#tbt review: the best Roald Dahl adaptations


9996525_origJared McMillan // Film Critic

In our youth, we are always looking to consume knowledge, however we can. As our imaginations invariably make us attune to our creativity, there is a comfort of discovery with the accumulation of the books we read. We become accustomed to certain worlds that our mind creates, looking to authors as the gatekeepers of these wonders. Dr. Seuss is one of the first authors we become attached to as young readers, with his short rhymes and colorful palettes contained in his pages.

Then, there is Roald Dahl, arguably the greatest children’s author of all time.

Here was someone who was a bridge between reading as a child and reading as a teenager. Stories that encompassed the realizations we have as we progress into double-digits, from feeling alone as we grow into our own personalities or wondering what the future holds for us in the most optimal ways. At the same time, he juxtaposed these themes with something naturally magical, incorporating his own lexicon as a paintbrush a world of pure imagination.

Because of this originality, Dahl’s works have taken directors with a certain genius or cunning madness to marry both emotion and the joyfully outlandish, such as Nicolas Roeg, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, and, now, the great Steven Spielberg, who has brought to life Dahl’s classic tale of unlikely friends THE BFG (read Courtney’s fantastic review here).

With this week’s release of THE BFG, I decided to find out which is the best film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s stories, based on those that captured both the feeling of being different and the child-like wonder. This list will only look at big-screen adaptations, so any TV movies, like DANNY, THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD are ruled out, as well as any original screenplays written by Dahl. This took a lot of thought, and, after all of this, I might need a couple of fizzy lifting drinks…


Yep… I said it. Look, is it something that evokes nostalgia? Of course it does. Anyone born in the 70s/80s had this movie on repeat growing up. Looking at it as an adult though, its tone is way out there. Aside from the tunnel scene, which nearly destroys any charm of Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket waffles from relatable to annoying. It just doesn’t really flow well with the morality it sets out to tell, specifically with the ill-fated “Fizzy-lifting drink” scene (it wasn’t in the book, and Dahl hated it). Not to mention that the jig is up with Grandpa Joe and riding Charlie’s coattails to new found fame and fortune.

635940406909919747-1733409197_matilda-1996b6. MATILDA (1995)

Matilda Wormwood is born into the most obnoxious family, with the patriarch being an utter crook. However, by the age of 8, she has come to know she is gifted. But these gifts don’t come to be without the help of her bullish father and bullying headmaster, and it is time for her to stand up for herself.

This is one of the best books that Roald Dahl created, so it has high expectations before anyone watches it for the first time. Directed by Danny Devito, everything falls in line with the original source material. However, the acting can go from good to awkward in a flash, with the dialogue rushed at certain points. Also, the camerawork can hinder its feel, closing in on the ugly (much like other Dahl adaptations), and Devito’s voiceover while also playing Mr. Wormwood doesn’t mesh well. It’s still enjoyable, but there is room for improvement.

tumblr_nczliqCXFO1rai9pto1_12805. THE WITCHES (1990)

While it’s hard to say what exactly Dahl had in mind with writing this tale, there’s no question that it is probably his darkest. Luke and his grandmother, who has a history with witches, move to England after his parents die in a crash. Here, he stumbles upon the truth that the stories his grandmother told of a secret society of witches is actual. He gets turned into a mouse, and helps his grandmother battle the witches to save the children of the world.

The movie is pretty close to the source material, with exceptional makeup, and creature effects by none other than Jim Henson. Again, the acting can be suspect, but Nicolas Roeg makes sure to keep the horrible witches at a softened level, only really showing form in the big reveal of the Grand High Witch. Where it differs from the material is in its ending: the movie has Luke turned back into human form, whereas he stays a mouse in the book, so he can die along with his grandmother.

In Disney's fantasy-adventure THE BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Roald Dahl's beloved classic, a precocious 10-year old named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) befriends the BFG (Oscar (TM) winner Mark Rylance), a Big Friendly Giant from Giant Country.

4. THE BFG (2016)

An orphan named Sophie knows of things that go bump in the night around London. One night, she looks out her window to see a giant, only to get kidnapped and taken to a land of giants. Upon seeing her captor closely, she realizes he is the only harmless giant among a group of nasties that eat “human beans”. They see each other in the same light as they are both unwanted among their respective societies, and thus repair these broken feelings.

Like all of the adaptations before it, THE BFG stays closely to the material, with Steven Spielberg putting his fantastical touch on the story to make movie magic. The downside to keeping the visual magic in tune to its audience is that certain things can be overlooked. The pacing seems a bit rushed in the first act, and fails to establish sympathy for Sophie’s life by immediately leaping into Giant Country. I couldn’t have imagined a better translation of The Big Friendly Giant himself, with Mark Rylance making this movie something special.

6a00d83451b5a569e20133ef2205c3970b3. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)

It’s time to admit it: this is the better adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic. Sure, it’s not the one you grew up with, but it’s still better. This caught Tim Burton right before he went into overdrive to shun story in favor of visuals and oddity. Charlie Bucket is supposed to be this wholesome and the only beacon of good amongst bratty children. He’s so wholesome that he is able to curb Willy Wonka from being recluse and to into his head.

This version also treated the Oompa Loompas as actual characters, with emotion and backstory, rather than some gimmick. Also, Depp’s characterization of Wonka is the right balance of weird and sarcasm, like a teenager that never grew up. Combined with the versatile Danny Elfman providing the soundtrack, it just feels like a Roald Dahl book. The only knock against it though is that it did bring in elements of “CHARLIE AND THE GREAT GLASS ELEVATOR” so it didn’t solely stick to the original story

maxresdefault-12. JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996)

Sort of Dahl’s antithesis to “THE WITCHES”, this story starts out in the same manner, as James’ parents are killed in an accident and he is sent to live with guardians. However, his aunts are vile people, leading our protagonist to escape in a giant peach that had grown in the backyard. While in this monstrous fruit, he befriends several insects that are the size of him, and they escort him to New York where he can start anew.

Directed by stop-motion master Henry Selick (THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, CORALINE), the animation is extraordinarily unique, looking like a combination of ceramic and paper mache. By using this technique, it allows for the edgier parts of the book that are live-action (i.e. James’ abuse) to be compartmentalized, showing a harsh reality vs. escape. Once James is in the peach, he is safe. While the film takes liberties with the original story, it maintains the feel and essence of a Roald Dahl book.

fmf21. FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)

There are many reasons why this is the best Roald Dahl adaptation, but the main reason is that it is intelligent in its humor while being a fantastic story for people of all ages. Looking at all of the aspects of family life, centered on a broken bond between father and son, without being overly ugly in its presentation. Mr. Fox likes to be different from everyone else, while Ash struggles with being different from his father.

Wes Anderson, as self-indulgent as he can be, took the time to infuse his personality into the world of Dahl, rather than the other route. Every aspect of the stop-motion animation is meticulous in order to make sure the emotional tics of every character is given breadth. You can still have everything Roald Dahl had in his writing, and make it something that feels wholly original. Being different is what makes you unique, and this certainly captures that credence.

THE BFG opens on tomorrow nationwide.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.