Back in 1970, beloved children’s author Roald Dahl, perhaps against his better judgment, hesitantly allowed Paramount to make a film version of his hit 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The resulting film, 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – directed by Mel Stuart and starring Gene Wilder – has become an adored childhood classic for many youngsters, often eclipsing the book, and has enjoyed periodic revival screenings throughout its life. Many love this film.
Roald Dahl, however, hated the film. He famously objected to the open change of protagonist from Charlie to Willy Wonka, and he resented that Spike Milligan, his choice for Willy Wonka, was not cast. He hated that there was a villain in the story, and he hated the Fizzy Lifting Drink scene, which was not in his book. Dahl was so angry that he disowned the movie, swearing that Hollywood would never make another movie based on one of his books while he was alive.
Hollywood was patient. When Dahl died in 1990, studios were quick to adapt his books to film as hastily as possible. Nicholas Roeg directed The Witches in 1990. Danny DeVito directed Matilda in 1996. Henry Selick directed James and the Giant Peach in 1996. Tim Burton re-adapted Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005. And Wes Anderson made Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, which is perhaps the best of the lot. Dahl, we can only postulate, would likely have disapproved of every one of these movies.
So one has to wonder what he would think of Steven Spielberg’s The BFG. Dahl was a famously dour author, whose view of childhood was, as seen in his books, grounded, dirty, and downright Dickensian. Even as fantastical things were happening to his young protagonists, he kept a sharp eye on their bewildered tenacity and realistic frustration with the world. He was careful to temper his adventure with a lingering sense of relatable struggle, not to mention an undercurrent of welcome melancholy. Spielberg’s well-documented sense of magical awe doesn’t quite sync up with Dahl’s vision. In Spielberg’s world, children are all wide-eyed innocents – usually with daddy issues – who live in a constant state of wonder and discovery. In Spielberg’s world, the world is meant to conform to the innocence of children, and not the other way ’round.
As a result, the protagonist of Spielberg’s version of The BFG, a young girl named Sophie (played by the moon-faced moppet Ruby Barnhill), emerges as an untouchably pure saint, a peaen to childhood innocence. She is seen, in the film’s opening, taking care of the mail at her orphanage because the house marm is too lazy to do it herself. She threatens drunks from her orphanage window, and retires to her nightly bed with a flashlight and a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. She has large, friendly dark eyes and clear skin. Sophie is a caricature of childhood innocence, ambition, and perfection. She’s also a perfectly dull protagonist.
That is not Barnhill’s fault, but Spielberg’s. His insistence on the cleanest possible version of orphanhood robs Sophie of any real character. At least Matilda lived in a ghoulish suburban hell, and went to school in a dusty, run-down hole run by a monstrous beast.
The real triumph, then, of The BFG, is the BFG himself. Played by Mark Rylance in motion-capture, the BFG is a gangly, odd, malapropism-filled fantasy creature of the highest order. Sophie is kidnapped by a friendly giant who lives in a faraway country, eats horrid vegetables called snozzcumbers, and can hear every tiny whisper in the world with his outsize ears. For a touch of silliness, he is also keen on a bubbly drink that causes explosive flatulence. He harvests dreams, which are envisioned as prancing, fairy-like wisps of color), and delivers them to the sleeping children of the world. The BFG is a warm and beautiful fairy tale creation with a streak of the redemptive dad about him. Sophie may be a wet blanket, but the BFG is a whole and rich creation that has been beautifully visualized.
As The BFG progresses, then, and we get to know the title giant more closely, its true emotions become clear. The BFG is not here to help Sophie. Sophie is a catalyst for the giant’s life. For small stretches, The BFG is genuinely touching.
And then, quite unexpectedly – and wholly welcome – The BFG skews into a glorious Dahl-ian whimsy. I won’t say how, but Queen Elizabeth herself (played by Penelope Wilton) does eventually become involved in the giant’s life.
Tonally, The BFG gesticulates wildly in every direction. It is a fairy tale, a Dickens story, a simplified anti-bullying film, a family treatise, and a slapstick farce about farting. It doesn’t cohere as perfectly as one might expect, but it holds together remarkably well given the ambition. The BFG is by no means a perfect childhood entertainment – only time will tell if it will become as beloved as Willy Wonka – but it possesses a magical sense of oddball wonderment all its own. Of the Roald Dahl adaptations we’ve had to date, this one is perhaps the most accurate and sincere.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for nearly 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. He also co-hosts the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.