The 1956 book “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” by Dodie Smith is a very English, very droll story of married Dalmatians Pongo and Missis, and their also-married pets, Mr. & Mrs. Dearly. You read that right: Missis. Perhaps the biggest surprise (to me) reading the novel on which the Disney film was based, was to discover that Pongo’s wife was not called Perdita, but Missis. Even stranger is when a dog named Perdita appears. She’s a liver (brown)-spotted Dalmatian that serves as a wet nurse for Missis, who cannot handle the milk load required by 15 puppies.
Perdita’s own pups were taken from her (three guesses as to by whom), and while searching for them she encounters Mrs. Dearly, who is on her own quest to find another lactating female to assist Missis. She’s immediately welcomed into the family, because the Dalmatian/Dearly household is just like that. Pongo admires Perdita, but he makes a point to several times underscore the fact that his admiration and affection for her is that of a brother to a sister. It just tickles me, because Perdita is his wife in the movie (and it makes sense that the filmmakers went with a more alliterative name).
For truly the first time since I started examining Disney’s animated movies in relation to their source texts, I have no clear preference. Both versions have their merits, and while perhaps the film edges ahead in my favor, it’s not by a landslide. The book drags a little bit, but perhaps only because I was expecting it to follow the movie. It got a little grating that every single time a conflict was presented in the book, the solution was presented almost immediately, falling into the laps of our protagonists.
The most significant improvement the “101 Dalmatians” film makes, however, is in Cruella de Vil herself. She was a bit more mysterious in the book – it’s implied that the “de Vil” of her name might be literal – but overall she just comes across as evil and a little boring. Disney’s Cruella shines, making her still one of Disney’s most popular villains.
Her fashion, her drawling accent (credit for which goes to her voice actress Betty Lou Gerson; if Cruella didn’t sound so fun, would she be so fun?), and of course, her fantastic theme song. Disney’s switch of Roger Dearly’s career from financier to jazz artist was a brilliant one, because it gave us one of Disney’s best villain-songs (and Disney, why does this exist? Because it shouldn’t).
Still, the book is full of many great character moments and witty asides, something that the movie could never hope to translate. Each of the Dearlys lived with their childhood nannies until getting married, and the Nannies move with them into their marital home. Nanny Butler and Nanny Cook both decide to take up new responsibilities aligning with their names.
Nanny Butler insists that she dress like a butler, trousers and all. Mrs. Dearly is uncomfortable with this, suggesting to Nanny that perhaps she ought to continue to wear a dress. Modern sensibilities might not find the moment funny, but the payoff is totally worth it, even today. Nanny Butler says that no, she is a butler and thus she will dress like one, but perhaps she’ll continue to wear her frilly apron to add a touch of originality. She does, and it is, and it’s wonderful, just like the rest of the book.
*(The above image by DougieBoss is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.)