Children’s Classics: The best of Roald Dahl
Jack Walton gives us the perfect formula for a Roald Dahl movie.
With reviews of Robert Zemeckis’s The Witches labelling the film another Roald Dahl-adapted flop, it’s worth looking at why director’s have so often struggled to evoke the true essence of the great children’s writer on-screen…
Macabre humour. Twisted villains. Grimm’s-esque wickedness. If ever there was a natural fit for challenging Dahl’s sensibilities it would seemingly be Tim Burton. Yet Burton’s 2005 attempt, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the cinematic equivalent of a strange curio suspended in a jar of alcoholic plasma at a Carnival Sideshow, evokes only the most uneasy kind of curiosity. Dahl’s work might thrive at the more twisted fringes of kid’s fiction – but allowing Johnny Depp, at his scenery-gobbling gluttonous worst, to adopt the spirit (and skin complexion) of Michael Jackson for his take on reclusive-eccentric-man-child-Wonka, is enough to make anyone queasy.
Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 The Witches succeeds; a film with real darkness bubbling behind its fableistic front
Where Burton’s film demands an iron-clad stomach, 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory requires a sweeter tooth. Paying less heed to the original, Gene Wilder’s all-singing, all-dancing turn is now regarded a family classic – in a no-need-to-cover-your-kids-eyes-and-ears (or send them for counselling) manner Burton falls short of. Whilst great fun in parts, the film does flirt with the ‘saccharine’ label – a cardinal sin under the philosophy of Dahl-ism. A similar issue faces 2016’s The BFG, where Steven Speilberg’s unabashed sentimentalism is desperately out-of-sync with its source material – leaning on synthetic, technical charms and ignoring the writer’s dark heart. It’s a harmless film, exactly what a Roald Dahl adaptation shouldn’t be.
Is then the formula for success simply retaining the trademark wickedness of Dahl’s oeuvre without accidentally challenging a problematic pop star (in the midst of a high-profile court case)? Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 The Witches succeeds; a film with real darkness bubbling behind its fableistic front – a tonally perfect adaptation despite its (criticised) change to the original ending. Danny DeVito’s 1996 Matilda is a little more typically ‘family’ – but also features some brilliantly nasty and grotesque performances – Pam Ferris as Mrs Trunchball most notably.
Macabre humour. Twisted villains. Grimm’s-esque wickedness.
Where these films succeed by tuning into Dahl’s wavelength, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) inhabits an idiosyncratic realm of its own. The author once theorised that great children’s fiction was uncondescending – in his case owing to its savage, unsentimental nature. Anderson’s film achieves this with its intelligence. Featuring a dry wit incongruous to children’s cinema, Anderson’s anthropomorphic home-spun tale delivers a perfect meshing of two original minds – served up with roast duck and apple cider. Not the most faithful, but it’s the best Dahl adaptation there is.