It’s kind of hard to imagine a time when dalmatians weren’t associated with Disney. But before the release of that successful movie in 1961, dalmatians were just a breed, albeit one interesting enough that writer Dodie Smith decided to write a book about. According to this blog post, when Dodie wrote the novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, she secretly hoped Disney might be interested in making an animated film version. Of course, once Disney acquired the film rights and turned it into a heartwarming cartoon, Dodie’s little novel officially became a massive hit. And despite all the changes made for the film, the author said that she enjoyed the adaptation.
One of the biggest changes made for the film version of 101 Dalmatians was the taming of Cruella de Vil. She is a much darker character in the book. Here’s the first description of her: “She was wearing a tight-fitting emerald satin dress, several ropes of rubies, and an absolutely simple white mink cloak, which reached to the high heels of her ruby-red shoes. She had a dark skin, black eyes with a tinge of red in them, and a very pointed nose. Her hair was parted severely down the middle and one half of it was black and the other white — rather unusual.”
But it’s when she starts talking about killing the dogs that things get really dark: “I don’t care how you kill the little beasts. Hang them, suffocate them, drop them off the roof–good gracious, there are dozens of lovely ways. I only wish I’d time to do the job myself.”
I have to agree with what Roger Ebert said in his review: Cruella is the best thing about the movie:
If there’s one thing that’s absolutely first-rate about the film, it’s the character of Cruella, with a voice by Betty Lou Gerson, who achieves almost operatic effects with her sudden entrances and exits, accompanied by clouds of yellow cigarette smoke. She’s in a league with the Wicked Stepmother and the other great Disney villainesses – but the rest of the movie is more ordinary.
And speaking of Cruella, Disney did away with her white Persian cat for the film. In the novel, the cat explains to the dalmatians that Cruella has been drowning her kittens for years, adding yet another awful layer to that character. The poor cat explains that she has been biding her time until she can get revenge, and that in the meantime she makes Cruella’s house seem haunted and lets the place get overrun by mice.
Another change made for the Disney version involves the character Perdita. In the book, Perdita is a sickly thin dog found by the side of the road who helps give the dalmatian puppies milk. But in the movie, that character doesn’t exist, they just changed the name of Missis, Pongo’s wife, to Perdita. Side note: in the book we learn that Perdita means “loss” in Italian, which of course makes sense since they find the poor pup lost by the side of the road. Doesn’t really make sense for the movie, though, but I guess it’s a pretty name and that was probably all the reason they needed to make the change.
I can completely understand why Disney changed Roger’s profession for the film version. In the book, he’s kind of a mysterious financial wizard, but in the movie he’s a struggling musician, which is infinitely more interesting, not to mention appropriate for a Disney film that features music.
You get a little bit more background on Hell Hall in the book, courtesy of The Colonel. We learn that it belongs to Cruella de Vil, although she doesn’t live there. And that she painted it black on the outside and red inside. We get the impression that it’s creepy as hell: “Villagers crossing the heath at night heard screams and wild laughter. Were there prisoners behind the prison-like wall? People began to count their children carefully.”
Oddly enough, at the end of the novel when the Dearly’s are looking to buy a country house big enough for all their dalmatians, the house they end up buying is Hell Hall! Nothing a coat of white paint can’t fix, I suppose.
Even though I liked Dodie Smith’s writing, I wasn’t a big fan of the book. And I’ll be honest, 101 Dalmatians is not my favourite Disney film, either. I had a dalmatian when I was younger and everyone assumed it was because I loved the movie. They were always a little disappointed to learn that my dog’s name wasn’t Pongo, and I can’t tell you the number of fur-coat jokes I heard over the years. I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for the breed, because the relationship I had with my dog is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. But I don’t have as much love in my heart for the story of the one hundred and one dalmatians, in either book or movie form.