Roald Dahl‘s stories are magical, fantastical, and, most importantly, real. Whilst a golden ticket to a chocolate factory and a magical giant peach may seem as far from reality as imaginable, emotion is always what motivates Dahl’s tales. It’s no wonder his work translates so well on screen.
However, the British author infamously loathed film adaptations of his books, most notably 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. According to Donald Sturrock, an author and a friend of Dahl’s, his “ideal casting was Spike Milligan,” a surrealist actor. Dahl’s dismissal of his novels’ filmic adaptations is justified — he did write the source material, after all. Yet, with major studios like Paramount Pictures backing and distributing films with a young girl blowing up like a blueberry and evil witches turning children into rats, the Dahl films are already notably more surreal than their Home Alone-esque counterparts.
The first of the Dahl adaptations began with 1965’s 36 Hours. Directed and written by Miracle on 34th Street helmer George Seaton, 36 Hours is based on Dahl’s short story “Beware of the Dog.” One of the many of Dahl’s underrated adult stories, “Beware of the Dog” is set during WWII and has an anti-war premise that sees protagonist Peter wake up in a hospital after fainting. After being told he’s in a German hospital, Peter realizes he’s actually in France. The short story ends with a sense of betrayal as Peter decides to identify as a French soldier in order to live.
Seaton’s adaptation takes the original’s sense of deception and turns it into a fully-fledged psychological thriller. The director concentrates on the passing of time, observing just how much a man can change in 36 hours. Unlike “Beware of the Dogs,” Seaton’s film has far less of an abrupt ending.
The film marked the beginning of Dahl’s troubles with his stories’ onscreen adaptations. In his biography of Dahl, Sturrock says that the author had little to do with 36 Hours. In fact, it was only after the film was produced did Dahl know about its making, with the author “surprised” that there was no acknowledgment of his story. After a small dispute with MGM, Dahl was granted his credit; perhaps this bad start is what made Dahl feel negatively towards later film adaptations.
1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory garnered a less-than-positive response from Dahl. According to Liz Attenborough, a trustee of the Roald Dahl Museum, the author thought the film “placed too much emphasis on Willy Wonka and not enough on Charlie. For him, the book was about Charlie.” This emphasis on Wonka was to change over thirty years later with Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 21st-century remake opting for the title of Dahl’s original novel.
The 1971 film saw spoilt children receive karma for their over-indulgence. A gluttonous Augustus falls into a river of chocolate; Violet turns violet; and Verruca Salt, who earns the title of the most spoilt child of all, falls into a garbage chute. Combined with light upbeat songs like “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and “I Want it Now”, director Mel Stuart ensures the darker elements of the film remain child-friendly thanks to these absurd but fun moments.
Perhaps the only exception to this is Gene Wilder’s renditions of “Pure Imagination,” a lull in the bright colors and characters of the film, allowing audiences to be introduced to the chocolate factory that contrasts so much to Charlie’s rooked home. The scene also highlights Dahl’s biggest problem: the focus on Wilder’s character. Whilst Dahl wrote the film’s script, David Seltzer (The Omen) partially rewrote it. Without Seltzer, the spy would not have existed — an addition that gave the film a villain.
On December 25, 1989, the British channel ITV aired the premiere of Brian Cosgrove’s animated movie The BFG. The charming animation received a favorable response from the author. According to Louisa Mellor at Den of Geek, “Dahl […] applauded after the film’s first screening, much to the relief of its animators.”
The film’s introduction to the Big Friendly Giant plays out like a Steven Spielberg film. The camera stays at Sophie’s eye-level throughout the film’s introduction, calling to mind E.T. The Extra Terrestrial‘s opening in which all viewers see of the adults are their legs. It’s unsurprising that twenty-seven years later Spielberg would go on to adapt his own interpretation of the source material.
Both Dahl and Spielberg are not afraid to scare their young audiences. Using adults as both enemies and heroes, neither director adheres to typical conventions of having a clear villain. Dahl’s Matilda, for example, portrays one teacher, Miss Trunchball, as a schoolgirl-tossing maniac, while another, Miss Honey, becomes a surrogate mother for the titular character. Likewise, Spielberg’s children’s films often lack obvious out-right villains. Instead, as Spielberg expert Paul Bullock notes, the director’s “greatest talent lies in what he doesn’t show us.” Dahl is similar; whilst the cast and crew behind the author’s films change, Dahl’s filmmaking legacy lies in that whether it’s Danny DeVito or Tim Burton directing, viewers know Dahl is the film’s source material.
Nevertheless, there are differences between the two BFGs. Whilst the protagonists and storylines remain the same, Spielberg’s modern adaptation softens the villains and frightening scenes. No dumb, dim-witted baby giants are to be seen in the original film. Instead, Cosgrove’s villains are genuinely terrifying, an important facet of the original novel that Spielberg’s film lacks and which may have contributed to Spielberg’s version receiving underwhelming reviews.
Dahl’s widow Felicity (who goes by Liccy) and literary agent and “Hollywood’s liaison to the Dahl estate” Michael Siegel are in control of the movie rights to Dahl’s work now that the author is no longer around. Siegel is responsible for helping to produce modern big-screen adaptations of many of Dahl’s novels, including Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
According to Siegel, the role of the giant was intended for Robin Williams. However, “the reading was actually surprisingly disappointing. […] He was sort of improvising on the jumbled language. And it was clunky. It was strangely not working. It was harder than it looks even for Robin. It didn’t quite deliver.”
Eventually, E.T. writer Melissa Mathison wrote a more heartfelt screenplay. After production was set up with DreamWorks and Disney and the film premiered at Cannes Film Festival, Dahl’s daughter Lucy approved of the film. Via Variety, Siegel says, “at the end of the screening, Lucy turned to me with tears running down her face, telling me she felt like she had just spent the last two hours with her father.” Through CGI and empathetic acting from Mark Rylance, Spielberg’s adaptation focuses on the softer side of Dahl’s story.
Being the only hand-drawn animated adaptation of a Dahl novel to date, Cosgrove’s The BFG had a lot to live up to. Thanks to the inextricable tie between Dahl’s books and Quentin Blake’s illustrations, The BFG‘s many animators had to find a way to live up to Blake’s vivacious drawings. However, thanks to Dahl’s writing, the BFG was able to not just be identified in his dialogue (“Don’t gobblefunk around with words”) but also imagery.
1996 saw two of the best Dahl adaptations with Danny DeVito’s beloved Matilda and Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation James and the Giant Peach. This was certainly the year that cemented Dahl’s stories as filmmaking royalty and remains the heyday of Dahl adaptations.
Written by Siegel’s screenwriting friends Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord (Bicentennial Man, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), the estate had almost no notes for them. And as Siegel says, they “were able to bring it to the studio with complete script approval. […] Nothing could be changed without the estate’s blessing.”
DeVito’s Matilda encapsulates a Dahl story; a writer who writes “out of strong emotion, and not just to be cute.” When Mara Wilson’s titular character is revealed to be telekinetic, there is no shock or disbelief that this could happen. Instead, her powers act as a perfect antidote to Mrs. Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents; the extremes of being treated like nobody versus feeling magical perfectly balanced by DeVito’s devotion to the source material, taking the story seriously. Like Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, the characters we’re supposed to be scared of are frightening; not because they’re over- dramatically played, but because they’re recognizable. Whilst Dahl called The Witches “utterly appalling” due to its re-worked sappy ending, the film was an introduction to horror for many children.
James and the Giant Peach can easily be placed as the most faithful Dahl adaptation. Selick consistently uses the film’s visuals in order to emphasize the original text’s sense of fear and adventure surrounding new journeys and change. Using live-action when James’ parents die and he has to live with his two cruel aunts, Selick ensures the sinister atmosphere is preserved. Meanwhile, by using stop-motion for the adventures on the giant peach, the director speaks to a child’s sense of adventure. By not representing this latter world in live-action, Selick continues Dahl’s style of storytelling: humorous and outlandish, but ultimately alive through its emotion.
Burton’s 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, remains the most commercially successful Dahl film to date, having grossed $475 million worldwide. The film clearly shows that commercial success does not correlate with faithful adaptations. Once again, the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” adaptation deviates from the original, with Burton and writer John August (Big Fish) adding flashbacks to Wonka’s past. Like Mel Stuart’s film, Burton places focus on the owner of the chocolate factory rather than the boy with the golden ticket. What’s distinctive about Dahl’s novels, and the majority of his film adaptations (for example Matilda), is that the point of view is realistically and honestly told from a child’s perspective. By giving emphasis to Wilder and Johnny Depp’s character, that perspective is slowly trickled over to the adults’.
A film that deviates from its source material but stays true to Dahl’s world does exist, however. Wes Anderson’s 2009 Fantastic Mr. Fox was over ten years in the making. Meeting Siegel in 1996 with an initial idea, Anderson eventually came back to Mr. Fox when he visited Dahl’s home. As per Variety, Anderson moved onto the property to write the script, a period in which he “soaked up the particulars of that place in such detail.”
It’s clear that Anderson became a part of Dahl’s world. The bigger character explorations (such as with Meryl Streep’s Mrs. Fox and Jason Schwartzman’s Ash) adds themes of loneliness and change that Dahl could have written himself. What’s more, with Anderson’s distinctively quick-paced dollhouse box style, the director and author are a perfect pairing: both tell dark stories in light settings.
As Siegel observes, Mr. Fox was “the first script that significantly departed from the book, […] but it was so winning and clearly in the spirit of Roald Dahl. It was a complete endorsement and love affair.” Anderson’s adaptation is a perfect example of expanding on Dahl’s world and themes, rather than limiting them by departing on a different route.
Directors, screenwriters, producers, and production studios continue to adapt Dahl’s work, and it’s thanks to Dahl’s estate that audiences are ensured meaningful adaptations. However, Dahl’s writing ensures that these stories will always be instantly recognizable with lessons to be learned for people of all ages. Ultimately, it’s Dahl’s focus on real emotion that signifies his place in filmmaking royalty; and when directors approach his films with their own, visceral attachment to the piece (Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach), it becomes clear Dahl’s stories are supposed to exist as both written and visual pieces.