A Brief History Of Roald Dahl On Film

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Plenty of Dahl’s finest children’s stories are yet to make it to the big screen – notably The Twits, Esio Trot, George's Marvellous Medicine and The Giraffe And The Pelly And Me – but it’s The BFG that Steven Spielberg has chosen as his next directorial gig. He’ll be walking in the rather large footsteps of 1989’s animated TV movie, and will have to cast someone at least as impressive as Helen Mirren to play The Queen, as well as finding the perfect amiable colossus. But Dahl’s tales have long been an inspiration for Hollywood, his dark children’s stories producing feature length films both good and bad. Here is the compendium of what’s been made so far...

Director: Mel Stuart
Stars: Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear
Original book released: 1961 (as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory)

After the Tim Burton version, the decades of Easter weekend TV viewings, the Family Guy mickey take (where it’s beer instead of sweets), the Futurama mickey take (where it’s an addictive soft drink called Slurm instead of sweets) and the real-life confectionary, it’s easy to forget that the first cinematic adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory disappeared into a river of what you’d hope is chocolate on its initial release, earning just $4 million domestically off the back of a $2.9 million budget. It also made Charlie just as bad as the other factory visitors, as he broke Wonka’s rules to try that bubbling lemonade, a decision that has always mystified us. Still, it gradually became a cult success so successful it was cult no longer, and now everyone in the world will occasionally have nightmares about Oompa Loompas singing at them in unison about their deepest, darkest fears.

Fun fact: Goonie extraordinaire and member of the I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue team Tim Brooke-Taylor has a small role as a computer “expert”. Also, Dahl originally wanted Spike Milligan to play Willy Wonka, but the producers declined.

Director: Brian Cosgrove
Starring: David Jason, Amanda Root, Angela Thorne
Original book released: 1982

Not to be confused with Doom, where the acronym stands for something entirely different, The BFG is a Big Friendly Giant: a large, large-eared, largely-comprehensible Sandman substitute who catches sparkly, sweet dreams in a big net and blows them into the minds of children. One night, an adorable orphan called Sophie spots David Jason’s gargantuan James Cromwell lookalike going about his business, and soon they become close friends, taking on child-eating giants by dobbing them in to The Queen. Her Maj calls in the guards, and all is well once the bad big ‘uns are thrown down a pit and forced to eat disgusting vegetables known as “Snozzcumbers”. Try Americanizing Americanising that, Mr. Spielberg.

Fun fact: British animation house Cosgrove Hall – of Count Duckula, Dangermouse and Truckers fame – did all the drawing.

Director: Gavin Millar
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Samuel Irons, Robbie Coltrane
Original book released: 1975

A rather pleasant tale of pheasants, raisins and sleeping pills, Danny, The Champion Of The World proved to children that you could be called “Champion Of The World” just by stealing a car, driving it off the road and pulling your dad out of a pit. One of Dahl’s less fantastical tales, it’s exactly the kind of VHS that would be left untouched for decades at the bottom of your school’s post-exam video pile. Despite its lack of obvious craziness, the film has now grown into a curio for die-hard Robbie Coltrane fans – hey, they exist – because he spends most of the film doing an impersonation of Ray Winstone doing an impression of a member of the landed gentry. The poster (and the title) will forever be a huge spoiler.

Fun fact: Danny is played by Jeremy Irons’ son, Samuel Irons, who hasn’t acted since. His grandfather Cyril Cusack – Jeremy’s father-in-law – is also in the film, playing Dr. Spenser.

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Stars: Jasen Fisher, Anjelica Huston, Rowan Atkinson, Mai Zettering
Original book released: 1983

If Matilda is the most charming cinematic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s back catalogue and Fantastic Mr. Fox the most twee, then Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches is definitely the most nightmarish. There’s just something about a room full of bald witches pointing and laughing at a young boy before turning him into a tiny puppet mouse that gave pre-pubescent cinemagoers the overwhelming desire to run out the theatre and cry in the nearest lavatory. Those of a stronger constitution were rewarded with some of the most inventive puppetry Jim Henson ever produced, as well as Anjelica Huston on fearsome form as a thoroughly despicable antagonist. Roald Dahl thought the film “utterly appalling” because of the happier ending, which sees little Luke transformed back into a human instead of living on as a mouse for just nine more years. He also complained of "the vulgarity, the bad taste" and "actual terror" seen in the movie. We’re sure he’s right, but we missed quite a lot of it whilst hiding in that loo.

Fun fact: It took Anjelica Huston eight hours in make-up to transform into The Grand High Witch. It shows.

Director: Henry Selick
Stars: Paul Terry, Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss, Pete Postlethwaite
Original book released: 1961

Roald Dahl was adamant that his creepy story of a flippin’ huge fuzzy-skinned fruit and the insects that live therein should not be turned into a film, but his widow Liccy thought differently. This live-action / stop-motion hybrid was the result, an anarchic mélange of both Dahl and director Henry Selick’s sinister sensibilities, which gel well, but aren’t helped by some sub-par songs from Randy Newman. Critically lauded on its release, James And The Giant Peach hasn’t aged well, but there’s fun to be had in the voice performances and bizarre plot turns. It's a matter of taste, but young ‘uns looking for something darker than your Pixar average might do better watching The Nightmare Before Christmas for the 462nd time.

Fun fact: The lyrics for the song ‘Eating The Peach’ were written by Roald Dahl. In defence of both Dahl’s lyrics and Newman’s songwriting, Newman was drafted in at the last minute after Selick’s original choice, Andy Partridge, backed out at the 11th hour.

Director: Danny DeVito
Stars: Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman
Original book released: 1988

From the director of both Hoffa and Throw Momma From The Train comes… the most charming Roald Dahl adaptation this side of your local library (where such facilities still exist). Like Carrie in that it involves a bullied young girl with telekinetic powers, but not like Carrie in that everything else is entirely different, Matilda always had cinematic potential. After all, this is a book with a kid-empowering message and joyful scenes of children eating a huge amount of cake to defeat their adult tormentors. Worth rewatching if only to see the excellent Pam Ferris (as Mrs. Trunchbull) throw numerous children out of windows, as well as the most riotous food fight ever orchestrated by someone’s mind. What we’re really hoping for is that someone sees fit to put the excellent stage musical version on the big screen as a Matilda bonus.

Fun fact: The picture of Miss Honey's father, Magnus, is actually one of Roald Dahl himself.

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter
Original book released: 1961

Perhaps the most controversial adaptation on this list, Burton’s visually florid, Grimm-lite take on the saccharine (not in that way) children’s story is at least closer to the original book than the 1971 version. But with Johnny Depp on divisive form as a stony-faced Mr. Wonka and so much goodwill towards the Gene Wilder version, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was never going to walk into the glass elevator untouched by the critics’ mud pies. But the film survived the cane-waggling from Middle England and elsewhere, hauling in nearly half a billion at the box office, and encouraging Tim Burton to pull a similar rabbit out of a similar hat with Alice In Wonderland five years later. It’s probably because Freddie Highmore - who now plays the altogether less cute Norman Bates in U.S. TV show Bates Motel - made an adorable Charlie, so we forgave it everything else.

Fun fact: Screenwriter John August had never even seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory when Tim Burton asked him to write the script. When he did end up watching it, he was surprised at how much darker it was compared to his own adaptation.

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray
Original book released: 1970

Vaguely resembling Roald Dahl’s story rather than slavishly adhering to it, 2009’s stop-motion finger-click-athon is approximately 10 parts Wes Anderson to three parts Roald Dahl, with a smidge of Bill “Freakin’” Murray as a cocktail-drinking badger thrown in for good measure. The darker parts of the original work are swept under the miniature carpet, with farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean failing to illicit any real scares, leaving Willem Dafoe’s Rat to do most of the heavy lifting. As its own beast, the film’s a beautiful thing, but schoolchildren too lazy to read the book – and they’d have to be pretty damn lazy, because it’s not that long at all – won’t get great marks basing their homework on what they’ve seen on screen. Still, for its novel approach to swearing alone, this may be the best Dahl adaptation yet.

Fun fact: Stop motion legend Henry Selick, who’d previously directed James And The Giant Peach, was first set to helm the film, but went to adapt Neil Gaiman’s Coraline at Laika instead.