Analysis: the new star-studded film is not the only time our feline friends have featured on the big and small screen 

CATS receives the Hollywood treatment this Christmas in a star-studded film adaptation of the long-running West End show. While best known as a popular and record-breaking musical – it is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's greatest hits – the story of CATS has its origins in the literature of the early 20th century. The musical is based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a poetry collection byT.S. Eliot, published in 1939.

A celebrated modernist poet, dramatist and literary critic, Eliot was known for serious fare and would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. However, the poems of Old Possum (a nickname of Eliot’s) are light-hearted and playful.

Originally written as gifts for Eliot’s godchildren and the children of his friends, the collected poems describe different kinds of cats with a variety of skills and aimed to amuse and appeal to a young audience. Even the first edition's simple cover art, drawn by Eliot, is humorous and eye-catching. It shows cats ascending a ladder to join a besuited man, Old Possum, atop a wall, a pair of cats dance on their way, while another gazes snootily down as its fellows clamber up.

Later editions of the poems are equally witty, emphasising the lively, individual characters of the cats. For instance, in 1965, the British Council released a vinyl LP of Eliot reading the poems, the back cover includes paw-prints and a note: "Apology: We had prepared erudite notes for this record, but they appear to have been intercepted on the way to the printers by – Macavity." This official-looking apology highlights the mischievousness of Macavity, the "Mystery Cat" who is a subject of one of the poems, and pokes fun at Eliot’s reputation as a serious author. Nobel Prize or not, the poor human has been bested by a clever cat!

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The poems of Old Possum’s Book continue to be popular with young readers and felinophiles, and even featured prominently in the British Library’s "Cats on the Page" exhibition this year. Recently, Faber & Faber has published colourful volumes on individual cats from the poems such as Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat, Mr Mistoffelees, the Conjuring Cat, and the infamous thieving team of Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer. The CATS film will surely reignite interest in Eliot’s work.

CATS is not the only film to give felines headline-billing in recent years, and they have often featured  memorably on screen as pets. Cats reveal the personalities, virtues and flaws, of characters in films such as Breakfast At Tiffany's, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Meet the Parents. Based on two books, A Street Cat Named Bob tells the real-life tale of a former drug-addict and his relationship with a ginger tomcat who he adopts. While his owner busks on London’s streets, the extraordinarily-talented Bob becomes a celebrity and he even plays himself in the film.

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Thanks in large part to the James Bond franchise, cats have become a conventional pet to symbolise evil genius. In fact, the image of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld rubbing his Persian cat is so familiar it has often been parodied. In the Austin Powers films, Dr Evil’s cat Mr. Bigglesworth is played by a hairless Sphynx cat; in the film’s plot, he once resembled Blofeld’s cat, but an accident in space makes him as bald as his master. In the 2001 children’s film Cats & Dogs, which sees pets pitted against one another as rival factions of spies, the villain is Mr. Tinkles, a white Persian who nefariously plots to make all humans allergic to dogs.

In sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies, cats help to create eerie and magical atmospheres. For example, in Alien, Jonesy the marmalade cat is a plot-device to build the tension for the audience as he knows the creature is near, but the hapless human characters do not. In the children’s horror-comedy Hocus Pocus, the black cat Binx is central to the film’s Halloween plot, while in this year’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, the cat Church moves from being a beloved family pet to a malevolent undead presence.

The comicbook movie Captain Marvel draws on cats’ reputation as enigmatic, wild creatures through the character of Goose. On the surface, he appears to be an adorable ginger tabby, but in reality he is a highly-dangerous shape-shifting alien. But whether he is a feline or a Flerken, Goose succeeds in stealing many a scene from his fellow actors – he is the film’s breakout star.

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On TV too, cats have begun to take centre stage. Two light-hearted Specsavers' ads feature cats in their punchline: one sees a short-sighted vet mistaking a furry hat for a cat, while the other comically shows a myopic handyman put a cat-flap at the top of a door, much to the chagrin of the frustrated feline.

Real-life cats have appeared periodically in episodes of Channel 4’s The Supervet, but they are the focus of RTÉ’s recent series Cat Hospital. Filmed in Cork at Ireland's only veterinary clinic that caters exclusively for cats, viewers gain an insight into the work of veterinary staff, the lives of cat-owners and, of course, the felines themselves. Each episode shows us cats that are beloved members of families and reminds us that every cat has a singular story; they are uniquely beautiful, interesting, endearing, infuriating, fabulous, and talented. As a man familiar with and fond of felines, no doubt Eliot would have spotted many a cat worth adding to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ