photo: Martin Blanco
I first saw Disney’s 101 Dalmatians almost 29 years ago during my honeymoon and it has remained a sentimental favorite ever since. Followers of this blog (and you both know who you are) know I enjoy reading the original stories that inspired so many of the Disney movies that we love. A few years ago, I came across the novel 101 Dalmatians on a give-away table at my local library. I snatched that “puppy” right up and read it during week four of sheltering at home. It is an endearing read that should delight any fan of the movie and most pre-middle school children.
The novel was written by Dodie Smith and originally published as a serial titled “The Great Dog Robbery” in Woman’s Day in 1956. Smith was born in England in 1896 and died nearly one hundred years later in 1990. She attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but her career as an actor was as short-lived as it was undistinguished (much like mine). She worked at a furniture story for a while, but then enjoyed a fair amount of success as a playwright. During the Second World War, she and her husband lived in the United States and traveled cross country on several occasions with their dalmatians.
Both the original novel and the Disney film were successful. The novel subsequently adopted the name 101 Dalmatians and was published by Camelot, a division of Avon, in 1967 with a second printing in 1969. This is the edition I have. The Camelot/Avon edition comes with many delightful pen and ink drawings by Janet and Anne Grahme-Johnstone. These drawings are an excellent enhancement.
The 1961 Disney film is faithful to the original story in both plot and tone, but there are some noteworthy variations. Disney’s songwriter Roger was originally a “wizard of finance” named Mr. Dearly. Dearly is credited with solving the national debt crisis and is rewarded by a grateful country with income tax abatement for life. In the novel, Cruella de Vil is married. Her wimpy husband is, not surprisingly, a furrier. The book has a few intriguing episodes that do not appear in the movie. One is a little bit of a ghost story and another involves the joyful celebration of Christmas.
The lead character is the dalmatian Pongo, but he is married to Missis, not Perdita. Rest assured there is a Perdita in the story who joins the family as a wet nurse to help feed Mississ’ litter of fifteen puppies. The name “Perdita” refers to a character from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Smith makes no bones about the reference. In the novel, Mrs. Dearly explains to the nannies that the name Perdita is derived from the Latin word for lost. Smith’s Perdita is sort of a rescue dog who experienced loss and her journey with the Dearlys is symbolically like that of Shakespeare’s Perdita.
The Baddun brothers, Cruella’s henchmen hired to kidnap and eventually murder the puppies, are named Horace and Saul (not Jasper). As in the film, they are exceedingly dim and love television. They are almost hoping to get caught so they can appear on the popular reality show of the day, What’s My Crime. Dodie Smith is nothing if not attuned to post-war pop culture.
And speaking of the war, the overriding spirit of the piece celebrates the tenacity, courage and patriotism exhibited by England during the war, particularly with respect to the evacuation of Dunkirk and the nightly endurance of the air raids during the Battle of Britain. The Twilight Bark, the animal military regiments and the discipline (even that of the 97 puppies) are metaphor for the national virtues that secured Britain’s triumph over fascism. Given our current circumstances, there is much we can learn from these splendid dogs, especially that love coupled with determination can triumph over evil.
101 Dalmatians comprises familiar elements that fill the pages of British novels from Austen to Tolkien. The fields and pastures are lovely. Homes are named and take on life of their own. Dogs and humans alike cherish the simple blessings of a good fire, ample food, and hot tea. Essentially, the novel is comfort food for the entire family.
c. Martin Blanco and DISNEY AT HOME April 16, 2020