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Roald Dahl in cinema: Did the movies do justice to his world of bizarre?

On Roald Dahl’s birthday week, here’s a glance through adaptations of his works on screen and how they remained loyal (or not) to the author’s fanciful world-building.

Shreya Paul
Sep 14, 2021
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Roald Dahl’s cinematic influence is not any less prolific as compared to his reach as a literary figure. With the heady combination of childish delight, an acerbic sense of humour and the patent Grimm’s Brothers’ sense of imminent foreboding, Dahl’s works have often found favourite nooks in Hollywood. Dahl’s oddities and narrative bizarreness made for good cinema. With the elements of spectacle peppered with weird characters, Dahl’s works were the perfect canvas for filmmakers to build their worlds onto. However, this was also Dahl’s Achilles’ heel. His milieu was difficult to get right, and though many have ventured into his universe, only a few have been able to do justice to it.

Arguably his most famous adaptation on screen, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) transferred to the silver screen the author’s fantasy world of a chocolatier on his way to bequeath his amassed fortune to one lucky child. The debate on whether the novel was one of his masterpieces or a serious aberration to his generally satirical aesthetic may continue, but the film was clear in its portrayal. Even though Dahl’s Willy Wonka, the eccentric candymaker was way more on the nose and overt as compared to Gene Wilder’s depiction. 

Wilder brought to the character an annoying saccharine aura, that completely stripped Wonka of his maniacal streaks and the story of its pizzazz. However, Wilder’s interpretation of the character was so likeable, that the film became somewhat of a classic on its release. The only element that was missing in it was the Dahl factor though. With his signature sartorial get up of a purple suit and a hat, Wilder’s Wonka was ever-smiling and ever-inviting of the adolescent minds who entered his factory in awe of his works. This in itself was a far cry from the moody, almost-recluse and notoriously honest Wonka in Dahl’s works. In fact, the portrayal was so off-centre that it was said, many who have read the book after the film were quite taken aback by Wonka’s off-handish portrayal.

The 1996 film Matilda was yet another film that brought front and centre Dahl’s unconventional perspective on things. A precocious pre-teen, Matilda’s incessant mischievousness was always a point of grouch for her parents. But for Dahl, it was precisely this free-spiritedness that contributed to her charm, not to mention her developing magical powers. 

As Mara Wilson stepped into the shoes of the famous sprightly girl, the world marvelled at director Danny DeVito’s interpretation of Dahl’s character. DeVito’s penchant for showcasing black satires worked in his favour and he ensured that few of the stranger characters maintain their idiosyncrasies. Thus, Agatha Trunchbull (played by the inimitable Pam Ferris) was the perfect combination of pure evil and wacko personality, while DeVito’s Harry Wormwood and Rhea Perlman’s Zinnia Wormwood were loyal depictions of the abominations that Dahl whipped up in the garb of ‘adults.’ Much like Lemony Snicket’s world of ill-luck and unadulterated evil, Dahl’s Matilda was all about the unimpressive, anti-creative, forlorn world of “adults.”

The other major cinematic work based on Dahl’s works is Anjelica Huston’s The Witches (1990). The film was one of those rare examples of how Dahl’s already charming work found an avenue with Huston’s poignant acting. Director Nicolas Roeg opted for a more traditional happy ending, and the film stays loyal to the dark fantasy elements that Dahl incorporated in his work. Huston’s pointed features and sharp, long nose, draped in the with make-up paid a true homage to Dahl’s ominous prose writing as it did to Quentin Blake’s classic illustrations. 

Jim Henson’s puppeteering added the special effects required to transform the true family entertainer to a menacing tale on the ill auspices that populated Dahl’s writings. A marked contrast to this is The BFG (1989). The animated feature helmed by Steven Spielberg was all about Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant and the feel-good aura around it. Though the film hardly scraped the surface of the candy-hearted giddiness of a Disney production, Spielberg’s sincere attempt did not go unnoticed. BFG was still the kindhearted giant who befriends a young girl and helps her catch dreams, and even manages to have an encounter with Queen Elizabeth.

Unlike its predecessor, Johnny Depp’s 2005 feature Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was mostly about Wonka’s character. Divorced from Wilder’s warm aura, Depp chose to depict the character in a creepier light. Director Tim Burton concocted a Wonka who smiled surreptitiously behind children’s backs and yet had a calming sense of ease when confronted about it. 

The film was more concerned about the visual magnificence than its content. Thus, Burton launched into this MET Gala-esque parade of costumes for his characters that were pop colour fairs for the eyes. Oddly, Burton’s sense of the phantasmagoria took a complete backseat while developing this film and understandably then, it suffered criticism on being compared (to both the book and Wilder’s version). Despite Depp’s efforts, Willy Wonka remained a largely ambiguous character in the film, one who was not human enough for anyone to invest in, age notwithstanding.

2020 brought in yet another of Dahl movies to the silver screen. Robert Zemeckis adapted Dahl’s 1983 classic and named it Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Unfortunately, despite having the author’s name in its title, this film may easily be the farthest to Dahl’s intended works. The distastefully done film looks quite garish and hardly captures the ethos behind the world of a young orphaned Black boy who suddenly turns into a mouse following a curse. The film displays faults throughout its screenplay and unfortunately struggles to survive the weight of being a Dahl adaptation, or even its very worthy predecessor in Anjelica Huston’s The Witches.

Dahl, through his written works, has often created an undefinable allure that has helped the author build a brand by capitalising on the bizarre. Most of his films have somehow skipped the method behind his literary madness, but some have allowed Dahl into their worlds and successfully created magic on cinema screens.

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