Raise a glass of Frobscottle, everyone! The Big Friendly Giant, all 24 feet of him, has finally made the leap from the pages of Roald Dahl’s 1982 book, onto the cinema screen. The animated version from 1989 (with David Jason voicing the tall one) may be fondly remembered, but this is a major live-action cinematic event, with $140m having been spent creating the oversized world of the BFG and his rather less friendly, equally ginormous peers.
Moreover, it’s been steered into the harbour by none other than Steven Spielberg, returning to the world of unabashed children’s cinema for the first time since Hook, with a screenplay by E.T. scriptwriter, the sadly late Melissa Mathison. Spielberg is the latest major film director to have taken on the world of Roald Dahl, captivated like so many millions of others by his extraordinary imagination.
As disparate as these Dahl interpreters are, they do have one thing in common: they aren’t necessarily names one associates with children’s movies. What is it then, that makes Roald Dahl appeal to minds that have conjured up movies like Munich, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Death To Smoochy and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street?
Anyone who has read any of Dahl’s Tales of The Unexpected stories will know that underneath all that sugar frosting was a capacity for brilliantly realised unpleasantness. It’s hard to imagine that the same fingers that typed out The Giraffe, The Pelly & Me were also responsible for the ‘Skin’ story in which a beggar shows off the priceless tattoo on his back to a bunch of art dealers, a tattoo which later turns up in a picture frame, skin and all. Sleep tight, kids.
Dahl, in common with many highly revered children’s authors, was an intensely complicated artist: a habitually adulterous womaniser with a capacity for angry outbursts and Olympic-level rudeness: ‘Propsposterous,’ ‘Rotsome,’ ‘Snozzcumber’ and ‘Whoopsey-splunkers’ were as nothing compared to the words he often used to describe his publishers, critics and anyone foolish enough to turn one of his books into a film – he, unlike many of us, was not a fan of Gene Wilder’s.
Then again, Dahl was a man who knew horror and tragedy first hand, having not only fought in World War II (as he documented in Going Solo), but lost both a sister and a daughter to illness. Regardless of how magically weaved his tales were, they were grounded in a resolutely unsentimental world.
Somewhere between love and hate you’ll find the God’s honest truth and that is what artists of the calibre of Spielberg yearn desperately to capture. Perhaps this too is why his stories are so especially popular with kids in this illusionary, foam-wrapped 21st century, with its Safe Spaces and children forced to wear protective goggles when playing conkers or using a pencil sharpener unsupervised.
Dahl’s pint-sized heroes were boundary-pushers, often rebellious and anarchic; veritable assets in a world where grown-ups were rarely to be trusted and were usually outright sinister. The Dahl directors also share that sense of mischief. Above all, above everything, they love telling stories and they can spot another master storyteller when they see one.
The Witches (1990)
The most incongruous name on the credits for this Jim Henson production is that of the director, Nicolas Roeg. Roeg is one of the most feted visionary British directors of the post-war era, possessed of an unmistakable style that helped films like Performance, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth to become iconic classics. Each of them though, were intense, often nightmarish movies; sexually explicit and occasionally terrifying, all of which made Roeg a seemingly odd choice to helm a beloved children’s book adaptation.
Then again, Roeg had form when it came to kids’ films. His first work as a (solo) director, Walkabout (1971) is one of the most haunting and unsentimental children’s films ever made, and contains three of the best pre-pubescent performances in cinema.
Plus, The Witches really is terrifying. Dahl’s descriptive minutiae (the feet without toes, the clawed fingers and bald heads, not to mention my own particular fear of green soup) amounts to the stuff of purest nightmare, and in Roeg’s hands the threat these witches posed to the children was frighteningly genuine – especially after they had been turned into mice.
True to form, Dahl was appalled with the result, principally at Jim Henson’s decision to change the book’s ending and turn young Luke back from a mouse into a human being. The argument didn’t last too long though, alas, for by the end of 1990, both Henson and Roald Dahl had passed away.
James & The Giant Peach (1996)
Henry Selick had a bit of a tough break in 1993, making his directing debut with a film called ‘Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.’ With this, his follow-up, Selick’s claimed his glorious, easily-identifiable stop-motion animation style as his own (though Burton remained on-hand as an executive producer).
Selick’s adaptation of Dahl’s airborne fantasy was a perfect blend of live-action (bookending the film) and classic, old school stop-motion that allowed Dahl’s fruit-bound cast of gigantic insects to come brilliantly to life with a distinctive charm that CGI, even now, struggles to capture.
As Wes Anderson would prove with his own Fantastic Mr Fox (which feels like an episode of Bagpuss blended with a copy of The New Yorker from 1966), stop-motion and Roald Dahl are a match made in heaven. The author who opened this, his first children’s book with the death of his hero’s parents via a trampling rhinoceros, would doubtless have approved of Selick’s masterpiece, the soul-troubling, button-eyed kiddie-horror Coraline (2009).
Danny DeVito took the reins on this Dahl adaptation, and proved to be a perfect choice. DeVito’s films as a director have a wild streak of black comedy running through them, as dark as pitch. His debut, Throw Momma From A Train, was a hilarious tale of two people trying to murder the women in their lives. His follow-up, The War of The Roses detailed the most hateful, violent divorce in Hollywood history…but was still side-splitting. (You might be surprised at how much you enjoy his cruelly dismissed Death To Smoochy too, if you give it another go.)
All of this made him the perfect choice to direct this heavily Americanised version of Dahl’s book, which was top-heavy with Dahl-obsessions – plucky, bright children oppressed by violent, ugly stupid adults. DeVito himself plays the worst dad in the world, constantly berating his genius daughter for reading when she should be eating TV dinners and being fat like her big brother.
DeVito’s ace was in casting Pam Ferris as the much-feared, child-hating headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull, an irredeemable brute with the figure and the dress sense of an Appalacian bear-wrestler. DeVito’s skills with black comedy allow him to perfectly navigate the thin line between threatening horror and comic pantomime with magical results.
Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (2005)
1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory may have had better songs, and in Gene Wilder a crueller, more memorable chocolatier, but in its director, Mel Stuart, it lacked someone with a singular vision. There can’t be many directors today, or ever, with a vision more singular than Tim Burton.
Burton and the notoriously picky Dahl estate had got on like a house on fire since James and The Giant Peach and the feeling was mutual. Burton has stated that Roald Dahl was his favourite author as a child. You can sense the echoes of Dahl’s imaginings in the broad battles between the living and the dead in Beetlejuice, or the solitary loneliness of many of Dahl’s young protagonists in Edward Scissorhands.
Burton’s easy comfort as one who has always lived parallel to the mainstream in a world of his own imagination, made him Charlie’s champion and like Dahl, he delighted in making greedy kids, spoilt kids, rude kids and boring kids glued to video games suffer for their revolting obviousness.
Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
All the directors listed above managed successfully and sympathetically to adapt Dahl’s books while incorporating the films into the body of their own distinctive canon. Wes Anderson absorbed the bare plot of Fantastic Mr Fox, but the film that emerged was more Andersonian than Dahlian, and I really do mean that as a compliment. It is a Greatest Hits package of Anderson motifs, with Mr Fox himself resembling a rascally, vulpine version of a previous paterfamilias Royle Tenenbaum.
Anderson and his brothers used to make dens in their rooms out of mattresses and pretend to dig like Mr Fox. ‘I always loved Fantastic Mr Fox,’ he told Craig McLean of The Telegraph. ‘It was the first book I actually owned with my name written in the title page on a little sticker.’
Despite Anderson’s embellishments – a super-skilled cousin called Kristofferson, the Whack-Bat tournament and Badger’s law firm: Badger, Beaver & Beaver – the plot is remarkably true to the book. It’s hard to believe that even with his legendary imagination, Roald Dahl could foresee his bushy-tailed hero becoming a corduroy-wearing, newspaper columnist with vanity issues, a trademark whistle and superb motorcycling skills. What the cuss?