At the start of W. Bruce Cameron’s 2017 novel A Dog’s Way Home, a sweet dog named Bella is adopted as a puppy by a goodhearted young man named Lucas. He works at a Veterans Administration hospital in Denver and takes care of his mother, Terri, an Afghanistan veteran who suffers from PTSD-related depression. When he tries to rescue a colony of feral cats from a local construction site (where he found Bella), he runs afoul of a real-estate developer, who uses his influence to get animal-control employees to harass the family. They’re on a mission to impound and destroy Bella, whom they falsely characterize as a dangerous pit bull, illegal in Denver. As Lucas and Terri try to find a new home outside the city limits, they temporarily give Bella to a foster family in Durango, Colorado, more than 300 miles away, which confuses and upsets the dog. She escapes and embarks on a mission to “Go Home.” Over the next two years, she befriends a cougar cub, helps save a man buried in an avalanche, comforts a homeless veteran named Axel, and has numerous other adventures. The film adaptation, directed by Charles Martin Smith, hits theaters today, starring Ashley Judd as Terri, Edward James Olmos as Axel, Jonah Hauer-King as Lucas, and an impressively game Bryce Dallas Howard as the voice of Bella.
The dog is the narrator of both the book and film, and as Kirkus’ reviewer wrote, “The anthropomorphization of Bella may please some readers; others not so much.” Her naive way of looking at the world certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste; she calls the aforementioned cougar “Big Kitten,” for instance, and there are many moments that cloyingly make light of the fact that she doesn’t understand human ways. Look, the dog doesn’t know what a supermarket is!
Still, the intended audience for the novel appears to be adults—or, at least, older teens—as it addresses the plight of veterans with PTSD, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and abusive relationships, albeit in superficial ways. But Terri’s specific struggles with depression are nearly absent from the film. Neither is there a mention of her abusive ex-boyfriend, who menaces her in an early scene in the novel. Axel’s mental illness is similarly glossed over. He dies of a heroin overdose in the book, but in the film he expires for no clear reason—extreme loneliness, perhaps?—only a few minutes after his first appearance, wasting the considerable talents of Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor Olmos.
These changes seem to have been made in a well-meaning attempt to protect children from unpleasant subject matter; after all, a movie told from the perspective of a cute canine is bound at attract a sizable young audience. However, it may come as a surprise to the filmmakers that there are many, many real-life children who have people in their lives who are chronically depressed, substance abusers, or affected by abuse—and these kids might have been interested in seeing these aspects represented onscreen, instead of ignored. Pretending that these problems don’t exist doesn’t do anyone any favors.
One of the film’s choices, though, has especially unfortunate implications. In the novel, Bella spends a significant amount of time living with two married gay men, who treat her with loving kindness. In the movie, however, there’s no clear indication that this couple is married—or even a couple, for that matter. Indeed, they could easily be perceived to be straight roommates. Surely, the filmmakers don’t think that kids need to be protected from the knowledge that gay married couples exist. Certainly, that can’t be the case in the year 2019. Right?
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.