The BFG: Roald Dahl film adaptations at the box office

Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the beloved children's book is released today

Jacob Stolworthy
Friday 22 July 2016 10:24
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Roald Dahl didn't like his books being adapted into films. In fact, the Cardiff-born writer didn't even enjoy the Gene Wilder-starring Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a film which still effortlessly embeds smiles on the faces of families with every new viewing.

Since his passing in 1990, a diverse range of directors - filmmakers bearing their own unique stamp - have taken Dahl's beloved material and attempted to turn it into a hit: Nicolas Roeg, Henry Selick, Wes Anderson to name a few. Now it's the turn of Steven Spielberg whose version of The BFG is currently cowering in the shadow of Pixar heavyweight Finding Dory and animation The Secret Life of Pets at the US box office.

Which leads to the thought that maybe Dahl was right; if Spielberg can't do it, who can? While these novel adaptations are all - in their own irreverent way - good films, their commercial reception has never truly correlated save for Tim Burton who craftily placed the man of the moment - Johnny Depp, fresh from Pirates of the Caribbean - as his film's lead.

The works of many novelists have over the years enjoyed their moment in the sun (Stephen King, John Grisham, JK Rowling), but the majority of Dahl's properties, in particular, have always been forced to slum it upon release. We assess the history of these film adaptations from most to least successful.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - $475 million


Arguably the weakest of all Dahl adaptations, this 2005 attempt from Tim Burton was bound to succeed thanks to the casting of Johnny Depp, an actor - at the time - riding high on Pirates of the Caribbean success. This is the only Dahl adaptation to easily make its budget back ($150 million). In fact, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory became the eighth biggest film of that year worldwide.

The BFG - $64.4 million (and counting)


Spielberg's attempt at translating Dahl's beloved novel to screen should be the thing of movie magic, an amalgam of two wonders who are proven masters of their respective craft. The BFG, for all its charm (largely attained by Mark Rylance's sweet-natured giant), takes the small story and enlarges it into a whimsical, if bloated film. Too kiddy for adults and - at times - too uneventful for children, perhaps The BFG's box office struggles are due to unenthusiastic word of mouth. There is a sense of fascination to be had; it's just not the whizzpopper one would hope.

Matilda - £62.1 million


Danny Devito tasked himself with both directing and starring in this entertaining take on the quirky book which follows an eight-year-old girl with telekinetic abilities. Despite making back just under half of its budget, the money that Matilda failed to make at the box office has perhaps been earned in its legacy as a cult favourite; today it's considered one of the best Dahl adaptations largely thanks to Pam Ferris' vulgar turn as headmistress Trunchbull and a certain pigtail-swinging scene.

Fantastic Mr. Fox - $46.4 million


Something of a departure for Wes Anderson was this stop-motion animated adaptation - not that the film was minus the director's unmistakable twee aesthetic. Still, Fantastic Mr. Fox will go down as one of the filmmaker's least successful films, trailing behind The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel (which made three times Fox's takings) - even more surprising considering the presence of George Clooney and Meryl Streep.

James and the Giant Peach - $28.9 million


This humble adaptation blends Burton-esque gothic production design with the stop-motion animation utilised by director Henry Selick in his 1993 film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Not even the assembled cast - including Joanna Lumley, Pete Postlethwaite and voicework from Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfus and David Thewlis - could keep this from falling $10 million short of its budget. Still, Dahl's widow Liccy believes the author would have been "delighted" with the end product.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - $25 million


This family favourite needs no introduction; from Gene Wilder's eccentric portrayal of the titular factory owner to the scintillating original score ("Come with me/And you'll be/In a world of pure imagination"), it was a re-release, DVD sales and ensuing TV repeats that made Mel Stuart's adaptation the beloved film it is today. Interestingly, this remains Charlie Bucket actor Peter Ostrum's only film appearance - he's now a vet.

The Witches - $10.4 million


Perhaps it was Anjelica Huston's supremely terrifying performance of the Grand High Witch that scared kids away from Don't Look Now director Nicolas Roeg's chilling adaptation of The Witches. Or maybe its unrelenting portrayal of a young boy facing the prospect of being a mouse for eternity did the trick. Either way, this is the lowest performing of all Dahl adaptations - which has nothing to do with its quality; The Witches remains an endlessly entertaining piece of work that's well worth your time should you happen upon a Channel 5 airing one Sunday afternoon.

The BFG is out in cinemas 22 July

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