Witches, weirdos, and Wonkas: How to do a Roald Dahl adaptation right
What do we want out of a Roald Dahl adaptation? The seemingly obvious answer is the feeling you get reading one of his books, that Grimm's fairy tale-style foreboding mixed with mischievous delight at his twisted sense of humor, and a bit of good, old-fashioned fantastical wonder. It’s that feeling that has landed Dahl a permanent place in the children’s literature canon and made him one of the best-selling authors of all time.
Clearly, it’s not an easy balance to pull off. No filmmaker has done so with complete success, though a few have come close, and their attempts have an awfully spotty track record at the box office. Of the seven theatrically-released films based on Dahl’s books — Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), The Witches (1990), James and the Giant Peach, Matilda (both 1996), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and The BFG (2016) — only one, Charlie, was a major hit. Four (Witches, James, Matilda, and BFG) were financial flops, and the other two just barely outgrossed their budgets, though Willy Wonka has undoubtedly turned a whopping profit by now through TV and home video sales.
Of course, the box office only paints a partial picture. Willy Wonka is far and away the most beloved Dahl adaptation, long since enshrined as an indisputable family-film classic. It’s also the loosest adaptation, not just plot-wise but mood-wise, with terrible songs like “Cheer Up, Charlie” and perfectly fine songs like “The Candy Man” pushing it dangerously close to saccharine territory. Yet the central plot thrust — kids undergoing various forms of whimsical body horror — remains intact, as does a droll, Dahl-esque humor, helping to balance things back out.
Still, the film’s final moments leave a purely sweet taste in your mouth, and Gene Wilder’s Wonka has a softer edge than Dahl’s, who would be unlikely to sing or speak any lyric from “Pure Imagination.” On the whole, Willy Wonka is a good deal more warm-hearted than the book, which is likely no small part of its enduring appeal.
Indeed: 15 years later, Tim Burton’s darker, moodier re-adaptation of Charlie seems like a discarded curio. It’s easy to forget that the film received generally complimentary reviews at the time, so overwhelming is the prevailing opinion to direct kids straight to Willy Wonka now. (One gets the sense that Charlie’s financial success had more to do with Willy Wonka than with Dahl.) Charlie has its own problems, namely a hackneyed daddy-issues backstory for Wonka and one of Johnny Depp's weirdest performances (which is saying something. But there’s a lot to like here, not least its superb Oompa-Loompa musical numbers, and you can feel Burton’s sensibilities meshing with Dahl’s quite harmoniously in scenes like a gleefully demented welcome song.
Burton also produced James and the Giant Peach, helmed by his Nightmare Before Christmas collaborator Henry Selick, whose eccentric, herky-jerky stop-motion designs and macabre tendencies likewise befit the material. On the other hand, you feel producer Jim Henson’s touch more than director Nicolas Roeg’s in 1990’s The Witches, marked by Henson’s delightfully tactile, and freaky, puppetry effects. Like Dahl, Burton, and Selick, Henson never shied away from giving kids a good scare. (This writer avoided The Dark Crystal for years after being spooked by the trailer at a young age.)
That’s really the key to success, at least creatively, when it comes to Dahl: The best adaptations of his work combine their source material’s ineffable spirit with their auteur’s compatible artistic touch, and it’s when those two are out of whack that the final product suffers. Wes Anderson, with his dry wit, handcrafted sensibility, and dexterity in juggling comedy and tragedy, is a perfect fit for Dahl. Steven Spielberg, with his slick style and sentimental tendencies, is not.
This seems like a fairly obvious point, but it’s one Hollywood apparently hasn’t internalized, evinced by the chilly reception for Robert Zemeckis’ take on The Witches. One mourns the lost possibility of a version directed by co-writer Guillermo del Toro, whose dark, modern fairy-tale approach to filmmaking seems like the perfect fit for a Dahl adaptation.
And even when the fit is right, there remains an impulse to leaven the material. Roeg famously changed The Witches’ ending to Dahl’s great chagrin, resulting in a final resolution that feels tacked-on and inorganic. James, like Willy Wonka, is hampered by syrupy songs, and boy, does Burton’s daddy-issues subplot stick in your craw. Danny DeVito might be the director who’s come the closest to bringing pure, unfiltered Dahl to the screen, with a Matilda that strikes just the right tonal balance: funny, twisted, mischievous, and heartfelt in equal measure. (Pam Ferris’ Miss Trunchbull is a great screen villain, spitting deliciously vile lines at adorable children with relish.)
Then again, strict fealty to the source material can only get you so far; Anderson arguably produced a better film than DeVito by injecting a hearty dose of his own voice into Dahl's story. But if you can't find a filmmaker so perfectly in sync with the author's rhythms — they are, after all, in short supply — you could do worse than just get out of his way. With many more Dahl adaptations to come, one hopes their creators keep this in mind. Perhaps the third trip down the chocolate river will be the charm.