The Hundred and One Dalmatians

by Dodie Smith

Cover image

Series: Dalmatians #1
Publisher: Puffin
Copyright: 1956
Printing: 1989
ISBN: 0-14-034034-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 184

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What annoys me most about movies made from books is that they so often eclipse the book in public consciousness and take over as the canonical telling of the story. That some like the book better than the movie, even when I disagree, is fine. Different media have different appeals, and sometimes an action movie with a background of plot is more to one's liking. Sometimes the book is mediocre and vastly improved by being made into a movie (Jurassic Park comes to mind). But I want people to be able to make that judgement or at least be aware that there was a book, that the movie studio didn't invent the story.

On the other hand, sometimes the original book is quite forgettable, and sometimes the movie is bringing out nearly everything that's there. Or sometimes the book has other flaws that the movie has, graciously, hidden, and which are best forgotten.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians serves as an example of both. The 1961 Disney animated movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians (note the slightly different title, which is again different from the live-action Disney movie made in 1996) was based on a 1956 children's book by Dodie Smith. Both Dodie Smith and the original book have been almost forgotten; I knew about them only due to a hardcover compilation of the original book and its sequel, The Starlight Barking, in the library from which I read as a child. Almost no one else I've talked to knew that the books existed. I remembered them fondly, more so than the movie, and decided to remind myself of the differences.

Unlike some translated books, Disney didn't have to leave that much out. This is a slight novel, barely reaching 180 pages with large print and illustrations. Still, the book adds detail as books do: Pongo's mate is a dog named Missis (more on that later), Perdita is a third adult dalmatian rescued by the Dearlys, the 101st dalmatian is part of Perdita's story, and a bit more happens around the edges and at either end of the puppy rescue. The pacing of a longer story lets the helpful dogs and other animals acquire more depth and fit into a wider variety of stereotypes than lovable circus animals. The Neat Bit from this book that I remember best from my first reading as a child, the twilight barking in which dogs pass messages across England in relays, is handled with more sense of wonder and delight than the movie ever achieves.

Still, while the book offers a broader array of stereotypes, rich characterization this isn't. Re-reading this book now, I couldn't help but see how easily it turned into a Disney movie with cute talking dogs. It's unabashedly sentimental, wallowing in its love of man's domesticated animals. All of the animals are helpful and charming, even the abused cat (who's initial bad behavior the reader is immediately told is not its fault). Cruella de Vil's obvious name is surpassed only by her henchlings, the Badduns, and her bizarre taste in decorating and food lack the flamboyant excess of the Disney movie character and are nothing more than strange and obvious indicators that she's the Evil Villain. The book has a solid backbone of a rescue plot, and one does feel the courage and bravery of the dogs, but this is not a children's book that would challenge anyone.

Unfortunately, it's also one marred by two glaring flaws that, for me, badly undermined its enjoyment and made it feel simplistic and trite.

The first is the appallingly twee way pets are dealt with in the book. Within the first few pages, Smith starts with one of the grating affectations of a certain type of pet lovers: the conceit that the humans are actually the pets of the animals. This is bad enough as an inescapable bit of cloying cuteness; in this book, where the plot revolves around a lady who is purchasing dalmatians to kill and skin them for coats, it's rather appalling. It is precisely the fact that dogs are the pets and property of humans that the threat in this book is even possible; it's openly stated that nearly all of the dalmatians rescued were legitimate purchases of Cruella de Vil. I can understand if Smith didn't want to tackle the moral questions of pet ownership (although it would do children good to think about such things and many of her predcessors in the genre tackle this head-on), but if she didn't, she ought to have stayed away from them. To draw attention to the topic with this inverted pet nonsense (and sadly it lingers through the whole book) and then steadfastly ignore the true nature of a dog's life carries a whiff of moral blindness that lessens the book. That the target audience of children might not pick up on this sort of subtlty makes it even worse.

Second, and related, Smith's dalmatians not only don't behave like dogs, they incorporate nearly every prejudice of middle-class 1950s humanity. The dogs are married, with all the implications of human marriage, and not only married but completely gender-stereotyped into the roles of mother/homemaker and father/guardian. Pongo's "wife" doesn't even have a real name, only a variation on missus. The female dog is weak and requires encouragement and assistance, is helpless with machinery, but of course finds courage in defense of her children and "husband." The dogs behave almost entirely like people acting out the accepted roles of their social class, and the few times that bits of dog behavior enter the story, it's to impose a classism of a different kind. Pongo and Missis are concerned with posture and stance appropriate to a pure-breed, showable dalmatian, and in mentions of kind treatment of mixed-breed or "defective" dogs, there's a definite smell of the self-righteously "kind" treatment of the upper classes towards their inferiors. This is, in that sense, an extremely conservative book. If the Disney movie is an action romp lacking much in the way of depth, it is at least not teaching children these lessons.

I have a soft spot in my heart for good animal stories, talking or not. I grew up reading books by Jim Kjelgaard, Jack London, and Thornton Burgess, with side helpings of Hugh Lofting. I have read and re-read Bambi (another case where the Disney creation has all but obliterated the original, and with Bambi there is far more depth to obliterate), Black Beauty, and Beautiful Joe. Dodie Smith wrote this book following a rich tradition of animal literature for children, stories that not only told adventure stories with animal heroes but that tackled difficult questions of loyalty, morality, nature, maturity, and even politics. Some of the greatest works in this genre directly tackled problems of animal cruelty and ignorance and helped reduce such practices as docking a dog's ears and tail. While Hundred and One Dalmatians is at times a charming adventure story, it does not compare well to that rich legacy. It attempts less, risks less, and is sadly mired in the prejudices of its time.

I still wish more people were aware of the book; Smith deserves credit for creation of the story. But the light action romp of the animated Disney movie may be the most flattering light in which to remember it.

Followed by The Starlight Barking.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-07-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21