Top screen adaptations of Roald’s fantasy works
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.
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?