Roald Dahl, the British author whose stories of outsize peaches, telekinetic schoolgirls and imperious chocolate moguls have become singularly strange classics of children’s literature, would have turned 100 this September. Though he died in 1990, he’s the subject of an ongoing centenary celebration involving special exhibits at England’s Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, the publication of the brand-new Roald Dahl Oxford Dictionary — including the author’s favorite real and invented words — and even the unveiling of a peach-colored Roald Dahl English rose.
“If people want to teach their children more about Roald Dahl,” says Kris Howard, whose website RoaldDahlFans.com launched in 1996 and still receives roughly 4,000 visitors per day, “this is the year to do it.”
One place to start might be with Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Dahl’s 1982 novel “The BFG,” due in theaters July 1. The film’s title role — a Big Friendly Giant — goes to Mark Rylance, who earned a supporting actor Oscar in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” and is now playing his first-ever motion-capture role. Jemaine Clement plays the hulking villain, Fleshlumpeater, while newcomer Ruby Barnhill plays a precocious orphan named Sophie. The screenplay comes from Melissa Mathison, the Oscar-nominated writer of Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” who died last November after filming was completed.
Mathison, who began working on the film even before Spielberg was announced as director in 2014, was a constant presence on the set, according to Rylance. He says studios initially balked at a movie about child-eating giants and suggested several dismaying changes, including an action-sequence in which the giants attack London, but Mathison pushed to include as much of Dahl’s original content in the film as possible.
“She was very enamored of the book,” Rylance says. “She loved her children very deeply. The love of children comes to my mind as something that was moving to her.”
Dahl has been connecting with children and parents alike since at least 1961, when he scored his first major success with “James and the Giant Peach.” A string of hits followed, including “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (1970), “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (1965), “Danny, the Champion of the World” (a 1975 book that first introduced the BFG character) and “Matilda” (1988). All those titles became films, and some have become Broadway musicals.
For inspiration, Dahl seemed to draw from his own childhood, which in his memoirs he recalled with a mix of fondness and bitterness. Born Sept. 13, 1916, in Wales, Dahl was merely a toddler when his older sister died of appendicitis and his father of pneumonia. He attended Repton, a punishment-driven boarding school that left the young Dahl with at least a few emotional scars. Still, Repton may have helped inspire “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” since students there often served as taste-tasters for the candy company Cadbury.
“Roald Dahl was able to walk the line between light humor and darkness, and that’s a tricky line,” says Matia Burnett, assistant editor for children’s books at Publisher’s Weekly. “There’s an awareness in his writing about injustice and powerlessness, about class issues. It’s anchored in these hard realities.”
Over the years, Dahl stirred his share of controversy. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” drew so much criticism for depicting its Oompa Loompa as imported Pygmies that Dahl changed them to fictitious creatures in subsequent editions. Dahl’s antipathy toward Israel finally turned him “anti-Semitic,” he said in an interview with The Independent not long before his death. As recently as 2014, the Australian supermarket chain Aldi pulled Dahl’s 1982 book “Revolting Rhymes” from shelves, citing a line that referred to Cinderella as a “dirty slut.”
“You don’t want to pass along these ideas to children, but at the same time there are so many wonderful things about his books that you don’t want to miss,” says Lynn Lobash, manager of readers services at the New York Public Library. She adds that Herge’s “Tintin” comics and Jean de Brunhoff’s “Babar” books have come under similar criticism for their outdated mores. “It’s a balance. You have to read to children, and be alert about it.”
(Spielberg, asked about Dahl’s anti-Semitic comments at a May news conference for the premiere of “The BFG” at Cannes, said he “wasn’t aware of any of Roald Dahl’s personal stories” and called his own film adaptation “a story about embracing our differences.”)
Fans of the book may be particularly pleased to hear that “The BFG” relies heavily on Dahl’s use of wordplay. The giants speak Gobblefunk, a language which includes fanciful words like “glumptious” (meaning tasty), “skumping” (worried) and “whizzpopper” (flatulence). Rylance says he and Mathison worked hard to incorporate as much of Dahl’s made-up lexicon as they could.
Rylance, a former artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London, compares Dahl’s creative language to that of the Bard, who is often credited with coining — or at least giving new meaning to — such now-common words as lonely, zany and dauntless.
“Language is such a beautiful sound that humans make,” says Rylance. “Not just the heart of it, but what I call the limbs — the arms and legs of it that reach out. And Roald Dahl’s speech — he’s just got incredible arms and legs, doesn’t he?”
Other big guys
Moviegoers love large creatures. We all know the gargantuan Godzilla, the colossal King Kong and the outsize alien in “Cloverfield.” Human giants are a slightly rarer breed on-screen, but here are a few notable examples.
ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (1958) “Incredibly huge! With huge desires!” This sci-fi flick has become synonymous with camp, but don’t underestimate it. With its none-too-veiled overtones of sexual hysteria and emasculating wrath, it’s not as dumb as it looks. Four years later, when Federico Fellini put a giant woman in “Boccaccio ’70,” everyone called it art.
VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS (1965) This youth flick — based on H.G. Wells’ “Food of the Gods” — is a Z-grade treat. Little Ronny Howard, before he became the prominent director Ron, plays a boy genius whose growth-activating goo falls into the hands of some teenage punks. The special effects aren’t (always) bad, and Beau Bridges is memorable as Fred, a literally colossal jerk. Musical appearances by Freddy Cannon and the Beau Brummels.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) Andre the Giant, the late wrestler whose massive 7-foot-4-inch frame was the result of the medical condition gigantism, found his best film role in this delightfully fractured fairy tale. Andre played Fezzik, a big bruiser with a kind heart — a fair description of the man himself, according to screenwriter William Goldman. Andre died in 1993 of heart failure, at the age of 46.
GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (2010) Has any movie successfully adapted Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel? In this attempt, Jack Black plays a modern-day Lemuel Gulliver who lands in Lilliput and becomes, in relative terms, a giant. Despite an excellent cast (Jason Segel, James Corden, Emily Blunt) and expensive special effects, the film became a Christmas Day bomb at the box-office.
GODS OF EGYPT (2016) Alex Proyas’ fantasy film, released in February, tells the story of Egyptian gods (Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who tower nine feet tall over mere mortals (Brenton Thwaites, Courtney Eaton). The visual effects — which involved forced perspective — ended up looking odd, as if some actors were merely standing closer to the camera than others. Critics weren’t impressed. The Hollywood Reporter began its review with: “Oh, dear.”
— RAFER GUZMAN