Today marks the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s birth, a man who was undoubtedly one of the greatest children’s authors of the 20th Century.
Dahl’s legacy can be seen today not only in the consistently strong sales his stories continue to enjoy, but also in the number of films that have used those stories for source material.
It’s fair to say Dahl had a rather dim view of many of the movies based on his works, many of which brightened up the darker undertones of his works or otherwise meddled with his tales of virtuous heroes and despicable villains.
The latest, Steven Spielberg’s take The BFG, scores points for its faithfulness to the source material, stunning visuals and top notch performances – particularly Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant himself – but somehow, it ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts.
Still, that’s not to say that Dahl’s novels can’t be translated to screen successfully, and here are five of the best, most whizzpopping and downright scrumdidilyumptious adaptations of the author’s works.
5. James and the Giant Peach
The first film on this list to utilise stop motion animation, James and the Giant Peach also benefits from being based on one of the most surreal entries in Dahl’s catalogue, focussing as it does on the adventures of a young boy and his talking animal friends, who all inhabit a humongous fruit (which ends up flying at one point, because things weren’t nuts enough)
With this sort of craziness afoot, it only makes sense that Henry Sellick, of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline fame, would fine himself sitting in the directors chair, and he doesn’t disappoint, crafting a film that is as deliciously weird as Dahl’s original vision, and which manages to balance a breezy charm with the usual heavy undercurrents (Child abuse! Parental Death!) that characterise the author’s output.
The animation and design work in Giant Peach are as vibrant as you’d expect, and the vocal talent – which counts Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss and David Thewlis amongst its number – are uniformly excellent, and if the live-action sequences that book end the film are a bit of let down, that’s only because everything in the middle is so spectacularly well-executed.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
The guy who made The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel directing a Roald Dahl movie – sounds like a terrible idea, right?
Fortunately, the end result works a treat, and Anderson – unsurprisingly eschewing modern CG animation in favour of stop motion – and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach do a skilful job expanding Fantastic Mr. Fox’s 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 overall proceedings are a lot gentler (and dare I say it, ever so slightly Americanised) than they should be.
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
Director Nicolas Roeg gets a lot right in this 1990 adaptation of Dahl’s spooky tale of a boy and his grandmother pitted 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), and the evil hags that lend the film its title are vividly realised via the typically outstanding prosthetic and make-up effects of the Jim Henson Company’s 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 that is equal parts sinister and captivating.
It must be said that the film goes soft by making the book’s bittersweet ending an out-and-out happy occasion (surprise, surprise – Dahl was not a fan of this revision), but for most viewers, this will be a minor quibble, given the gleefully subversive entertainment on display up till that point.
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 refuse to shrink away from the less savoury elements that underpin the story, but 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)
Like I said earlier, director Danny DeVito has left all of the novel’s macabre elements unaltered, with Trunchbull’s torture chamber, Miss Honey’s murdered father and Matilda’s generally unpleasant home life all present and accounted for.
As such, when the film’s happy ending does finally arrive it feels thoroughly earned, and one gets the impression that even Dahl himself would likely have approved of it.
1. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Dahl famously despised this musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but don’t let that put you off – Mel Stuart’s film is an uplifting, surreal, funny and occasionally scary acid trip that is as enjoyable for kids as it is for grown-ups.
A commercial disappointment upon its initial release, Willy Wonka far outstrips Tim Burton’s financially successful 2005 version, which for all its aesthetic wonders comes across as an often dour affair containing only glimpses of the warmth Dahl’s yarn about a poor boy’s visit to a magical chocolate factory is infused with.
Willy Wonka, on the other hand, soars, not least of all thanks to musical numbers like the wistful “Pure Imagination” or the now iconic fun of “Oompa Loompa”.
The film does get a least one big black mark against its name, for having Charlie steal Fizzy Lifting Drink – sure, he was talked into it and the emotional drama during the finale absolutely depends on this happening, but it kinda undermines the contrast between our hero and the other brats on the tour (apparently one of the reasons Dahl hated the film) – and it’s almost too light and fluffy at times (even for a film where children befall rather horrific accidents).
But all this can be easily overlooked thanks to the late Gene Wilder’s masterful turn as Willy Wonka.
Wilder perfectly captures the mystery and mischief of the character, equal parts intelligent, witty host and eccentric dreamer.
Unlike Burton and Johnny Depp’s serious misreading of the character, Wilder’s Wonka is quirky, not creepy and only dislikes naughty kids, rather than ALL children everywhere (he’s also not burdened by an unnecessary traumatic childhood backstory to explain his career as a chocolatier).
And really, in the end, if the film’s final moments don’t leave you feeling as warm and gooey inside as one of Wonka’s creations, you just might well be a Slugworth employee.