I have thought for quite some time that the legend of Dick Whittington was suitable material for the Disney treatment. The story would easily translate into an animated feature in Disney’s classic style: young protagonist seeks to improve himself, endures hardships and injustice, but prevails and gets his happy-ever-after. Plus he has an animal companion and there is a great villain in the form of King Rat.
This idea was the starting point for my adaptation. I wanted to write the book of a film Disney hasn’t made.
The problem was the cat. Dick could talk to it as a sort of cuddly confidant and I could anthropomorphise it enough to be able to understand what he was saying and respond. This would work well in animation (think of Figaro in Pinocchio) but was unsatisfactory in prose It soon became clear to me that the cat would have to speak.
The Aristocats is just one example of talking cats – they do not, however, speak to the human characters. I needed my cat to interact directly with Dick (please note the capitalisation!)
So, I could allow the cat to speak and the two of them would go through the story, chatting and quipping and arguing and so on – again, this would work well in a film. But did that mean all of the animals in the story would be able to talk? I didn’t want that. I wanted to set the story in a real world.
That the cat speaks is what makes him special. He is more than a cat and not quite a cat. He learns how to be a cat as he experiences different events and as an observer, he is able to comment on human nature. Making him the narrator of the story made me look at the story from a different angle and I had to research cat habits and behaviour; I didn’t want him to be a human in cat form.
Similarly with the rat. Were the problems in Dick’s life to be caused by rats in general, or one in particular? And would that rat be sentient, and a deliberate trouble-maker?
I hit upon the idea that cat and rat would be the same kind of being, two sides of a coin. This ups the fantasy quotient of my retelling and allows me to touch on bigger themes… I reseatched medieval England and London in particular and I also looked at the real-life history of Richard Whittington and tried to find a way I could meld the history with the legend. A sort of have-cake-and-eat-it scenario…
To understand what on Earth I’m going on about, you’ll have to read the book!