The Rescuers (1959)

The movie of The Rescuers has almost nothing to do with the book, but even if you read the book and it’s sequels as a child, you may not realize how weird it is. It is not even a book for children. It’s a Ruritanian romance, with mice.

Ruritanian romances were a style of swashbuckler typified by The Prisoner of Zenda (whose fictional Ruritania gave the genre its name). They were generally set in small fictional central European or Balkan countries. They involved modern-day (as of the late Victorian era) royalty caught up in political intrigue, and romance thwarted by the neccessities of honor.

In The Prisoner of Zenda, the handsome young king is being plotted against by his evil half-brother the duke, who drugs him so that he will not be present at his coronation. The king’s loyal advisers meet his distant cousin who happens to be his exact double. They talk the cousin into taking the king’s place, saving the country from falling into the hands of the wicked duke. Unfortunately the cousin falls in love with the king’s fiancee, a love they must renounce for the greater good. There is also a dashing rescue of the real king from the fortress castle where he is imprisoned. All this nicely sums up the key elements of Ruritanian romance. The genre has also been satirized plenty, in books as diverse as The Mouse that Roared and The Princess Bride. And The Rescuers.

In The Rescuers, three mice set out to rescue a prisoner, a Norwegian poet being held in an impenetrable Balkan fortress. The trio comprises the cultured, elegant Miss Bianca who is the pet of a diplomat’s son; the rough, stalwart Bernard, who is tongue-tied in Miss Biana’s presence but nevertheless makes her heart flutter; and their sea-faring Norwegian translator Nils. After an arduous journey, and many dangers involving jailers and cats, they locate the poet in his grim dungeon and help him to escape. In the end, Miss Bianca regretfully gives up her chance to stay with Bernard because her place is with the diplomat’s son. The book bristles with irony and wit, and is very Ruritanian.

 Someone in marketing must have decided to flip this to the children’s side (because: talking animals!), assisted by the fluffier drawings of Garth Williams for the American edition. (Though even the first couple of American editions still appear to have been aimed at adults. The green one was a pocket edition with small print. But eventually it got tossed over to Yearling, with full-on cute.) Sharp subsequently churned out endless child-aimed sequels. Miss Bianca and Bernard end up as pals with a kind of low-key crush on each other.

That said, children’s literature does seem to have an affinity for Ruritanian romance, minus some of the more convoluted politics and the kissing. Children’s books that draw on elements of the genre include The Prince Commands by Andre Norton, The Twilight of Magic by Hugh Lofting, The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy (who also illustrated The Prince Commands), and the Tintin comic book King Ottokar’s Scepter. An adult Ruritanian romance, The Lost Prince, was written by France Hodgson Burnett, author of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956)

Like many stories more famous for the movie than the original book, this one’s not quite what you might think.

The 1961 animated movie is actually quite faithful to the plot, though of course streamlined and cute-ified. (Briefly: A young dalmatian couple have a litter of fifteen puppies, and Cruella de Vil, an old school-mate of one of their humans, wants to make dalmatian fur coats. When she can’t buy the puppies, she steals them. The dalmatian parents, assisted by a network of sympathetic dogs, undertake a hazardous cross-country journey and daring rescue.) The only major departure is the car chase at the end of the movie. In the book, the dogs instead get their revenge on Cruella by breaking into her London house and destroying her entire stock of furs.

What makes the book so very different from the movie, though, is a strain of oddity that runs through English kid lit, harking back to Peter Pan (I’ll have a post on that later). Cruella de Vil was expelled from school for drinking ink; she serves blue meat and black ice cream that taste like pepper, and loves excessive heat (hence her obsession with furs); when a puppy bites her, she tastes like pepper. Unlike her comically flamboyant movie counterpart, she has a severely elegant look, and in one illustration looks rather like Morticia Addams. (Throughout the book she wears an “absolutely simple white mink cloak,” which the dogs take delight in destroying at the end.)

                  

Be warned, the female dogs in the book are rather stupid, simply not capable of thinking on the same level as the brainy males. If you’re reading aloud to a child, this can (mostly) be fixed by some judicious skipping and editing on the fly, but it’s tricky. Otherwise, this is an excellent book.