It’s recently been announced that Steven Spielberg will direct a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” (scheduled for release in 2016). Spielberg is due to team up once again with Melissa Mathison: he previously collaborated with Mathison in 1982 when she penned the screenplay for Spielberg’s film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. Like “E.T.”, a famously heartwarming film following the unlikely friendship between a young boy and a friendly alien, “The BFG” follows an unlikely friendship between a young girl and a friendly giant. With Spielberg’s direction, Mathison’s screenplay, and advancements in film technology, it seems certain that Roald Dahl’s novel is in safe hands. Indeed, “E.T.” even surpassed “Star Wars” to become the highest-grossing film of all time (only to be beaten by “Jurassic Park” ten years later, another Spielberg flick). First published in 1982, “The BFG” has been adapted once before as an animated feature film (by Cosgrove Hall Films in 1989). That version is apparently Dahl’s favourite adaptation of his own work, and received a standing ovation from the author after his first viewing. There have to date been nine films based on Dahl’s books, and now seems as good a time as any to look back at a few of them.
First things first, some trivia: it’s a little known fact that Roald Dahl actually wrote the scripts for several notable films. He wrote the screenplay for the Bond film “You Only Live Twice” (1967), and also co-wrote the screenplay for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) , with the iconic Child Catcher (who possesses all the trademarks of a classic Dahl villain) and the name ‘Truly Scrumptious’ credited solely as Dahl’s inventions. In 1971 “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was adapted to film as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”; the focus upon Willy Wonka rather than Charlie Bucket (reflected in the name change) was not appreciated by Dahl, who was also unimpressed with the casting of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He subsequently disowned the film. Nevertheless, this musical adaptation remains highly popular and has reached cult status, and even received an Academy Award for its hilariously eccentric score. It has been aired frequently on television since its release and I’m pretty sure it was a staple of most of my friends’ childhoods. I can still remember being shown an old VHS of this film in school during lunch every single time it was raining.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was re-adapted in 2005 by Tim Burton, with Freddie Highmore of “Finding Neverland” fame starring in the eponymous role and Johnny Depp stepping into Gene Wilder’s shoes as the idiosyncratic inventor. The director and source material seemed a perfect marriage on paper. Burton is renowned for his penchant for the dark fairytale-esque and his array of oddball but lovable characters (more often than not played by Depp). Indeed, I can hardly believe that Dahl, with his dark sense of humour, predilection for satire, and offbeat imagination, didn’t have a hand in penning Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”; the playful but bleak depiction of suburbia particularly resembles Dahl’s work. Yet despite the ostensible compatibility of Burton and Dahl, I found Burton’s take on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” a little contrived in its efforts to be as quirky as humanly possible. In addition, Depp’s interpretation of Willy Wonka as a child-like innocent with a severe case of arrested development doesn’t really work, and the inclusion of a back-story involving a controlling dentist father and some painful orthodontic procedures is simply unnecessary. Burton’s mistake is, simply, to go over the top: he doesn’t seem to recognise that the book he was adapting was plenty crazy enough. More successful at reflecting the tone of its source material was the 1990 adaptation of “The Witches”. Frequently appearing on lists of the scariest children’s movies of all time, “The Witches” haunts me even to this day. I can still remember my older brother leaving the room when I was watching “The Witches” because it freaked him out so much. The film doesn’t shy away from its unremittingly terrifying source material, and deals with hideous witches who plot to rid the world of children in a variety of ghastly ways. Three standout terrifying moments include a witch attempting to push a baby in a stroller off a cliff, a young girl forced to grow up inside a painting, and the novel’s hero (a young book named Luke) being turned into a mouse in front of an audience of jeering witches. Casting Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch was a masterstroke: Huston’s talent at conveying the grotesque and frightening was clearly recognised (she went on to be cast as Morticia Addams in “The Addams Family”).
The only place this adaptation falls down is in its decision to reverse Dahl’s bittersweet ending. In the original novel, Luke remains stuck in his mouse form, which means he’ll have the short life span of a mouse. The ‘sweet’ part of this ending comes only in the orphan Luke’s consolation that he won’t have to go on living any longer than his elderly grandmother. It’s horrendously depressing. In the film adaptation, conversely, Luke is transformed back into a boy by a ‘good’ witch. While I can understand the reasons behind the filmmakers’ decision to gift the film with a happy ending, Dahl’s novel is far more poignant and in keeping with the perpetually disturbing atmosphere of the book.
Stop-motion animation has been used for two adaptations – the 1996 “James and the Giant Peach” (which uses a mixture of stop-motion and live action) and the 2009 “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Directed by the notoriously whimsical Wes Anderson and starring the voice talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is predictably witty and charming, yet is missing some of the darker undertones Dahl is known for. “James and the Giant Peach” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, though, both utilize the stop-motion animation to full effect, and consequently manage to adapt those books which would otherwise be un-adaptable (due to their focus on foxes and, well, a giant peach full of bugs). Indisputably the greatest Dahl adaptation, however, is Danny DeVito’s 1996 version of “Matilda”.
DeVito transfers the action to suburban America, a move which provides the perfect arena for exploring the book’s latent themes (such as consumerism and parental neglect). DeVito and Rhea Perlman are perfectly cast as Matilda’s parents, pretty much evil but just stupid enough that they remain on the funny side. Pam Ferris’ representation of Miss Trunchball, meanwhile, constitutes the perfect villain and probably had children quaking in their boots at the thought of being sent to the headmistress’ office for years after seeing the film. “Matilda” includes moments which have gone on to become iconic: Bruce Bogtrotter and the chocolate cake, Amanda Thripp being hurled around by her pigtails, and pretty much any scene with Miss Trunchball. One of my particular favourite scenes includes a classroom of children spelling the word ‘difficulty’ using a poem (“Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C etc”) and Miss Trunchball’s furious response (“Why are all these women MARRIED?”). Even moments in which Matilda jubilantly makes pancakes to the sound of Rusted Root’s “Send Me On My Way” and jams out to Thurston Harris’ “Little Bitty Pretty One” after discovering her telekinetic powers, remain entrenched in numerous children’s imaginations. In fact, I think I can say with absolute assurance that Mara Wilson’s portrayal of Matilda was formative for pretty much any bookworm who grew up in the 90s (myself being one of them). “Matilda” has since gone on to become a successful stage musical, winning seven Olivier awards in 2012. I found the musical impressive, but missed the subtle emotional core at the heart of the original novel and the film adaptation.
I’m a fan of anything that introduces new readers to Dahl’s inventive world. I can’t imagine a childhood without Roald Dahl’s stories and, thanks to those who continue to adapt these books in order to bring them to new audiences, more and more children will grow up realising it’s okay to be different (because you might just develop magic powers). While we’re waiting for Spielberg’s newest addition to this list of adaptations, we can all relive Dahl’s novels and follow Matilda’s example…