Roald Dahl is a legendary author and one of the world's greatest storytellers. Therefore, it's no wonder that most of his books have been adapted as films and theatrical experiences over the years. Dahl himself was interested in film as a medium, working on a project with Disney in the 1940's (the unproduced Gremlins project) and he co-wrote the screenplay for the Dick Van Dyke/Sherman Brothers classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. As a movie buff and Roald Dahl fan, I've compiled a list of the film adaptations of Roald Dahl's books and where I rank them. For other fans of his work, this should also help put into perspective just how wonderful The BFG is.
7. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Tim Burton's adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may have intended to provide a more faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl's most famous novel, but ultimately disappointed fans of both Dahl and Burton. Johnny Depp's performance as Willy Wonka lacked appeal and was unsympathetic, which made the added backstory about his childhood hard to stomach (Alice Through the Looking Glass recently suffered from similar mistakes). And with starkly vibrant colors scattered throughout the factory, the whole film became the visual embodiment of a belly ache after eating too much candy.
6. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox pleased critics and earned a myriad of award nominations (all of which were lost to Pixar's Up). With an all star voice cast including George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray, the film features some amazing voice performances and a unique character style that uses lots of fur rather than the more commonly sculpted clay stop-motion characters. However, this film felt made for critics, not for families, and for whatever reason is very unmemorable for me.
5. The Witches
Jim Henson produced the second mainstream adaptation of any of Dahl's works in 1990 with The Witches. Angelica Houston stars as the Grand High Witch, who leads her followers in devising a plan to turn children into mice in order to eradicate them from the world. When young Luke and his friend Bruno uncover their plot while on holiday, the boys will have to do everything they can to stop them. The only problem is that they have been turned into mice themselves!
The Witches scared me a lot as a kid, but I also loved it despite some of the gruesome imagery. The scene where the beautiful witches peel off their skin to reveal the gross hags underneath is the stuff nightmares are made of. But the action with the mice riding toy cars was a fantasy I had often as a child. Who didn't want to shrink down to the size of their toys to play with them large scale? The only reason The Witches ranks towards the bottom of this list is that it doesn't have as much heart as the other films in this list.
4. James and the Giant Peach
My favorite of Roald Dahl's books was James and the Peach, which was adapted by Disney in 1996 as a live action/stop motion hybrid following in the footsteps of The Nightmare Before Christmas (Jack Skellington even has an unexpected cameo). When James' parents are killed by a rhino, he finds himself living with his evil aunts. But when magic worms make a peach in the front yard grow, James is able to escape with some large bug companions on his way to NYC.
Disney's adaptation is highly stylized with some elements that could even be considered "steam punk." Randy Newman wrote the music, fresh off the success of Toy Story. But the best part is that Disney's treatment remained very faithful to the book. Also look for Joanna Lumley as Aunt Spiker, who is back on the big screen this month in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.
1996 was a great year for Roald Dahl fans. In addition to James and the Giant Peach, Matilda was adapted as a live action film co-produced by Dahl's wife Liccy and star Danny Devito. It was a family affair for Devito, who also played opposite his real wife Rhea Pearlman as Matilda's sloppy parents. Young Mara Wilson lead the film in the most iconic role of her career.
Matilda tells the story of a smart eight-year old girl whose lazy parents fail to see her talents. When her school principal, Miss Trunchbull, turns out to be a mean dictator who punishes kids often, Matilda develops special powers that help her punish the bad grown ups in her life while also helping her kind teacher, Miss Honey. The film deviates from the book a bit, but it all works to create a much better picture than a straight retelling ever could have. The book was recently adapted for the stage as a Broadway musical in a more faithful adaptation, which serves only to prove my point that the changes made for the film version were for the better.
2. The BFG
The BFG is one of the last Roald Dahl books to be adapted for the screen and while an animated version was produced for TV in 1989, this is the first major adaptation. Steven Spielberg lends his incredible talents to directing the feature, which is a visual treat and features moving performances from stars Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill, in addition to a tremendous amount of heart and humor. The phrase "instant classic" lends itself well to The BFG, which instantly ranks as my second favorite Roald Dahl film.
Sophie is a young lonely orphan who loves to read late at night when everyone is sleeping. When she spots a giant in the streets of London, she gets taken to giant country where she learns that her giant friend collects dreams and turns them into new ones for children. But when their beautiful friendship is threatened by bigger, meaner giants, the two will set out on an adventure to put an end to their reign of tyranny.
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
While the most recent adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory falls to the bottom of my list, the original 1971 musical version is the complete opposite. Originally intended as nothing more than a vehicle to launch a Quaker Oats chocolate bar line, Roald Dahl was initially invited to adapt the screenplay. He was, however, dismissed from his duties for reportedly taking too long.
Gene Wilder stars in this musical version, which was initially a flop and later became a classic through frequent TV airings. When mysterious candy maker Willy Wonka inserts 5 golden tickets in random chocolate bars, the winners find themselves on a tour of his amazing factory. Coming from humble means, Charlie and his grandfather are the only guests that show a modicum of restraint during the tour, leading to a special surprise for them at the end.
Quaker Oats owned the film, which they later sold to Warner Bros. after the poor box office performance, which also hurt sales of their Wonka line of candy products (Nerds and Gobstoppers being the best sellers from the line). Fans should take note that Wonka's factory was designed by Harper Goff, one of the leading designers of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. With amazing music and a wonderland of amusements throughout the film, it's easy to see why, like Matilda, Willy Wonka has also been adapted for the stage. And it should come as no surprise that this is the only film in the collection that is able to best the amazing storytelling in The BFG.