Taking Dahl to the movies

As Steven Spielberg's The BFG arrives on the big screen, Stephanie Merry looks back at classic Roald Dahl adaptations

Stephanie Merry
Tuesday 28 June 2016 15:46
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For many children, their introduction to dark comedy is through the twisted stories of Roald Dahl. His books introduced filthy monsters and draconian authority figures in all their grotesque glory, then set good-hearted (if mischievous) child protagonists on them.

A live-action version of Dahl's 1982 book The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg, makes its way to the screen this month (22 July in the UK). The movie stars Mark Rylance as the titular dream-catching Big Friendly Giant, with Ruby Barnhill playing his new best friend, plucky orphan Sophie.

Although most adaptations of Dahl's works have turned out pretty well, The BFG shows how tricky the transformation can be.

The film is vividly imaginative, with breathtaking special effects that transform Rylance into a beanpole of a supersized human. It revels in Dahl's extensive vocabulary of made-up words, such as hippodumplings and crocadowndillies. It also features the irreverent stuff Dahl loved so much, like earth-quaking flatulence. But it isn't nearly as exciting as the book.

Maybe it's appropriate that a film about dreams can very nearly lull you to sleep. It spends much more time acquainting us with the world of giants than taking advantage of the action these massive, bloodthirsty characters are capable of scaring up. So here are some previous Dahl adaptations – with their backstories – from which The BFG could have learned:

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Plot in a sentence: Impoverished young Charlie Bucket wins the chance to tour an eccentric's sweet workshop and watches as ill-behaved children get their long-overdue come-uppance.

Dahl was famously disgusted with this version of his 1964 book, directed by Mel Stuart. The screenplay Dahl wrote was heavily reworked, but that wasn't his only complaint. He wanted Spike Milligan to play Willy, and he thought Charlie's role was overshadowed by Gene Wilder's wonky Wonka. (The title of the film was even changed from the book's alliterative Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

Audiences weren't much easier to please; the film met with disappointing box office returns on its release. But a few years down the line, it became hugely popular. Why? Because it really did capture some of Dahl's spirit. For one, it did not soften the content for kids, leaving the scare factor high. (That eerie boat ride, for example, was enough to give children nightmares well into adulthood.) It also appealed to parents as much as their offspring, which was a hallmark of Dahl's work.

Another adaptation of the novel – this time retaining the book's title – came out in 2005, courtesy of Tim Burton. Dahl fans agreed that the writer, who died in 1990, would have been happier with this incarnation, which more closely followed the book. Audiences, though, might have been rather distracted by Johnny Depp's softly-spoken, giggling, creepy Wonka to fully appreciate the story.

The Witches (1990)

Plot in a sentence: The recently orphaned Luke Eveshim goes on a trip with his grandmother and must do battle with a crew of hideous witches after they turn him into a mouse.

Here was another adaptation that Dahl disavowed. (He wasn't easy to please.) Yet it certainly lived up to the scary spirit of its source material. It's basically a horror movie: the witches are sickening to look at (thanks to fine special effects by Jim Henson), and they do ghastly things to children – luring them in with sweets, then transforming them into rodents. In one particularly nightmarish scene, a cook lops off poor Luke's tail. And if there's any question what the Grand High Witch (a perfectly cast Anjelica Huston) is capable of, just look at Grandma's missing little finger.

The most conspicuous change between book and film is the fact that at the end of the film, Luke gets to be a boy again. Even Dahl can't come between Hollywood and a happy ending.

Matilda (1996)

Plot in a sentence: Wunderkind Matilda Wormwood uses her telekinetic powers to give her brutal headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, what's coming to her.

Danny DeVito directed this adaptation of Dahl's 1988 novel. It turned out that the man behind Throw Momma From the Train and The War of the Roses was the perfect person to usher a children's story – albeit a dark one – to the screen.

"Sit down, you squirming worm of vomit!" the militaristic Trunchbull tells a student at one point. Later, she grabs a girl by the pigtails and hurls her across the playground. Matilda isn't as scary as The Witches, but it's just as disturbing at times, what with Matilda's homelife as soulless as her schooldays. Her father (DeVito) rips up her library books and forces her to watch idiotic game shows. Aside from transferring the action from England to the US, DeVito stuck quite close to the original.

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

Plot in a sentence: An impish fox has to recruit help after his chicken-thieving makes his family and friends the target of three dangerous farmers.

Wes Anderson went in an entirely different direction with his stop-motion animation version of Dahl's 1970 novel. The contours of the story are the same but Anderson took liberties with many of the details. Even as the film is so obviously a work of its auteur, it's also faithful to Dahl's spirit, with wry comedy and an insistence on not looking down on its youngest audience members.

"You cussing with me?" Mr Fox (George Clooney) asks a badger (Bill Murray) he's sparring with. "Don't cuss with me you little cuss," the badger responds before the characters growl and claw at each other. The dialogue is PG, but with a naughty streak.

There are still hints of gore – a farmer wears the tail of his vulpine adversary as a necktie – but also plenty of heart. Anderson adds a contentious father-son relationship that never existed in the story.

Would Dahl have approved of the director's almost pathological devotion to whimsy? Maybe not. But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it.

© The Washington Post

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