Along with multiple generations of New Zealanders, and presumably some people from other parts of the world, Roald Dahl played a huge role in the formation of my own youthful comedic sensibilities. His books, aimed at children, empowered and delighted their audience with a devious sense of mischief that has rarely been captured elsewhere, in any medium.
Considering how successful Dahl was at crediting children with intelligence, it almost seems crazy that it's taken this long for Steven Spielberg to get around to adapting one of his books. The master director's next film (opening in New Zealand on July 7) is a special effects-heavy live-action mounting of Dahl's long-beloved 1982 classic The BFG, notable for contributing the words "snozzcumber" and "bellypopper" to the contemporary vernacular.
A new full-length trailer for the film - which in an inspired piece of casting also features Aotearoa's own BFG, Jemaine Clement - was released this week and it promises an epic tale with a warm aesthetic that appears to be taking some degree of inspiration from the Quentin Blake illustrations with which certain Dahl books are so closely associated.
It got me thinking about all the prior big screen Roald Dahl adaptations, which I will revisit here and attempt to determine how successfully they captured the spirit of the source material, a task which has proven especially difficult, despite the surfeit of quality films his work has inspired.
I'm going to ignore all the Dahl-inspired TV, of which there is much. The small screen is also where most adaptations of Dahl's more adult-oriented short stories ended up, usually on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Dahl's own series, Tales of the Unexpected. One big screen exception to this is perhaps Quentin Tarantino's segment of the 1995 anthology movie Four Rooms, which riffed heavily on Dahl's classic short story Man From The South, the subject of three prior television adaptations.
Beyond his career as a novelist, memoirist and short story writer, Dahl also wrote screenplays, but most adaptations of his own books came too late for his feasible involvement. In addition to the screenplay for the 1971 Willy Wonka film, the author's most notable movie credits are on two Ian Fleming adaptations: the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and the 1968 flying car classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The latter film benefits notably from its screenwriter's unique sensibility in its portrayal of the Child Catcher, a figure of deep Dahl-ian horror if ever there was one.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
A wonderful movie from any angle but the change in title from the novel speaks to the film's ultimate emphasis on the chocolate maker over the chocolate eater. Still, given the myriad of pleasures on display here, it's impossible to rag on this film too much. The way it successfully interweaves fear and wonder, a trademark Dahl juxtaposition, remains impressive to this day.
The Witches (1990)
This criminally underrated adaptation of my all-time favourite Dahl book (first published in 1983) does an amazing job of capturing the unnerving undercurrent of the source material. It's one of the few family films that can claim to be geninely scary. Angelica Huston is simply marvelous as the head witch, perfectly channelling the hysterical fervour projected by the book's iconic, nightmare-inducing cover.
Directed by (and co-starring) Danny DeVito, this charming film was not a hit on its first release, but it is beloved by an enduring and ever-expanding audience. Tonally, Matilda is one of the more faithful Dahl adaptations, but it often skews a little younger than I think the author might have appreciated. The film's legacy is in constant danger of being overshadowed by the current hit Broadway musical based on the same book.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
The stop-motion animated adaptation from director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) presents its fantastic story with a bold aesthetic that is always a wonder to behold, but which is also at times kinda distancing in a way that Coraline and ParaNorman weren't. On the whole, though, stop-motion as a mode seems to suit Dahl (see below) and is probably the only way you could get away with a decent movie based on The Twits. They just seem too horrible for live action. Unless you cast Ricky Gervais perhaps ...
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
On some level, there's something inspired about Depp choosing (via his performance) to equate Willy Wonka with Michael Jackson, but this film suffered from the audience cottoning on to the tricks of its two principal creative forces - Depp's twitchy quirkiness was beginning to lose its lustre, and director Tim Burton's trademark day-glo gothic production design had become as boring and predictable as the bland style it originally superseded. I think there's more genuine Dahl-ian horror in star Freddie Highmore's current project, the delightfully camp Psycho TV prequel Bates Motel. The 1964 book has also inspired a musical theatre production, this one has been so far confined to the West End, with a 2017 Broadway debut planned.
Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
Maybe the key to adapting Dahl is to locate his stories within another sensibility entirely. As entertaining as they often are, direct filmic extrapolations of Dahl's one-of-a-kind perspective never quite seem to hit the nail on the head. Wes Anderson's approach was to turn Dahl's 1970 novel into what is unmistakably a Wes Anderson movie. The film works all the better for it, and you could never accuse it of dishonouring Dahl.
* What's your favourite Roald Dahl movie? Ricky Gervais for Mr. Twit? Comment below!