The last cinematic interpretation of Roald Dahl's dark and ingenious tales for children to be released before his death, was the gruesome The Witches starring Angelica Huston and an all star British cast. The film was a catastrophic disaster, deemed too terrifying for the young generation who had devoured the books creepy content. Dahl was aghast at the result and, whilst trying to prevent the film's release, vowed that never again would Hollywood gain access to his work.
Now, nearly 15 years after his death, tinsel town appears to have unchecked access to the Dahl archive, regularly delving between his pages for the next blockbuster. How and why could his family who protect his legacy so fiercely, let this happen?
Dahl was no stranger to the film industry during his lifetime. He worked on the screenplay for Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and You Only Live Twice and wrote his own adaptation for the first feature film of his book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory . Memories from the films producers are of a Dahl naïve of the possibilities of the moving image. The script of Willy Wonka had to be rewritten several times and the final draft was much altered by uncredited writer David Seltzer. The result was an uneven production that failed miserably at the box office but has achieved cult status over time. Dahl was upset at the final product. Director Mel Stuart remembers:
"But see, I couldn't do the book the way the book was written and, therefore, Roald Dahl always was unhappy that the picture did not look like his book."
He goes onto explain the difficulties of bringing the book to life.
"You can follow the general outline, but you have to make changes that a book doesn't call for that a film does call for. For instance, I think I pointed out; there was no villain in the book, so we put Slugworth. There was no gobstopper; there was no test of Charlie's integrity, so we did a whole gobstopper thing. We had to invent something for Charlie to do something wrong"
Now Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been made again, this time with a more appropriate director in Tim Burton, but sadly aided by the inevitable CGI splatter which Hollywood believe is worthy of their budgets. Burton tried to stick rigidly to the original text, identifying with Dahl's dark tone. In fact, one can imagine the oddball director and the solitary author could have recognised a kindred bond should they have met. Burton 's favourite protagonist, the eccentric Johnny Depp takes over the reins of confectionist Willy Wonka. He converts Gene Wilders gentle, energetic charmer into a manic creature inspired by Goth rock; a genetic mutation of Michael Jackson and the child catcher from Chitty .
Box office tills are already ringing; a clear sign that the film will be a resounding success. So far critics have been hard pushed to subdue the multicoloured extravaganza Burton has created. Burton is at his best when creating fantasy worlds peppered with quirks and oddities, and seems the obvious choice to direct any of Dahl's stories. So far opinion is split on his success, with many people bowled over by the knock out team of Burton and Depp, (their first PG rated collaboration) whilst others feel Burton would have been better advised to remember that this time (as in Planet of the Apes ) he was walking on borrowed land. Wilder has openly expressed his displeasure at the idea of a remake:
"It's all about money. It's just some people sitting around thinking: 'How can we make some more money?' Why else would you remake Willy Wonka? I don't see the point of going back and doing it all over again.. Right now, the only thing that does take some of the edge off this for me is that Willy Wonka's name isn't in the title."
It can be argued that Dahl's stories work much better in the form of animation. The author worked closely throughout his life with illustrator Quentin Blake who was able to bring simple depictions of the characters to the books. The animators of the BFG kept closely to Blake's interpretations allowing them to create a gentle and charming film. The Big Friendly Giant was voiced beautifully by David Jason who relished the vocal opportunity to perform a whizzpopper in front of the Queen! According to Liccy Dahl, Roald Dahl's wife:
" The BFG was my husband's favourite book. The giant himself was actually based on a chap called Wally Saunders who built Roald's writing shed in the garden of his house in Buckinghamshire."
Dahl turned down several offers during his lifetime to animate his first children's book James and the Giant Peach . His reasons are unclear as the bizarre assembled cast of giant insects and spiky relations lend themselves for an inspired drawing board. After his death, his widow Liccy consented for James to be the first feature film made since The Witches . The result was a triumph. Directed by Henry Selick ( Nightmare before Christmas ) the creatures were brought to life in a slick, stunning animation. When I questioned Liccy in an interview about why she had gone against her husbands wishes she replied:
"I think Roald would have been delighted with what they did with James. It is a wonderful film"
It is unlikely he would have been quite as charmed by the next book to hurtle through the Hollywood net. Movie dinosaur Danny Devito was reading Matilda to his children one night when he sadly felt the desire to take it to the big screen. He took Dahl's shy British bookworm of a heroine and caked her in iridescent Americanism. Matilda, like Sophie in the BFG before her, has sturdy British resolve and quiet self belief. Devito cast the latest brat star Mara Wilson and created a precocious cocky madam surrounded by two dimensional pantomime baddies. It seems Devito entirely missed the subtle tragedy of the story or disregarded it altogether for slapstick laughs. Worse still Devito is now regarded as a patron of the Roald Dahl foundation and a key player in his legacy. It is unlikely that Matilda will be the only character to be misshaped in his executive palms.
However, there has been one film, based on a Roald Dahl book that I believe he would think is worth a watch. Made for television in 1989, the retelling of Danny the Champion of the World was a low budget, quiet film destined for Sunday afternoon viewing. Dahl emphasises at the end of the book that the story of a widowed garage owner and his young son is about the relationship between parent and child.
"A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and DESERVES is a parent who is SPARKY"
This relationship was perfectly cast with Jeremony Irons and his young son Samuel playing the lead roles. Samuel's grandfather Cyril Cusack also had a role as the friendly local doctor. By making the casting a family affair the director was able to cherish the sentiments in Dahl's story
Danny the Champion of the World is slowly fading from memory as it is replaced by the glossy films of today. It is currently unavailable to purchase on DVD although hopefully with the renewed hype around the author this will change.
With Burtons Charlie and the Chocolate Factory now settled into cinemas and The Fantastic Mr Fox in preproduction, the film industry has obtained a firm grip on the stories that were denied them for decades by the author. It will be interesting to see if Burton sees any opportunity in the Wonka sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator - surely a plot more suited to Burton 's usual repertoire. There are other books still untapped - Georges Marvellous Medicine is surely a vehicle Devito would love to drive now he has the keys.
So why now have these films been allowed? Dahl's family and friends are a close, generous network who have created The Roald Dahl Foundation - a charity that encourages literacy and protects the history of the author and his works. Whilst they alone can justify their decisions, each film makes money for the foundation, each film brings more publicity to keep Roald Dahl's name alive.
It can be argued that there are some books that should never be placed on screen, or in fact that no book should ever be sent on the glitzy golden path to the multiplexes. Unlike scripts, written with actors in mind, shot by shot in the writers head, books are meant for reading. Children's books especially are intended to transport young minds to other worlds, encouraging and exercising young imaginations. Dahl, it seems, was never happy when others tried to visualise his work on screen. He felt it was somebody telling his stories second hand. Dahl knew how best to excite and stimulate stories in his young fans, however he did not know how to make a blockbuster film.
The beauty with Children's authors, and Dahl is no exception, is that they create worlds that can only exist in our imaginations, and are vividly realised in the fertile minds of the young. For the truly fantastical stories such as the BFG and James and the Giant Peach animation was the only option to bring them to life successfully. Both of these tales had talented animators at the helm, as mentioned earlier it was Selick that gave James and the Giant Peach its distinct visual style, combining live action with the support of stop-motion animation for the more outlandish parts of the tale. The BFG was directed by Brian Cosgrove, who is held in many people's hearts for bringing the world Danger Mouse (also voiced by David Jason). Both of these films were created with careful consideration and reverence for the source material, with the medium being used to enhance the characters and events rather than dominate them. The fear is that in an age in which anything that can be imagined can now be put on screen, the remaining books of Dahl will translated into tacky, special effect heavy, green screened, computer generated films that destroys the magic of the original tales.
There is of course hope on the horizon, the film Harry Potter managed to take the world by storm and remain quintessentially British. Author J.K Rowling was determined to have a vast amount of creative input into the big screen version of her magical adventures, overseeing many of the creative decisions. As long as future Dahl adaptations use technology or animation to augment the experience, instead of creating films that are all about the effects, then the future may hold many wonders in store.
Chloe Roberts and Darren Horne