Sunday, December 7, 2014

Roald Dahl Adaptations, from Worst to Best

Pity the child who missed the scrumdiddlyumptious fiction of the brilliant, subversive, and deliciously wicked Roald Dahl. Unsurprisingly, his enormously popular and influential novels have long been inspiring filmmakers. That being said, one of the major challenges of making any cinematic adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel is their grotesque, horrifying, and at times raunchy content. How does one make a kids' movie with content like crocodiles that eat and mangle children (The Enormous Crocodile), giants who snatch human beans, crunch and munch them (The BFG), or even the literal starvation faced by Charlie Bucket's family (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)? The difference between reading comic descriptions of the horrific circumstances and seeing them portrayed onscreen is a crucial one. Nevertheless, filmmakers have made numerous essays into the fantastic worlds of Dahl's fiction, though some far more successfully than others. It was recently announced that Steven Spielberg and Mark Rylance will be collaborating on an adaptation of The BFG; it will be very interesting to see where it rates on this list, from the very worst to the very best.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
One of Tim Burton's most abysmal outings and perhaps his least subtle exploration of his persistent daddy issues, which plague so many of his films, this film has a brashly pigmented candy coating, but its insides are less than appetizing. Johnny Depp, in a typically idiosyncratic but superficial performance, plays Willy Wonka as a sort of PTSD-afflicted, sadistic chocolate overlord, joining the other regulars of the Burton club, Helena Bonham Carter (woefully miscast as Mrs. Bucket) and Danny Elfman. Burton's attempts at whimsy are so heavy-handed that they could be better described as flat non-sequitors, even in the rare cases when they hollowly hit the mark. Essentially a rehashing of Burton's favorite themes and ideas, this film works neither as an adaptation nor as an original interpretation.

James and the Giant Peach (1996)
A mixture of stagey live action and beautifully executed stop motion animation, this rather febrile adaptation is directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton. It has none of the teeth of their earlier collaboration, The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it's likable and inoffensive. What crushes this otherwise charming film is the music. Randy Newman's songs are not merely nauseatingly saccharine and childishly simple - they are almost constant. It isn't possible to simply skip the songs because they form the backbone of the storytelling. The film boasts an impressive cast, including Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and David Thewlis as Earthworm, but it's depressingly safe for an adaptation of a book by such an unabashedly subversive writer.

Matilda (1996)
Though this film remains true to the events of the book, it somehow misses the mark. That being said, it's reliably entertaining, more for children than adults. By far the highlight of the film is the performances of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as the prodigy's loathsome, self-involved parents; both of them triumph in roles that need to be brutally funny and genuinely frightening at the same time.Their presence onscreen automatically livens a story that, without the sharp wit of Dahl's prose, at times verges on the downright sentimental, particularly in the interactions between Matilda (an endearing Mara Wilson) and Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). At the same time, how marvelous that a book about the joy and empowerment of reading has been translated into a movie that celebrates those same things.

The Witches (1990)
The Witches was (and, I imagine, is) the cause of much childhood trauma, the result of the terrifying transformation of the Grand High Witch (a perfectly cast Anjelica Huston) into Jim Henson's monstrous hag puppet. The puppetry is splendid and deserving of the many nightmares it inspired, but, it's also a strong example of why Dahl's chilling children's stories can become strikingly adult when translated visually. The film is a terrific adaptation, up until the final scene, which changes Dahl's rather melancholy ending into a typically sprightly Hollywood ending; this rather spoils Dahl's point and defangs the terror that sustains the story. Had usually daring director Nicolas Roeg dared to keep the far more subversive, far more meaningful ending, The Witches would top this list.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2010)
I was deeply skeptical of this film before seeing it, and, undoubtedly, it is far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, one of my personal favorites. Wes Anderson's interpretation of the story of a crafty fox determined to steal tasty morsels from the vicious farmers nearby adds significantly to the plot, ultimately veering away into completely new territory, and he adds and embellishes characters, though making them complex enough that this works. While Dahl's book is an anarchic, morally complex fable, Anderson's film gently skewers (without dismissing) modern consumerist culture, drawing parallels between the film's animal population, facing starvation and oppression, and the human population, portrayed as either downright evil or uncomprehending, and modern paradigms of oppression. The stop motion animation is stunning. Though Anderson hasn't necessarily made a great adaptation, he has made a great film.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Although Dahl himself slammed the film and tried to dissociate himself from it, it's difficult to understand why. The screenplay, by Dahl and David Seltzer, is brilliantly witty and very much a cinematic retelling, using television news segments and satiric scenes of adult idiocy and greed as segues.  Gene Wilder outdoes himself as the eccentric candy maker and inventor, Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe is the quintessential good grownup, Peter Ostrum convinces as a genuinely selfless kid without once descending into sentimentality - there isn't a single weak link in the cast. The songs, by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, are classics, from "The Candy Man Can" to "Pure Imagination" (though "Cheer Up, Charlie" is definitely an interlude worthy of a cat nap). Both a fabulous adaptation of one of the greatest children's books of all time and a brilliant film in its own right, it's hard to believe that any Dahl adaptation will ever surpass Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


  1. P.S. I totally agree with your rankings, even though I feel a little guilty for not putting Matilda higher, if only for nostalgia's sake.