Black-and-white wig, Dalmatian spots, red cigarette holder. Is there a more instantly, iconically recognizable look for a villain than One Hundred and One Dalmatians‘s Cruella de Vil? And while other evil women in the Disney canon are focused on beauty (Snow White‘s Evil Queen) and decimating their rivals on the path to self-optimization (The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula), Cruella’s only desire is for herself—she wants to take, to conquer, to consume. She wants luxury and accumulation. She is a pitch-perfect capitalist villain.
In theaters this week, the latest live-action remake—starring Emma Stone and executive-produced by Glenn Close, who previously held the role in 1996—promises a new take on one of the most despicable villains in Disney history. But Cruella’s origin story goes deeper than you think. Hatched from the mind of Dodie Smith in her 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the first version of Cruella is downright Dickensian, the kind of character whose name tells you everything you need to know. In Smith’s book, the de Vil family home, Hell Hall, was once owned by a grandfather believed to be a serial killer; one of Cruella’s other ancestors was purportedly a demon with supernatural powers. Cruella was the kid who her schoolmate Anita Darling (owner of the Dalmatian Perdita) remembers drinking ink at school for fun. Now that’s backstory.
Disney ditched all that for its 1961 animated film. In this version, Cruella is ruthless without reason. She shows up at her friend’s house uninvited, ready to physically abuse her partner and housekeeper. The 1996 live-action remake reimagined Glenn Close’s now legendary Cruella as Anita’s boss at the high couture House of de Vil. It comes with an added layer of manipulation, given that Cruella controls Anita’s paycheck. When Anita and her husband, Roger, refuse to sell their puppies, Cruella fires Anita on the spot, then arranges a home invasion and dognapping so as to slaughter the innocent pups for a fur coat.
Cruella is not the kind of villain audiences usually love to hate; the type who is trying to stick it to the system but must step on a few toes along the way. There is no big vision, no compassion whatsoever, just her own bloodlust for what she wants. “I think Cruella basically has no redeeming human characteristics—except she does have a sense of humor, albeit wicked,” Glenn Close once said. “She’s gleeful in her evilness.”
So why do we keep remaking this monster?
The key to understanding Cruella’s appeal is to understand the way Disney obscured her brutalistic fetishism and cruelty against the glamorous backdrop of fashion. The incarnation of Cruella as a fashion designer has been essential to her contemporary success—despite her obsession with literally wearing the fur of dogs, she is, by all accounts, “fabulous.” The fashion within the 1996 version, particularly, was a throwback to ’80s excess. Cruella was portrayed as a maximalist who has a bridal-style train on her dressing gown for fun. Fur was just part of her upkeep, part of her commitment to luxury.