REALD AND THE DREAM FACTORY
Whether battling Walt Disney or berating Jim Henson, the genius children’s author Roald Dahl was determined to do the film industry his way
IN NOVEMBER 1942, ROALD DAHL ARRIVED IN HOLLYWOOD
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.
A STRIKING SIX-FOOT
-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.