LIV­ING DAHL

Top screen adap­ta­tions of Roald’s fan­tasy works

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - The BFG -

the vin­tage of a par­tic­u­lar bot­tle of wine – with mar­riage to the host’s daugh­ter hang­ing in the bal­ance. An­other, Wil­liam And Mary, is a love story of sorts: in­volv­ing a dead hus­band, a wid­owed woman, a brain and a jar. The con­tent may be more adult than his more fa­mous chil­dren’s books, but the com­i­cally grotesque imag­i­na­tion leaves no doubt that this is the same man be­hind the pen.

“Dahl cre­ated a world which is in­stantly recog­nis­able,” says Si­mon Cal­low, an ac­tor and bi­og­ra­pher who has ap­peared in sev­eral Roald Dahl adap­ta­tions. “His char­ac­ters are in­deli­bly mem­o­rable and his land­scape is as iden­ti­fi­able as that of Dick­ens or of Dos­to­evsky. Like them, his vi­sion is grotesque and dis­turb­ing – but height­ened in such a way that it is night­mar­ishly on the brink of tears or ter­ror.”

TO THE BIG SCREEN

With such bril­liant world-build­ing abil­i­ties, it was in­evitable that Hol­ly­wood would come knock­ing be­fore long. Al­most all of Dahl’s most pop­u­lar books have now been brought to the big screen – The BFG hits screens this July – mak­ing it some­what sur­pris­ing to note that his first big-bud­get screen­plays were adapt­ing the works of oth­ers. The most no­table of th­ese is fel­low Bri­tish writer Ian Flem­ing, whose books

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice Dahl re­ceived screen­play cred­its for help­ing bring to screen.

“There were very few men that Dahl ad­mired and Ian Flem­ing was one of them,” says Don­ald Stur­rock. “He saw Flem­ing as this very cool, stylish, suave char­ac­ter. They met in Ja­maica through a mu­tual friend, and both had a shared his­tory with the Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice as well.” That wasn’t the only con­nec­tion: the au­thors of the au­thor­i­ta­tive James Bond his­tory Some Kind Of Hero note that, like Flem­ing and his fic­ti­tious spy, Dahl was also “of­ten de­scribed as a hard-drink­ing, wom­an­is­ing gam­bler”. With all of th­ese traits com­bined, he was there­fore per­fectly placed to write a great James Bond movie. How­ever that didn’t stop him from tak­ing the novel You Only

Live Twice – which he de­scribed as “tired, bad, Ian’s worst book” – and turn­ing it into, “the big­gest load of bull­shit I’ve ever put my name to”. De­spite th­ese re­marks, the movie re­mains one of the za­ni­est and most fun in the fran­chise’s his­tory – and all the bet­ter for it.

Dahl also hosted and wrote for an Amer­i­can sci-fi and hor­ror an­thol­ogy se­ries called Way

Out. It was at this time in his ca­reer that he be­gan to cul­ti­vate an im­age for him­self which would be­come his pub­lic per­sona. “It was a slightly sin­is­ter, dark char­ac­ter and he em­ployed it to de­liver th­ese one-minute in­tros for each episode,” says Don­ald Stur­rock. “I think he was amazed that pro­duc­ers wanted him to [host the show] – and were pre­pared to

pay him a good amount of money to do it, too.” Later he built on this per­sona for Bri­tish tele­vi­sion se­ries Tales Of The Un­ex­pected, which ran be­tween 1979 and 1988. Tales Of The

Un­ex­pected was as un­usual as one might have ex­pected: a quintessen­tially Bri­tish ver­sion of the pop­u­lar Al­fred Hitch­cock Presents. In one mem­o­rable episode, en­ti­tled “Royal Jelly”, a bee­keeper feeds his baby daugh­ter royal jelly to help her gain strength: with both the fa­ther and child even­tu­ally re­veal­ing them­selves to be part-bee. An­other episode was later re­made as Quentin Tarantino’s seg­ment in the 1994 an­thol­ogy film, Four Rooms.

DARK TINGES

It is, of course, Dahl’s chil­dren’s sto­ries which re­main his best-loved cre­ations. 1961’s James

And The Gi­ant Peach set the tone for his chil­dren’s nov­els – even if it was crit­i­cised by Ur­sula K Le Guin for turn­ing her daugh­ter “quite nasty” upon read­ing it. Dahl’s string of

clas­sics fol­lowed in the decades af­ter: Char­lie And The Choco­late Fac­tory, Matilda, The

Witches, Fan­tas­tic Mr Fox, The BFG and more. Dahl elim­i­nated the naugh­ti­est el­e­ments of his adult work, but his chil­dren’s sto­ries re­main ev­ery bit as dark and ec­cen­tric as any­thing else that he wrote. “Kids es­pe­cially adore the out­right judge­ments on the char­ac­ters [in his books],” says Si­mon Cal­low. “The bad are mag­nif­i­cently re­pel­lent, the in­no­cent swept up in their loath­some be­hav­iour. We sense a deep jus­tice in this as­sess­ment. Dahl tells it like it is.”

This abil­ity to “tell it like it is” per­haps ex­plains why Dahl’s books reg­is­ter so much with a younger au­di­ence. His sto­ries fre­quently fea­ture strong author­ity char­ac­ters dish­ing out cru­elty and vi­o­lence on the weak; only for the ta­bles to even­tu­ally be turned on them. Af­ter all, no­body is smaller and weaker than chil­dren – which means that it works even bet­ter when they are forced to think their way around phys­i­cal frailty with ever-more in­ven­tive so­lu­tions to prob­lems. In his chil­dren’s books, Dahl is a de­fender and co-con­spir­a­tor of his child­ish read­ers. The adult world he por­trays is pop­u­lated by night­mar­ish adult fig­ures like

Matilda’s Miss Trunch­bull or The Witches’ ca­bal of child- mur­der­ing-but-oth­er­wise re­spectable witch es. Dahl’s own avatar in th­ese sto­ries is the quirky grown-ups who never lost sight of the fan­tas­ti­cal: the Nor­we­gian grand­mother in The Witches, Willy Wonka and Grandpa Joe in Char­lie And The Choco­late

Fac­tory, or the tit­u­lar gi­ant in The BFG. Thanks to them, the child pro­tag­o­nists can not only take on the es­tab­lish­ment; they can win, too.

Roald Dahl passed away in Novem­ber 1990 at the age of 74. To­day his books have sold up­wards of 200 mil­lion copies world­wide. But more even than ever-grow­ing sales, there is also a new­found rev­er­ence for his work which may have eluded him in life. “He was im­mensely proud of the fact that he was a suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional writer, but I think he was un­der-recog­nised and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated in his life­time,” says Don­ald Stur­rock. “Even when he died there was a tremen­dous amount of lit­er­ary snob­bery sur­round­ing his work. Peo­ple didn’t want to ac­knowl­edge this guy who lived some­what as an out­sider, rais­ing his fin­gers to the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment.”

The fact that the world was forced, by his sheer tal­ent, to ac­cept such an un­com­pro­mis­ing un­likely hero as one of its great­est au­thors is ar­guably as Dahl-es­que a story as he ever wrote. We’re still wait­ing on the twist end­ing...

The BFG opens on 22 July.

So can The BFG do gi­ant box of­fice?

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