Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Hundred and One Dalmatians


So, you might be wondering how we got here.

Not here on the blog.  Here:

How did we get to a place where Walt Disney Studios, makers of family entertainment, are putting out a PG-13 movie about the puppy-skinningly psychotic villainess from 101 Dalmatians, Cruella DeVil?
Well, maybe we should go back to the roots of all this.  

The Hundred and One Dalmatians is a 1956 children's book by Dodie Smith.  It was originally serialized in the magazine Woman's Day under the title The Great Dog Robbery.  The story concerns a pair of married dalmatians named Pongo and Missis.  Their humans are Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, a financial whiz and his wife.  Also part of  the household are the servants Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler who originally served as nannies to their charges and then on a whim took up the jobs their surnames invoked.  The adventure starts when Missis gives birth to 15 puppies.  First, there are simply the challenges of taking care of such a large litter of puppies.  For example, they have to find another dog to play the role of wet nurse for some of them, which seems impossible until Mrs. Dearly stumbles on a liver-spotted dalmatian named Perdita who had recently been separated from her puppies and her husband Prince.  But then, things take a turn for even more sinister when the puppies are stolen by a rather devilish woman named Cruella DeVil who it is revealed wants to turn the puppies into fur coats.  Pongo and Missis's rescue of their puppies (as well as 82 more) involves employing an extensive network of dogs called the Twilight Barking, a trip across country, assistance from numerous unexpected quarters and some mild subterfuge.

But you're probably wondering about Cruella DeVil, aren't you?  She is a strange and scary individual in this book.  The funny thing is, what's communicated about her seems to mostly be rumor and possible hearsay meant to give her a supernatural air without it being proven.  Combine this with certain odd habits of hers, and it makes the name DeVil seem a lot more like Devil.  Earliest talk about the DeVil family seems to concern an ancestor who was probably Cruella's grandfather.  He had purchased an estate named Hill Hall, which this elder DeVil planned to tear down and rebuild as a house that resembled a cross between a castle and a cathedral.  Shortly after it had been built, rumors started to spread though.  Travellers would say they heard screams and wild laughter coming from the estate.  People would start to count their children carefully to make sure they were safe.  Some would even say that DeVil had a long tail.  It was around this time that Hill Hall would be rechristened Hell Hall.  It apparently got to the point where an angry mob with lighted torches went to Hell Hall to burn it down, only to be greeted by DeVil bursting through the gate on a coach-and-four, supposedly shooting blue forked lightning from his body.  As for Cruella herself, when we meet her in-story, she's driving a big, black-and-white striped car equipped with the loudest horn in all of England.  We're also informed by her old classmate Mrs. Dearly that everyone in school was afraid of her and that she was expelled for drinking ink.  Cruella is married to a furrier who isn't much of a character in the book, but who she apparently just wants for his furs.  Among Cruella's eccentricities, the one that lends credence to her being more devil than human is that she likes everything hot, whether in spice or environment.  She wears furs during all seasons, loves raging fires and loads up her food with pepper.  And even if she is human, she's anything but humane.  She talks plainly about how she drowns all the kittens of her pet white Persian cat.  She is, in the simplest terms: a real piece of work.

In terms of adaptation, Disney has gotten a surprising amount of mileage out of this property.  They've made one theatrical animated movie (trailer HERE), one straight-to-video animated movie (trailer HERE), two live action movies (trailers HERE and HERE), two animated TV shows (intros HERE and HERE) and now Cruella in addition to various toys, merchandise and other assorted bits and bobs.  The one adaptation most people go back to is the 1961 animated movie (possibly one of Disney's most contemporary adaptations.  The film premiered only 5 years after the book was published).  Unlike a lot of Disney adaptations, I don't really have any major issues with the animated movie.  It doesn't alter the tone drastically.  And most of the changes made to the text are a matter of condensing things.  The two nannies are reduced down to one.  The characters of Missis and Perdita are merged into one character, as are the pups Lucky and Cadpig.  Events are removed from the dogs' cross-country rescue mission.  Some names are changed.  Jasper and Saul Baddun become Jasper and Horace Baddun and the Dearlys become the Radcliffes (interesting note: both Cadpig and the surname Dearly are restored in 101 Dalmatians: The Series).  Overall, it's fine.  Though, I do like to make fun of the notion that Roger Radcliffe made so much money off of a hate song (depicted HERE played by the one and only Dr. John).  I'd still recommend reading the book, because there's just a lot more in it.  Though, do keep in mind that it is a relic of its era (there's one slightly racist encounter with Romani people).

But one of the reasons why the Mouse has managed to do so much with 101 Dalmatians is Cruella DeVil.  As far as villains go, she may not be complex or nuanced but she is compelling.  And that is the central appeal of the great "Disney Villains".  They may be a simplistic sort of evil, but it's very fun to watch them in all their dastardly glory.  With Cruella though, it goes all the way back to the source material.  When she's present in the story, she commands all the attention.  And that's probably why Disney made a movie about her.  Whether or not the movie delivers what fans expect (a devilishly evil diva who's fun to root against) is yet to be seen.

Before wrapping this up, I should probably talk about the one Hundred and One Dalmatians thing that Disney stayed well away from.  In 1967, a follow-up to The Hundred and One Dalmatians was published titled The Starlight Barking.  It starts with Pongo and Missis waking up to discover that the Dearlys and every other human or animal on the planet except dogs (and honorary dogs) are all asleep and cannot be awakened.  This leads them to discovering that they can do some things that they normally cannot do like opening doors, communicating long distances telepathically and telekinetically propelling themselves over the ground at high speeds (they refer to it as "swooshing").  This leads them to go to London where they meet with other dogs, including Cadpig who is now the Prime Minister's dog and Prime Minister in his stead, to discuss the problem and eventually meet its cause.  This book is, in all seriousness, a work of Cold War or Atomic age science fiction.  It hits all the beats.  Strange happenings, psychic powers, alien visitors, the threat of nuclear war and a hero having to make a hard choice.  And you know what?  I kind of dig it for what it is.  Sure, it may not be the sequel people expect for The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it's perfectly fine when viewed as a diversion or unconventional offshoot of the original.  It even made me appreciate certain characters from the original a little more (In the first book, Missis could come across as a little dim-witted compared to Pongo aka "The Greatest Brain in all of Dogdom", but in the Starlight Barking she's depicted as intuitive and more adept at the metaphysical feats presented).  And I just bet writing this book helped Dodie Smith process some of the feelings she had about what was going on in the world.

So, here's hoping that Cruella remembers what made the original villainess so compelling.  And if not, well, we can always go back to the book.