpose – that we two-legged types might receive some insight into those big life questions through the eyes of a human’s best friend.
Which reminds me of that old joke - what do you get when you cross an insomniac with an agnostic dyslexic? Someone who lies awake at night wondering if there really is a dog.
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