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Five most marvellous film adaptations of Roald Dahl books

26 August, 2016 — by Leon Barton3

With the BFG currently showing at your local multiplex (actually probably not – see below) I thought this would be a good time to look at where it ranks in the pantheon of big screen Roald Dahl adaptations.

And yes, I am aware that Dahl himself wrote screenplays – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and You Only Live Twice among them. And yes, his Tales of the Unexpected stories for television were utterly brilliant. And yes, Rik Mayall’s ‘reading’ of George’s Marvellous Medicine for Jackanory was wonderful too. But that’s a feature for another time.

For now, here are my favourite five movie takes on Roald Dahl’s children’s books:

1) The Witches [1990]

When my parents finally relented and bought a VHS recorder sometime around 1992 this was one of the first films I watched on television. So having recorded it, me and my younger brother and sister then enjoyed the novelty of being able to watch a film again and again and again and….

A horror movie for children is a difficult trick to pull off, so director Nicholas Roeg deserves massive credit for this deliciously dark movie. Perhaps the most successful example of the genre until a certain boy wizard with the same initials as my favourite sauce came along a decade or so later.


Credit also to Angelica Huston for a winning performance as the Grand High Witch and Jim Henson’s delightful puppetry on the last film he worked on before his untimely death.

Roald Dahl himself hated the film, calling it “utterly appalling.” But considering Stephen King despises Stanley Kubrick’s masterful adaption of The Shining, I’ve decided authors are the last people to ask about movie adaptions of their work.

2) Matilda [1996]

One of my favourite Dahl books as a child, so despite being in my late teens by the time the movie came out (and, I’m guessing, at least five years older than the target audience) I was still delighted they didn’t mess it up.

matilda minimal poster

Mara Wilson is charming as the telekinetic kid with a difficult home life (were you watching JK Rowling?) battling against all the awful adults making her existence miserable.

Real-life couple Danny DeVito (who directed) and Rhea Perlman are great as the ignorant parents, but as Hollywood has long been aware, you need a Brit for the baddie, so Pam Ferris (off of Darling Buds of May) got the prime role of the fearsome Miss Trunchbull. Her performance is a delight, as is the movie as a whole.

3) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory [1971]

There are a few things about this film that bug me. For a start, surely, at 38 Gene Wilder was far too young to play Wonka and Roald Dahl’s choice of Spike Milligan would have made much more sense?

Before even knowing what the word ‘sanctimonious’ meant, I think that’s exactly how I felt about aspects of the story too. Why punish young children for the awfulness of their parents and upbringing? It’s Dahl at his most snobbish.


And then there are the Oompa Loompas. Overtly racist? Probably (and certainly in their original first print form where they’re depicted as black Pygmy people from Africa). I definitely cringed when I last watched the movie and they appeared on screen.

Having said all that, it’s a film I always watched whenever it was on television in the 80s (which seemed to be every week?) The look of the film is one of the major plus points. I can imagine a bit of a clamour when the job of set designer was advertised. And there is a charm to this film that Tim Burton’s torturous 2005 version was utterly devoid of.

Part of this charm comes from Peter Ostrum’s Charlie Bucket, a lovely performance in what was his only movie. Despite being offered a three-film contract, Ostrum turned it down to become a vet. What a dude.

4) Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009]

Unmistakably a Wes Anderson movie, in terms of look (although the animators did wonderful work) and overall feel, perhaps that’s both this film’s main strength and main weakness. I loved it, but then, I was in my 30s when it came out.

Did Anderson overly hipsterize (yes, that is a word) one of Roald Dahl’s most beloved children’s stories? Fantastic Mr. Fox was the Dahl novel I re-read most often in my childhood and I’m just not sure that the eight year old me would have loved this film in the same way I adored the book…

fantastic_mr_fox movie poster

I considered putting this higher than 4 on the list, but give it five years, and I’ll see what my (currently three old year old) son thinks.

5) The BFG [2016]

The first time I went to the cinema (in 1982, aged 4) it was to see a film directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Melissa Mathison, about a lonely child who befriends an eponymous fantastical imaginary creature, whose description – in initialled abbreviated form – lends the the movie it’s title. My strongest memory of the evening is that the cinema auditorium was packed.

And the last time I went to the cinema (a couple of weeks ago, aged 38) it was to see a film directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Melissa Mathison, about a lonely child who befriends an eponymous fantastical imaginary creature, whose description – in initialled abbreviated form – lends the the movie it’s title. The cinema auditorium was virtually empty.

bfg 2016 poster

It seems BFG has has been as big a flop as ET was a success. Although rare for Spielberg films to bomb, for some reason it’s not in any way unusual for adaptions of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories to do so.

In the case of the BFG it’s a shame because it has a lot going for it; strong visual effects, faithfulness to the book (including the BFG’s delightful goobledygook language) and charming performances, particularly from Mark Rylance as the giant and Penelope Wilton (off of ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’) as the Queen.

Perhaps it’s woozy surreal feel didn’t click with children now accustomed to non-stop action from their cinema trips? Kung Fu Panda this aint. But even so, I hope this latest Dahl-flop doesn’t discourage film-makers from adapting the man’s work.

I still want to see a big screen version of The Twits.


  • Russell Todd

    26 August, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Hard to disagree Leon. I thought Anderson was unfairly criticised for FMF. It’s funny, stylish, satirical in places and largely faithful to the book. I’d place it higher (as I suspect you really want to?). The Witches is the best though

  • Leon Barton

    26 August, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks Russ. The Witches was always going to win but I did consider pushing FMF up to 3, possibly even 2. I dunno.. was just trying to compile the list from a childs point of view because that’s when I was most enraptured by Dahl’s stories. But in hindsight perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to second guess the 8 year old me….

  • Laurel

    26 August, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    The Witches is a fantastic adaptation. I also loved the Fantastic Mr. Fox. However, though I love Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory- as an adaptation, if fails. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Dahl has yet to have a good adaptation made. I did see the BFG. It was a decent adaptation; stayed true to the characters, if not the storyline.

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