Any time a book (or graphic novel, or any other paper-based work of art) is subjected to a film adaptation, alterations of the source material are made on some level. Ultimately everybody has an opinion about such adaptations, and the changes that are made to fit this largely visual, aural medium. I often see Watchmen criticised for being too slavishly faithful, but I can safely assume that Zack Snyder would have drowned under the criticism had he made any significant changes to Alan Moore’s venerated graphic novel. Personally I think Snyder did a magnificent job, and am eternally grateful that the world was never subjected to Terry Gilliam’s frankly awful-sounding version (to be clear though, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of Gilliam’s output).
Anyway, I could rant on about Watchmen for hours but I’ll save that for another post, because right now I’m supposed to be talking about Roald Dahl. I can think of seven films based on works by this classic children’s author that I’ve enjoyed on some level, and which all made changes of varying degrees and levels of success. The Jeremy Irons-starring Danny the Champion of the World I vaguely remember enjoying and was, I think, mostly faithful to its source, minus a few characters and scenes. Both versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory take major liberties with the book but are both charming/creepy in their own way. Gene Wilder was the best thing about the 1971 version. Tim Burton’s 2005 film seems to get a lot of flak but is actually much more inventive and fun than it gets credit for, and Johnny Depp’s insane take on Willy Wonka is both terrifying and adds a surprising amount of depth to the character. Danny DeVito’s adaptation of Matilda again makes several large changes but still captures that delightful and often gross magic that made the book so much fun.
Stop-motion versions were made of both Fantastic Mr Fox and James and the Giant Peach, by Wes Anderson and Henry Selick respectively (although the latter was framed by live-action sequences). Both are vastly different from Dahl’s versions, particularly Anderson’s Mr Fox – which basically becomes a Wes Anderson film with anthropomorphic claymation animals, in the best possible way – but both are also marvellous and a pure joy to watch. The industrial/steampunk shark in Selick’s Peach is also a big favourite.
And then we have Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches. Although it significantly softens the ending (which Dahl himself apparently referred to as “utterly appalling”), Roeg’s film is otherwise wonderful. It terrified me as a child, but even through a tight lattice of fingers I couldn’t stop watching. It has a beautifully grim atmosphere, from the Norway-shot fairytale-esque prologue to Angelica Huston’s Grand High Witch removing her human face to reveal the bony, hair-speckled monstrosity beneath. These practical effects, so wonderfully created by the Jim Hensen Company, are part of what give the film its gruesome, terrifying charm. We just don’t see this kind of darkness in kids’ movies anymore (apart from maybe Coraline and a handful of others) and it’s a real shame.
(On a side note, I’m still waiting for someone to make a gelatinous, grimy version of The Twits. IMDB tells me that actually there’s one in development, but I won’t hold my breath.)
So we’re seeing a pattern here: mostly excellent adaptations that seem to capture the spirit of Dahl’s fun, whacky, heartfelt and often quite dark stories without necessarily keeping every plot point or character. In basically all of these cases, I think the divergence from the source material works far better than if they’d clung faithfully to the books. Really it’s that tone, that spark that counts more than anything.
So, finally, how does Stephen Spielberg’s big-budget version of one of Dahl’s best loved works, The BFG, rate?
The first half really sings, and what a beautiful, magical, bittersweet song. We’re introduced to the independent and somewhat mouthy insomniac Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), roaming around the orphanage she calls home at 3am, the “witching hour.” Through her window she spies another nocturnal wanderer, a giant who snatches her up and carries her off to his home. Her kidnapper is the Big Friendly Giant (BFG for short), an outcast among his much larger and meaner race of child-gobbling monsters. The BFG, on the other hand, is a sweet soul. He’s a vegetarian, persisting on the as-disgusting-as-they-sound Snozzcumbers, and he roams the human world at night, dispensing the pleasant dreams he catches and crafts to all the sleeping children of London.
Created in part with motion capture and the performance of the magnificent Mark Rylance, the BFG looks fucking incredible. Rylance breathes innocent, fallible life into this idiosyncratic character, whose language, expression and even posture paint him as a sweet, eccentric soul you’d basically be a monster not to love. Every shot he inhabits is hypnotic; I couldn’t take my eyes off the facial detail and body language (and damn cool hair). Even his dialogue, which worked so well in the book, becomes a delicious vernacular uttered with halting, upside-down relish by Rylance, whose talent and rhythm as a Shakespearean actor is evident.
From the antiquity of London’s cobbled, lamp-lit streets, to the fresh rocky green of giant country, there’s a palpable atmosphere here that the technical wizardry only adds to, a kind of old-fashioned feel to things that gives the film its magical, honest quality. This makes a refreshing change from the usual bright, clean kids’ films that are the regular output for large studios. Not to say that those are all bad, just prolific. By contrast, even the pacing of The BFG seems more languid at first, focusing more on the protagonists’ interaction and development, a pair of outcasts getting to know each other in a beautiful, magical world. There’s not much of a plot here, but that’s okay because we’re happy to go on this weird journey with two interesting characters, and because it seems like the film’s leading us somewhere, a promise of something a little dark and sweet, mysterious and different.
But it’s a promise Spielberg ultimately reneges on.
The problem is, you can’t sustain a whole film with sweet weirdness, but as soon as a plot and some conflict tries to rear its head in the film, things derail. This would work if the threat of the child-eating giants was a stronger contrast to the benevolent aspects/characters, but this is where it falls short. Apart from their creative names, the “evil giants” are more like dumb, ham-fisted playground bullies than tangible threats. Jemaine Clement is excellent as Fleshlumpeater, the chunky, dim-but-mean ringleader (and again the motion capture is astonishing), but he doesn’t have much to work with. Spielberg shies away from the whole child-chewing aspect by reducing it to the implication a few newspaper headlines, dreams, and lines of dialogue can muster. From what I vaguely remember, I’m sure there was much more to this part of the story in the book. I suppose this is to allow the film a wider audience appeal but it feels like a cop-out, like the filmmakers don’t trust that it’s not actually a bad thing to scare the kids even a little.
Once the film’s second half introduces the Queen, some slapstick and a bunch of helicopters, things become less atmospheric and more formulaic. I realise this is the gist of what happens in the book, but I feel like there was an opportunity here to use a bit of that creative filmic license that directors and screenwriters so often put into play. I feel like Spielberg could have changed some elements he was faithful to and been more faithful in the parts he overlooked. The conflict is resolved far too quickly, the villains bested with gratuitous ease, and ultimately there’s nothing much at stake, apart from a few scenes of superficial tension. All that sweetness, all that character- and world-building is rendered that much less bright in the face of it.
Where The Witches was brave enough to scare the shit out of me because it pitted children against a truly scary, dangerous enemy, The BFG washes its darkness down to an at-first promising twilight on which the sun never truly sets.
It’s not a bad film by any means. Spielberg’s touch is at times familiar and homely, and the expected – but always welcome – John Williams score tinkers about in the background. Everything looks creased and lived-in. There’s even a lovely nod to Quentin Blake’s beautifully scratchy illustrations from the book. Ruby Barnhill and especially Mark Rylance hold up the film on the strength, passion and honesty of their performances. The visuals and art direction are all beautiful. It is mostly a lovely film, but it just could have been an amazing one that did something different with the source material, while keeping that contrast of sweet and dark, rather than playing it safe and sanding down the edges.