There have been many adaptations of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books over the years, but Robert Downey Jr.’s passion project, new movie Dolittle, is the first to dip back to the source material in quite a while. You won’t find an explanation for that accent in the original pages, and the story isn't an adaptation of any one book, but many of the Doctor’s favorite animal friends like Polynesia (Emma Thompson), Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), Jip (Tom Holland), and Chee-Chee (Rami Malek) are actually from the books.
It’s important to note that these books, which were primarily published in the 1920s and 1930s, contain racist and problematic depictions of people of color and indigenous populations. Dolittle himself is empathetic and anti-slavery, but that doesn’t change the outdated language and frequent White Savior plotlines. So while you can actually read many of the original books, at the library or online thanks to Project Gutenberg, keep that warning in mind. There are also sexist jokes made at the expense of female Amazon warriors, and in general, a lack of female characters.
The published titles include: The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts; The Voyages Of Doctor Dolittle; Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office; Doctor Dolittle’s Circus; Doctor Dolittle’s Zoo; Doctor Dolittle’s Caravan; Doctor Dolittle’s Garden; Doctor Dolittle in the Moon; Doctor Dolittle’s Return; Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake; and Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary.
The first book, published in 1920, introduces Dr. John Dolittle, a bachelor who lives with his bachelorette sister in a very English town called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. He’s not a grieving widower, like he is in the new film, just a weirdo whose love of animals has scared off all humans who aren’t related to him. That particular change is kind of bummer. There's no need for this character to be laden with the same Dead Wife trope that plagues male protagonists everywhere, but alas.
Dolittle’s ability to understand animals isn’t a magical power, either. He is taught how to listen and talk to animals by his pet parrot, Polynesia. She overheard him talking about become a veterinarian and decided he should probably learn how to communicate with his patients.
The second book introduces Dolittle’s young human assistant Tommy Stubbins, who is played by Harry Collett in the 2020 film. Stubbins is around for most of Dolittle’s adventures and often narrates the books. In various books, Dolittle and his companions encounter adventures while abroad or are sent off on various quests. In one book, he translates a dog’s testimony in court to free his owner. In another he records animal alphabets, and sets up a post office system that animals can use to communicate with each other. In another book he meets a dog detective, and in another he starts an opera for birds.
In the aptly titled Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, Dolittle goes to the Moon and (among other things) experiences colors that we don’t have on Earth. The books do actually get pretty weird — so the dragon situation in Dolittle isn’t actually that surprising (well, one part of it still is). One tragic omission in the film is a whimsical recurring character called “pushmi-pullyu,” a two headed gazelle-slash-unicorn-like creature that Dolittle brings back from Africa in an early book.
Some things about Lofting's Doctor Dolittle absolutely need to remain in the past, so thank goodness the makers of Dolittle knew to nix some of the old and add something new. But if this movie does well and there's a sequel, know that there's plenty of potential story idea in those texts. Maybe we can even get some of that moon stuff.