What We're Reading: Adventures in Children's Books

Three Hundred and Three Dalmatians

The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith, 1956

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (animated film). Walt Disney Pictures, 1961

101 Dalmatians (live-action film). Walt Disney Pictures, forthcoming

Recently, our family re-watched the video of Disney's animated One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It started because I was writing a comment on my Movies from Chldren's Books web page about Bill Peet's involvement in the movie, and I wanted to check the actual screen credits he received. But, like eating potato chips, you can't really stop watching One Hundred and One Dalmatians once you have started. Before the credits were over, the whole family had gathered, the popcorn was on, and it was movie night.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the first movie I ever saw, and it remains one of the few animated Disney features that I can still watch with unalloyed pleasure. I enjoy several of the others, but there are always reservations (all those missing mothers and feckless fathers and big-eyed teenage girls!). Somehow, One Hundred and One Dalmatians escaped most of the typical Disney obsessions, and its loose, sketchy style of animation makes the recent Disney features seem cold and overly-controlled in comparison.

I am looking forward with a certain fascinated horror to the live-action version of the movie that is coming late this Fall. I expect it to be dreadful (Home Alone with dogs), hope it will be wonderful, and (OK, I admit it), am really looking forward to seeing Glenn Close play Cruella de Vil. I can't help but notice that all the promotional material for the new movie states that it is based on the "animated classic." No mention that there was a book first.

But there was a book first: The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith. After watching the movie, the novel became our bedtime read-aloud, and though sometimes it was a slow read because we had to constantly stop and discuss the differences between book and movie, I think we all enjoyed it.

There are some lovely details in the book that were left out of the movie (we chuckled for days about a throw-away description of Cruella de Vil as a schoolgirl with one black braid and one white). There are big things that were left out of the movie as well, and perhaps the animated version is not so free of Disney obsessions (or Hollywood obsessions) as I had thought.

In the movie, the only interesting woman is, of course, the villainess. The book, on the other hand, abounds with interesting females. Sergeant Tib, a male cat in the movie, is a female (and a Lieutenant) in the book. Nanny Cook (who becomes the cook) and Nanny Butler (who becomes the butler, and dresses the part in trousers and tails, but with the addition of a frilly apron) are reduced in the movie to a single silly old dithering Nanny, whose only function is to whoop and panic and get bullied by the Baduns. Perdita in the book is a rescued dog who got lost and almost died of hunger while searching for her lost puppies. She is missing from the movie, though her name has been used in place of Missis, the other Dalmatian mother.

Like the movie, the book is primarily an adventure story, but unlike the movie, the novel also carries a strong subtheme about mothers who lose their children, and who go on loving them after they are lost. The two female Dalmatians, Perdita and Missis, are probably the most fully developed characters in the book, and as an extra reminder, there is Cruella's cat -- another female character eliminated from the movie -- who has lost 44 kittens (drowned by Cruella).

The book's charm, and its appeal to both child readers and adults (there are more than a few sardonic comments about how delighted the humans were at being greeted at midnight by 100 wet sooty dogs) made it a natural for a movie, but as always, the book provides a richness and a complexity that a movie cannot.

--David K. Brown

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Monday, September 30, 1996
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