Celebrating Roald Dahl’s Big Screen Adaptations

From James Bond to Willy Wonka, Matilda to The Witches, we chart the big screen work of Roald Dahl...

Roald Dahl has often been referred to as one of the greatest storytellers for children in the 20th century. His books have delighted children for generations, with their dark and inventive sense of humor and their eccentric, dastardly adult characters.

Likewise, his written work for adults has just as much wit and creativity, and over the years, he also worked as a screenwriter on a number of projects, including TV work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his own anthology series, Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected.

Given how it doesn’t even take the likes of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer five years to have their popular works adapted by Hollywood, there has inevitably been an extensive crossover between Dahl’s written work and the big screen. His work has been adapted by filmmakers as diverse as Nicolas Roeg, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, and Danny DeVito.

Up until his death in 1990, Dahl brought several of his own projects to the big screen, and saw some adapted by others. In this article, we’ll look back at his cinematic pursuits as a screenwriter, the project that put him off having his own children’s books, and the screen versions of his books that have been made since.

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Early screenplays

People sometimes forget that Dahl had credits as a screenwriter on several movies. We wrote about his first screen project, The Gremlins, which would have been a wartime adventure about mythical creatures who sabotaged planes, in our article about unproduced Disney projects. In short, the studio pulled the plug, due to the interference of the British Air Ministry in a feature that became too obviously propagandistic.

Some time after, in the 1960s, he had another abortive film project, tentatively titled The Bells Of Hell Go Ding-A-Ling-A-Ling, which was cancelled 10 weeks into shooting. However, it was through this script that Dahl found more success as a screenwriter, on Sean Connery’s fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice, based on the character created by his friend Ian Fleming.

“It was Ian Fleming’s worst book, with no plot in it which would even make a movie,” he noted. Dahl was given free rein to make up the script from characters from the book and his own ideas, so we can credit him with the rocket-ship that swallows other spacecraft in its nose, and the mini-helicopter Little Nellie, but also the sequence in which Sean Connery is valmorphanised into a Japanese man, Team America-style.

On more fantastical ground, Dahl adapted another Fleming book for the screen a year later – the only story the Bond author ever wrote for children, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was co-written with Ken Hughes, with songs from Robert and Richard Sherman, but Dahl’s involvement is one of those things that just makes sense the second you realise that the Child Catcher was one of his creations.

In 1971, he adapted Joy Cowley’s novel Nest In A Fallen Tree to make the The Road Builder (released in the United States as The Night Digger), an altogether more grown-up affair than either of his previous screen projects. His then-wife Patricia Neal starred in the lead role, as a middle-aged woman who falls for an attractive young handyman, at the height of paranoia about a serial killer on the loose in the local area.

Dahl would wind up developing a fierce animosity with composer Bernard Hermann, who wound up getting far more creative control than seemed reasonable, from producers who were desperate to secure his services. He had intended the film as a showcase for Neal, who was hoping for a comeback after a series of debilitating strokes, and he ended up disowning the film upon release.

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As it turned out, it wouldn’t be the only film he wanted to take his name off, that year. Dahl had adapted his own 1964 novel Charlie And The Chocolate Factory into screenplay format for Paramount Pictures, but he was unhappy when later rewrites by David Seltzer placed greater focus on Willy Wonka than on Charlie. Even the title changed, from Charlie, to Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.

Dahl didn’t like Gene Wilder in that title role either. His Wonka wishlist had included Spike Milligan, Ron Moody, and Jon Pertwee, but the studio didn’t want Milligan, and the other two both turned the role down due to work commitments.

But generations of children have enjoyed Seltzer and Wilder’s take just fine, with its classic soundtrack and timeless appeal. It’s interesting that Pertwee was one of Dahl’s choices, because while he turned down the lead role in order to play the Third Doctor, Wilder’s performance is roughly proportionate to the best Doctor Who we never had.

The following year, Dahl published a sequel novel, Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator, and later made a start on a third instalment called Charlie And The White House, but never finished it. He was so disappointed with the original film, he never gave up the rights to make a film version, and it wasn’t until long after his death that his second wife, Felicity Dahl, would entertain the prospect of another movie based on Charlie’s adventures.

The 1990s – Adaptations

Perhaps his disappointment in Willy Wonka explains why there weren’t any more attempts to adapt his children’s stories for the big screen until almost two decades later.

The BFG and Danny The Champion Of The World were adapted for TV in 1989, the former as a Cosgrove Hill animation that led ITV’s Christmas Day schedule, and has gone on to delight audiences on VHS and DVD over the years, and the latter as a TV movie starring Jeremy Irons and Robbie Coltrane, which was said to be Dahl’s favorite adaptation of his own work.

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In 1990, Don’t Look Now director Nicolas Roeg teamed up with Jim Henson to adapt Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches, and the result mixed the best sensibilities of both – it’s a handsome and frightening horror movie that was aimed squarely at kids.

For the most part, the material suits Roeg’s style down to the ground, and the child-hating witches are brought to life, led by Anjelica Huston, with disturbing gusto. It would also prove to be the last film that Henson worked on before he died, and his creature workshop effects are marvellous, as ever. However, Dahl loathed this film version too, specifically because having shot his original, bittersweet ending, the studio opted for a happier resolution (Henson would ultimately side with the studio on this one).

In the book, our young hero is permanently transformed into a mouse, but after exterminating all of the witches in Britain at their annual conference with the same trick, he and his grandmother resolve to travel the world, killing every witch they can find by turning them into mice. Moreover, the grandmother tells the boy that he will probably only live as long as she will, but he’s cool with that.

In the film, the Grand High Witch’s assistant shows up to turn young Luke back into a boy, for a more upbeat ending. The author was shown both endings back to back, and loathed the happier conclusion so much that he demanded to have his name taken off the project.

It would be a few years after the author passed away in 1990, before the next adaptation of one of his books for children, but before that, 1995’s Four Rooms made for an intriguing use of some of his short stories for adults. Four Rooms featured four shorts, directed by Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez, Alexandre Rockwell, and Quentin Tarantino, in the form of an anthology film.

The film was very poorly received, and is still probably the least regarded thing that Tarantino has ever been associated with, a problem that might well have been alleviated if he hadn’t insisted on acting in it. On the other hand, the most complimentary reviews went to Rodriguez’s segment, “Room 309”, based on Dahl’s The Misbehavers, in which Tim Roth’s Ted is paid $500 to babysit two kids, who then proceed to demolish the titular hotel room.

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The following year brought two more adaptations of Dahl’s children’s novels – Henry Selick’s James & The Giant Peach and Danny DeVito’s Matilda. Selick generally did fairly well in translating the nastier humour of Dahl’s book, casting Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley as James’ horrid aunts in the live-action sequences, before burrowing into that big squishy stop-motion fruit, and setting up a whole bunch of vivid insect characters.

It’s a little more surprising that Danny DeVito totally nailed Matilda, despite a bunch of changes to the source material that might ostensibly have appeared to be signs of trouble. The plot is transplanted to suburban America, which actually turns out to be the perfect setting for young, inquisitive Matilda Wormwood to strive against close-minded monotony.

Mara Wilson is perfectly cast in the lead role, and Pam Ferris gives one of the most iconic villain performances of the ’90s as Miss Trunchbull, the barking mad former Olympian who takes to terrorising students, hammer-throwing girls by their pigtails and force-feeding an entire chocolate cake to greedy Bruce Bogtrotter, with all of the insane glee of Dahl’s original character.

The book is essentially a primary school Carrie, and DeVito carries that off wonderfully on screen. It’s a little weird that he plays both the sympathetic narrator, and the slimy Mr. Wormwood, especially when his dialogue comes directly after his narration. But this is never anywhere close to becoming a vanity project, and he has a knack for wry humor that serves as well as previous directorial efforts like Throw Momma From The Train and The War Of The Roses.

Matilda is arguably the best big screen adaptation of a Roald Dahl story to date, in which all of the adaptations serve to actually enhance the point of the story, and nobody is shying away from the sheer repugnance of the majority of the adult characters. It’s not to say that those who later took on Dahl’s work missed the point in some way, but nobody has yet done it as well as DeVito.

The 2000s – Auteurs

Danny DeVito is a fine director, but you wouldn’t exactly call him an auteur. Without wishing to get into authorship theory, (just sing “Everything is authored” to the tune of Tegan and Sara’s earworm so we can all save some time) the last decade of Dahl adaptations has been somewhat characterised by directors who have really brought their idiosyncrasies to bear on the material, with any involvement from the late author having been quite firmly precluded.

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Interestingly enough, a number of different directors were attached to a new version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, including Rob Minkoff (The Lion King), Gary Ross (Pleasantville), Tom Shadyac (Bruce Almighty), and even Martin Scorsese. In the end, it was Tim Burton who brought Willy Wonka back to the screen for Warner Bros, who made a killing on home video and TV screenings when they acquired the rights to the Mel Stuart film back in the 80s.

2005’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is arguably Burton’s second strike-out in terms of remakes, after 2001’s Planet Of The Apes. It’s one of the few films in which you could argue that it’s more a re-adaptation of the book, because it’s entirely different from the iconic 1971 version, and more faithful to the book, but it’s still more a Burton film than a Dahl one.

Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka really seems to miss the point – the film undoes all of its good work in sticking with the book by inventing a rubbish backstory for Wonka and his dad, just to contextualize Depp’s choice to play the role as a man-child, rather than the wily loner that Wilder personified. It’s lazy to compare his portrayal to a certain late singer, because that’s not the reason why it’s bad.

In a stab at timelessness, the film seems to take place in some bizarro transatlantic realm, which is ostensibly British, but for the use of dollars as currency and Wonka’s accent. In fairness, the film does focus more on Charlie, and gets aspects like the Bucket family and the Oompa Loompas bang-on. Furthermore, Danny Elfman distinguishes the musical style of the film from the version we all know, with an eclectic range of genres that take lyrics direct from the novel’s Oompa Loompa songs.

All in all, this is one of those films that shows why Burton’s style is easier to swallow when he tells an original story, or something you haven’t seen before, rather than remaking or re-imagining other properties. His influence was measurable in Selick’s James And The Giant Peach, which he produced, but that feels a world away from his hands-on adaptation here.

Personally speaking, I’m apparently in the minority for having the same issues with Wes Anderson’s 2009 film of Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film I really took against when I saw it in the cinema. In principle, Anderson gets the mischievous side of the characters down pat, but this one felt overwhelmed by his style.

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Where a studio like Aardman would probably have made a brilliant stop-motion version of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson veers off into non-sequiturs with existentialism and Jarvis Cocker (who I’ve never liked less than in this film) that I’ve yet to be convinced would appeal to kids. It’s still beautifully animated, and the voice cast are marvellous as a matter of course, but something about it just doesn’t quite click.

I’m very aware that most other people feel differently, and I haven’t revisited the film since I rewatched it on DVD back in 2009, so feel free to defend the film in the comments.

More recently

Christmas 2014 brought us the BBC adaptation of Esio Trot, starring Dustin Hoffman as Mr. Hoppy and Judi Dench as Miss Silver. The wonderfully eccentric book, in which Mr. Hoppy woos his downstairs neighbour with a magic tortoise-growing scam, was adapted by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer for BBC One. 

And then of course there’s Steven Spielberg’s film of The BFG, that landed in cinemas over the summer, surprisingly failing to hit big. A shame, too. For all its flaws, it was and is a deeply charming film.

As for speculating about future projects? In terms of our own personal wishlist, it’s baffling to think that nobody has made a movie of The Twits starring Brian Blessed and Miriam Margolyes – from the Quentin Blake illustrations alone, they’d be perfect casting. We’d also be intrigued to see what a studio like Magic Light Pictures could do with The Enormous Crocodile, in the wake of their animated shorts based on The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child.

In Conclusion

A survey published in The Telegraph last year showed that fantasy novels like Harry Potter and Twilight had overtaken Dahl’s books in the top 10 most popular books amongst children, which seems like a terrible shame. But the works of Rowling and Meyer both gained traction in the library first, before moving into the cinema.

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Having created a wealth of stories that have been enjoyed both on page and screen, here’s hoping that any future screen adaptations of these books serve to revive young readers’ interest in the wonderful world of Roald Dahl, and bring his stories to a new generation.