Empire (UK) - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS ALEX GOD­FREY il­lus­tra­tion JAMES TAY­LOR

Whether bat­tling Walt Dis­ney or be­rat­ing Jim Hen­son, the ge­nius chil­dren’s au­thor Roald Dahl was de­ter­mined to do the film in­dus­try his way


A party had been thrown in his hon­our at The Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel, by Walt Dis­ney him­self. Here, for Dahl’s ben­e­fit, Spencer Tracy and Charlie Chap­lin acted out por­tions of a story the 26 year-old RAF pi­lot had re­cently cooked up about grem­lins, mis­chievous imag­i­nary crit­ters blamed by airmen when­ever there were tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. The story had daz­zled Dis­ney af­ter he’d re­ceived it from the RAF (which needed to ap­prove any­thing Dahl wrote while in its ser­vice), and he was de­ter­mined to adapt it into an an­i­mated fea­ture.

Dahl was far from be­com­ing the cel­e­brated chil­dren’s writer we know him as to­day, au­thor of such wildly pop­u­lar ad­ven­tures as James And The Gi­ant Peach, Charlie And The

Choco­late Fac­tory and The BFG; in fact, he was yet to have a book pub­lished. But here he was in Los An­ge­les, work­ing di­rectly with the big­gest name in fam­ily entertainment, on a book to ac­com­pany the film, both ti­tled The Grem­lins.

Dahl had se­cured RAF ap­proval on any cre­ative de­ci­sions dur­ing de­vel­op­ment. It didn’t take long for the ar­gu­ments to start with Walt Dis­ney. He re­vealed de­sign ideas; Dahl com­plained they lacked the req­ui­site ex­pres­sive­ness. Dis­ney li­censed the char­ac­ters to Life Saver mints for ad­ver­tis­ing pur­poses; Dahl hit the roof (“The leg­end will be ru­ined!” he wrote to the stu­dio boss).

Dis­ney quickly tired of Dahl’s de­mands. “With the amount of money that is re­quired to spend on a fea­ture of this type,” he wrote to the writer, “we can­not be sub­jected to the whims of cer­tain peo­ple, in­clud­ing your­self.” He then killed the film. The process was prov­ing too pain­ful, and tak­ing too long; by the time it was re­leased, he felt, the war would be over, and it would seem stale. (The book, nev­er­the­less, was pub­lished in 1943, sell­ing a healthy 80,000 copies be­fore be­ing dis­con­tin­ued due to wartime pa­per ra­tions.)

Bullish, pas­sion­ate, seem­ingly in­tim­i­dated by no­body, this lit­tle-known writer with no ex­pe­ri­ence in both the lit­er­ary and the film worlds had just gone head-to-head with one of the most pow­er­ful men in Hol­ly­wood. And he was only just get­ting started.


-six, Dahl was an im­pos­ing fig­ure and an ob­sti­nate op­po­nent, a man hard­ened by his for­ma­tive years. Born in Cardiff in 1916 to Nor­we­gian par­ents, his her­itage gave him an out­sider’s sen­si­bil­ity that was fur­ther tough­ened by English board­ing schools. When he was three his sis­ter, four years his se­nior, died of peri­toni­tis. Weeks later his fa­ther passed away from pneu­mo­nia. And in 1940, Dahl crashed his RAF Gloster Gla­di­a­tor in the Libyan desert, re­sult­ing in a frac­tured skull and a smashed-in nose, which re­quired fa­cial re­con­struc­tion. Dahl had sur­vived a lot. He cer­tainly wasn’t afraid to bicker with film pro­duc­ers.

His ex­pe­ri­ence on showed how fiercely pro­tec­tive he was of his of­ten deeply per­sonal cre­ations. In the sum­mer of 1942, two years af­ter the plane crash, he was still suf­fer­ing aw­ful headaches and black­outs and, no longer able to fly, was sta­tioned in Wash­ing­ton, D. C.. There he found so­lace in writ­ing, and was the re­sult, in­spired di­rectly by the crash: in the story the crea­tures help re­ha­bil­i­tate a downed air­man, just as writ­ing about them was help­ing Dahl.

Dis­ney ditched the adap­ta­tion, though Hol­ly­wood’s at­ten­tion had been drawn to Dahl, who was on his way to be­com­ing a full-time writer of adult fic­tion. (Over the next cou­ple of decades he would write a slew of mag­nif­i­cently macabre short sto­ries, such as hu­man­taxi­dermy hor­ror and

a woman kills her hus­band with a frozen leg of mut­ton then serves it to in­ves­ti­gat­ing po­lice of­fi­cers.) But the film in­dus­try would con­tinue to frus­trate him. In 1956 he did a re­write of Moby

Dick for John Hus­ton, which Hus­ton then rewrote him­self; there was some fi­nan­cial squab­bling, and an ag­grieved Dahl said he’d never work for Hus­ton again. In 1965, Robert Alt­man (then a young TV direc­tor) ap­proached Dahl with an idea for a film about a World War I air raid on a Zep­pelin base, and asked for him to write and sell it on con­di­tion that Alt­man would di­rect. Dahl duly sold his script to United Artists, and com­pany head David Picker loved it, but re­fused to hire Alt­man, who hadn’t yet di­rected a fea­ture. The even­tual film, Oh, Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-ling-ling, di­rected by David Miller and star­ring Gre­gory Peck and fu­ture Gan­dalf Ian Mckellen, was aban­doned weeks into production, when early snow hit the Alps-based production.

It did, though, lead to Dahl’s only truly happy screen­writ­ing job. In March 1966, im­pressed with what he’d done with Alt­man’s idea, Picker rec­om­mended to the James Bond pro­duc­ers that Dahl write fifth Bond movie You Only Live

Twice. Ian Flem­ing, a friend of Dahl’s from when they worked to­gether for the Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice in 1942, had died two years ear­lier, and Cubby Broc­coli told Dahl he could dump prac­ti­cally the en­tire story. Which was just as well. “It was Ian Flem­ing’s worst book,” he said to in­ter­viewer Tom Soter in 1980, “with no plot in it which would even make a movie.”

Pri­vately, Dahl told his Amer­i­can pub­lisher Al­fred Knopf, he found the project “ex­cep­tion­ally dis­taste­ful”, and was con­cerned it might dam­age his lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion. But he did it any­way for the much-needed cash. Direc­tor Lewis Gil­bert loved it, much to Dahl’s amuse­ment — in a let­ter to his own agent, Dahl said the script, which he wrote in just eight weeks, was “the big­gest load of bull­shit I have ever put my hand to”. He was happy, though, that barely a word was changed. “What I ad­mired so much about Lewis Gil­bert was that he just took the screen­play and shot it,” Dahl said years later. “That’s the way to di­rect: you ei­ther trust your writer or you don’t.”

In late 1966, pleased with Dahl’s work on You Only Live Twice, Broc­coli hired him to adapt Flem­ing’s Chitty

Chitty Bang Bang. The process was a dis­as­ter. Dahl didn’t care for the book but had some fun with it, ad­ding a char­ac­ter of his own cre­ation, one which would be­come one of cin­ema’s great­est chil­dren’s vil­lains: the creepy, net-wield­ing Child Catcher. How­ever, Broc­coli de­scribed Dahl’s script as “a piece of shit” and asked direc­tor Ken Hughes to re­write the whole thing. “You’ve seen the re­sult,” an up­set Dahl told an in­ter­viewer about the film, which he called “ghastly”.

All these film-in­dus­try con­fronta­tions and dis­ap­point­ments came on top of what had been sev­eral tor­tur­ous years in Dahl’s per­sonal life. The fam­ily were liv­ing be­tween New York, where his wife, Pa­tri­cia Neal, was a suc­cess­ful stage ac­tor, and Gipsy House, their sanctuary in Great Mis­senden, Buck­ing­hamshire. In 1960, their baby son Theo’s pram had been hit by a taxi, hurl­ing the boy across the street, caus­ing brain dam­age and hy­dro­cephalus. Then in 1962, his seven year-old daugh­ter Olivia died. She had been re­cov­er­ing from measles when, one morn­ing, she told Dahl she felt sleepy; she was dead 12 hours later from measles en­cephali­tis. Dahl fell into de­pres­sion. He was, ac­cord­ing to Neal’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “de­stroyed”.

Dahl him­self was ill with se­vere back prob­lems re­sult­ing from his 1940 plane crash, and a kid­ney stone. Then in 1965 Neal, while preg­nant, suf­fered three se­vere strokes. So Dahl was screen­writ­ing for the money, to pay Theo and Neal’s on­go­ing med­i­cal bills, and was also spend­ing time car­ing for their four kids while Neal re­cov­ered. To make mat­ters worse, in 1967, while Dahl was in hos­pi­tal for a back op­er­a­tion, his mother died.

There was, at least, suc­cess else­where in his life — the kind that fi­nally de­fined him as an artist, and made his ca­reer.

Dahl had be­come

a fully fledged chil­dren’s au­thor in 1961 with James And The Gi­ant Peach. He’d strug­gled to come up with new ideas for his adult sto­ries, but had been in­vent­ing tales for his own chil­dren at bed­time, and with this in mind, Dahl’s lit­er­ary agent had per­suaded him to write for kids. In­spired by the in­sects in his gar­den, Dahl wrote James, about an or­phan who trav­els the world in a colos­sal fruit. Writ­ing it cre­atively freed Dahl, and he’d im­me­di­ately set about writ­ing more chil­dren’s ti­tles. In 1969, a year af­ter Chitty Chitty

Bang Bang’s re­lease, he sold the rights

to the first of his chil­dren’s books to be adapted for the big screen, namely

Charlie And The Choco­late Fac­tory — on con­di­tion he write the screen­play him­self. Direc­tor Mel Stu­art was ec­static. But all hope of har­mony was soon lost. Dahl wanted ab­sur­dist Bri­tish co­me­dian Spike Mil­li­gan to play Wonka, but Stu­art cast Amer­i­can ac­tor Gene Wilder. Dahl was in­censed: Stu­art was ru­in­ing Wonka, just as Walt Dis­ney had messed with The Grem­lins all those years be­fore. Dahl told pro­ducer David Wolper he’d dis­own the film and cam­paign against it in the media — a prom­ise the au­thor kept un­til he died.

Fur­ther­more, Stu­art, un­happy with Dahl’s script — which he be­lieved lacked con­flict — em­ployed first-time screen­writer David Seltzer to in­tro­duce new el­e­ments, in­clud­ing Wonka’s neme­sis, Slug­worth. Dahl was fu­ri­ous, and de­tested the re­sult­ing film: be­cause of Gene Wilder’s per­for­mance (“pre­ten­tious”), be­cause of Stu­art’s di­rec­tion (“no tal­ent or flair”), be­cause of its nar­ra­tive de­vi­a­tions. Even the name had been changed, to Willy Wonka & The Choco­late

Fac­tory, as the film had been part-funded by Quaker Oats to pro­mote a Wonka choco­late bar (which never got made), and also in re­ac­tion to con­cerns raised by a group of African Amer­i­can ac­tors that ‘Charlie’ was pe­jo­ra­tive slang for a white over­seer. Mostly, though, Dahl was an­gry that it had been rewrit­ten.

“Here you have a best­selling book, an en­dur­ing book, and they bug­ger the film up,” he said in 1983. He felt val­i­dated by the film’s lack of suc­cess at the box of­fice (on its ini­tial re­lease in the US it made only $4 mil­lion against a $3 mil­lion bud­get), and be­gan telling in­ter­view­ers how much he hated film­mak­ers in gen­eral. Scarred par­tic­u­larly by his ex­pe­ri­ences with Chitty Chitty Bang

Bang and Charlie, he now re­sented the in­dus­try. “I am wildly dis­il­lu­sioned about writ­ing films,” he wrote to a col­league in 1972, “be­cause they al­ways seem to get screwed up some­where in the works, ei­ther by ego­cen­tric di­rec­tors or id­i­otic pro­duc­ers.” He was so en­raged, he re­fused any­one per­mis­sion to film the book’s se­quel, Charlie And The Great

Glass El­e­va­tor, al­though he would sell the rights to his sub­se­quent books and hope for the best.

By the 1980s, Dahl was a hap­pier man. The fam­ily tragedies re­ceded into mem­o­ries, al­beit pain­ful ones, and hav­ing di­vorced Neal he mar­ried set de­signer Felic­ity Cross­land in 1983. His chil­dren’s books were cred­i­ble and com­mer­cial suc­cesses, and he had a far bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence with the next two adap­ta­tions of his work. He was pleased with the 1989 Bri­tish TV adap­ta­tion of The BFG, an an­i­mated film with David Jason voic­ing the gi­ant who blows dreams into chil­dren’s bed­rooms. Dahl and his fam­ily at­tended a screen­ing ar­ranged by direc­tor Brian Cos­grove, and “when the film was fin­ished they all stood up and ap­plauded,” says Cos­grove. “It was heart­warm­ing, to know that I de­liv­ered some­thing that he liked, es­pe­cially know­ing how forth­right he could be if he didn’t like some­thing.” Scot­tish direc­tor Gavin Mil­lar had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence with Dahl on his TV adap­ta­tion of Danny The Cham­pion Of

The World, star­ring Jeremy Irons as a coun­try­side wid­ower, and Irons’ son Sa­muel as Danny. “He says it is the best ver­sion of his work ever made, which is a re­lief to me be­cause he can be sharp when he does not like some­thing,” Mil­lar told Glas­gow’s Her­ald at the time. Dahl cer­tainly liked it more than Ni­co­las Roeg’s The Witches.

De­spite the in­her­ent joy­ous­ness of his chil­dren’s books, Dahl had never dis­carded the macabre hu­mour he was known for in his adult fic­tion. His chil­dren’s sto­ries were full of grisly in­ci­dents, tem­pered with com­edy, and that bal­ance was vi­tal to him — he wanted chil­dren to de­light in the dark­ness. The

Witches book ends with the boy hero hav­ing been turned into a mouse, but happy to re­main one, killing witches with his grand­mother for the re­main­der of his days. Roeg and pro­ducer Jim Hen­son

Roald Dahl (right) with direc­tor Lewis Gil­bert on the set of 1967’s You Only Live Twice. Be­low left: The 2006 reis­sue of Dahl’s The Grem­lins, his first foray into film­mak­ing. Dahl added the evil Child Catcher (Robert Help­mann) to 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Mel Stu­art’s Willy Wonka & The Choco­late Fac­tory (1971).

Brian Cos­grove’s 1989 take on The BFG, with David Jason in the ti­tle role and Amanda Root as his small friendly side­kick. An­jel­ica Hus­ton and Jane Hor­rocks in The Witches (1990). Dahl hated the new end­ing. Be­low: 1996’s James And The Gi­ant Peach.

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