Worlds of pure imagination – The five best Roald Dahl film adaptations

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl – a man who was undoubtedly one of the greatest children’s authors of the 20th Century. Dahl’s legacy can be seen today in both the consistently strong sales his stories continue to enjoy and in the number of films that have used those stories as source material.

It’s fair to say Dahl had a rather dim view of most of these movies, and not entirely unfairly – a sizeable chunk of them don’t quite work. The latest effort, Steven Spielberg’s take The BFG, is a perfect example of this, scoring points for its stunning visuals and top notch performances – particularly Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant himself – but somehow ending up less than the sum of its parts.

Still, that’s not to say that Dahl’s novels can’t be translated to screen successfully, so to celebrate the author’s centenary year, here’s a round-up of five of the best, most whizzpopping and downright scrumdidilyumptious Roald Dahl adaptations.

5. James and the Giant Peach

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The first film on this list to utilise stop motion animation, James and the Giant Peach is based on one of the most surreal entries in Dahl’s catalogue. Seriously: even by the author’s famously outlandish standards, this story of a young boy and his talking animal friends, who all inhabit a humongous peach, is pretty out there – and that’s before the oversized fruit takes to the skies!

Given the level of craziness at play here, it only makes sense that Henry Sellick (of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline fame) is in the director’s chair, and he doesn’t disappoint. Sellick crafts a film that is as deliciously weird as Dahl’s original vision, lending proceedings a breezy charm without sacrificing the dark undercurrents (Child abuse! Parental death!) that characterise the author’s work.

The animation and design work are also as vibrant as you’d expect, while the cast – including Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss and David Thewlis – are uniformly excellent. If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that the live-action sequences that book end the film are a bit of let down, but that’s only because everything in the middle is so spectacularly well-executed.

4. Fantastic Mr. Fox

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The guy who made The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel directing a Roald Dahl movie – sounds like a terrible idea, right? Fortunately, this unlikely combination works a treat, and Anderson (eschewing modern CG animation in favour of stop motion) and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach do a skilful job expanding Fantastic Mr. Fox’s slender plot about a clever fox outwitting three bumbling farmers into a feature length script.

True, the subplot about an insecure teen fox seems more Anderson than Dahl, and the overall tone is a lot gentler (and, frankly, Americanised) than that of the book. But the all star roster of voice actors – including George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray – are a delight, and they, together with the retro-cool visuals and licensed soundtrack, make this an easy flick to love.

3. The Witches

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Director Nicolas Roeg gets a lot right in this 1990 adaptation of Dahl’s spooky tale that pits a boy and his grandmother against a secret society of infanticidal witches. With The Witches, Roeg manages to elicit just enough scare factor to keep kids entertained (and not sprinting for the nearest exit), thanks largely to the film’s titular evil hags, who are vividly realised by the prosthetic and make-up effects of the Jim Henson Company’s legendary creature shop.

But it’s Anjelica Huston who ultimately steals the show, sinking her teeth into the role of the diabolical Grand High Witch with obvious relish in a turn that’s equal parts sinister and captivating. Does The Witches go soft by making the book’s bittersweet ending an out-and-out happy occasion (something Dahl was unsurprisingly pissed about)? Sadly, yes. However, even the most ardent Dahl purist is unlikely to care, given how much subversive fun the rest of the film has to offer.

2. Matilda

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In terms of truly capturing the tone of the Dahl book it’s based on, Matilda may be the most successful entry on this list. Not only does Danny DeVito’s adaptation refuse to shrink away from the story’s less savoury elements, it also retains the warmth and humanity of the author’s writing, too.

Mara Wilson is spot-on as the little girl with special gifts neglected by her family, and Pam Ferris was born to play the odious headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (which might not be such a compliment, now that I think of it).

And with all the novel’s macabre elements unaltered – Trunchbull’s torture chamber, Miss Honey’s murdered father and Matilda’s unpleasant home life are all present and accounted for – when the film’s happy ending does finally arrive it feels thoroughly earned.

1. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

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Dahl famously despised this musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but don’t let that put you off. Mel Stuart’s spin on Dahl’s yarn about a poor boy’s adventures in a magical chocolate factory is a witty, exhilarating, and occasionally scary acid trip that’s as enjoyable for kids as it is for grown-ups.

Part of what makes the film soar is its infectious musical numbers, like the wistful anthem “Pure Imagination” or iconic ditty “Oompa Loompa”. But ultimately, what makes the movie work is the late Gene Wilder’s masterful turn as Willy Wonka. Wilder perfectly captures the mystery and mischief of the character, equal parts knowing guide and eccentric dreamer.

Then there’s the uplifting finale – if it doesn’t leave you feeling as warm and gooey inside as one of Wonka’s creations, you just might be a Slugworth employee!


What’s your favourite Roald Dahl adaptation? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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