The 7 Best Roald Dahl Movies, Ranked
The Best of Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl was many things, including a fighter pilot, a screenwriter, and a novelist, but he is undoubtedly best known as the man who introduced us to unforgettable characters like the eccentric Willy Wonka, the brilliant Matilda, and the cunning Mr. Fox. As one of the most iconic children’s writers of all time, Dahl imbued all of his stories with a sense of imagination and wonder — and, more often than not, a little bit of nastiness. Dahl may have written about witches, giants, and anthropomorphic bugs, but all of his characters have a richness that makes them extraordinarily human.
So, it’s no wonder that Hollywood has mined Dahl’s extensive bibliography to create some of the best book-to-movie adaptations of all time. Sept. 13, 2016 marks Dahl’s 100th birthday, and to celebrate, EW decided to rank the seven best movies based on his work. (This doesn’t include his original scripts like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and we decided to focus only on theatrical releases, excluding made-for-TV adaptations like last year’s Esio Trot, starring Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman, or the 1989 film Danny, the Champion of the World, starring Jeremy Irons and Robbie Coltrane.)
Read on for our ranking of seven timeless Dahl movies.
7. The BFG (2016)
The most recent Dahl adaptation hit theaters just this year, with Oscar winner Mark Rylance bringing the titular Big Friendly Giant to the big screen all cow eyes, lanky limbs, and enormous ears. Ruby Barnhill stars as the charming orphan Sophie, who, after spying the extra-large intruder outside her window, is whisked away into Giant Country, a land of bone-crushing giants, bottled dreams, and stinky snozzcumbers.
You’d think a mix of Steven Spielberg and Dahl would be an automatic slam dunk, but this version doubles down on the gorgeous, eye-popping visuals — at the expense of the story. The best Dahl tales have a slightly sinister undertone, and The BFG takes a more neutered, childish approach. (What set Dahl apart was his ability to write for children without talking down to them.) The result is a pleasant enough if altogether forgettable film.
6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Of the two movies based on Dahl’s most beloved book, Tim Burton’s 2005 version sticks a little closer to the original story than the 1971 Gene Wilder musical, even if Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is a childlike candy entrepreneur who’s part Michael Jackson, part Anna Wintour, and part Howard Hughes. As the misanthropic Wonka, Depp takes Charlie and his four spoiled companions on a madcap and frequently dangerous tour of his crazy confectionery, including blueberry explosions, live squirrels, and of course, Oompa Loompas.
Is it as heartfelt as the Wilder version? Not even close. (Don’t even get us started on the nonsensical “dentist” backstory.) But Burton puts his own twisted spin on the Dahl classic for a film that’s occasionally sour and frequently sweet.
5. The Witches (1990)
There are plenty of terrifying antagonists in all of Dahl’s work — as a child, we had nightmares about the Vermicious Knids from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator — but few are as chilling as the Grand High Witch and her coven of bald, toeless, and infanticidal witches. Our heroes are the tiny Luke and his grandmother Helga, who visit a seaside hotel only to accidentally stumble upon a meeting of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children — aka the annual meeting of all the witches in England. When they find Luke listening in on their evil machinations, they turn him into a mouse, and it’s up to Luke and his grandmother to take on the witches once and for all.
The Man Who Fell to Earth director Nicolas Roeg helmed this Dahl adaptation, with help from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and their delightfully wacky effects. Anjelica Huston is at her most sinister and dramatic as the villainous Grand High Witch, and The Witches captures both the hilarity and horror of Dahl’s best.
4. James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Dahl imbued all of his stories with some sense of magic, but James and the Giant Peach is perhaps the most outright fantastical. So, it’s no wonder that director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) decided to tackle these bugs, pirates, and robotic sharks with a clever mix of live action and stop-motion animation.
Poor James lives with his horrifying aunts, Spiker and Sponge, but his luck changes when he’s given a bag of mysterious “crocodile tongues,” which he inadvertently spills in his garden. Soon, the barren peach tree in his yard sprouts the largest peach in the world, and when James crawls inside, he meets a group of enormous, anthropomorphic, and rather polite bugs, who join him on an airborne adventure across the Atlantic Ocean.
The gorgeous animation lends an otherworldly and zany edge to Dahl’s twisted tale, plus a stellar voice cast including Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, and David Thewlis. James and the Giant Peach is one of Dahl’s strangest and most macabre stories, and the film perfectly channels that outlandish atmosphere.
3. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Dahl himself wasn’t a fan of Mel Stuart’s 1971 musical and how it deviated from the book, and to be fair, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is not quite a faithful adaptation. Rather than focusing on the downtrodden Charlie Bucket (after all, the book is titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), the film turned its eye to the mysterious chocolate genius behind it all, played brilliantly by the late Gene Wilder.
Most things are the same: The unfortunate Charlie Bucket is one of five children to win a golden ticket to visit Wonka’s magical chocolate factory, and along the way, his spoiled companions get picked off one by one by tumbling into the chocolate river, falling down a garbage chute, and more. But the film is actually stronger for deviating from the source material, and Wilder brought a unsettling sense of mystery to his role, oscillating between delightful and menacing. Both the book and the film are excellent, for different reasons, but they can both take you to a world of pure imagination.
2. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Most of Dahl’s heroes and heroines are small children, but Wes Anderson’s meticulous stop-motion masterpiece puts Mr. Fox front and center, voiced to cussing perfection by George Clooney. As the patriarch of the Fox family, Mr. Fox earns a living by stealing from the cruel and foolish farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. When the farmers set their sights on Fox, he engineers a devious plan of retaliation, recruiting his woodland neighbors for help. (The stacked voice cast includes Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, and more.)
Anderson’s obsession with detail means that he’s the perfect director to tackle this whimsical tail tale, one that’s part endearing fable, part madcap heist. Not only are the four-legged characters relatable and the sets astonishingly detailed, but Fantastic Mr. Fox triumphantly captures the spirit of Dahl’s original book.
1. Matilda (1996)
As a precocious young elementary schooler, the titular Matilda (Mara Wilson) is a genius, but her ignorant parents (played by Rhea Perlman and an excellent Danny DeVito, who also directed) refuse to acknowledge her brilliance. Matilda puts her brain to work by devising brilliant forms of revenge on her parents or spending her days at the local library, but by the time she enters school, her brain power is seriously underused. Her kind teacher, Miss Honey, recognizes Matilda’s potential, but she and the rest of the school live in constant fear of the tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull. Intellectually bored and frustrated by her oppressive school, Matilda eventually discovers that she can manifest her unused brain power as telekinesis, and she soon puts her newly discovered powers to work.
Dahl wrote about many clever, misfit children facing off against cruel and stupid adults, but none were ever as delightful or relatable as Matilda, the telekinetic bookworm. The 1996 film is a near-perfect adaptation of the book, encapsulating Dahl’s signature tone and how it so effortlessly balanced the comedic, the sadistic, and the heartfelt. It’s also the reason we’ll never be able to think of chocolate cake in the same way again.