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From novel to film: Ranking 6 Roald Dahl adaptations

Posted July 20

THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY — For every bookworm in the world, there was one author who got to them first, turning on that lightbulb inside them that would leave an appetite for consuming books and stories that would become a lifelong craving.

For me and countless others, that was British children’s author Roald Dahl.

Often finding the perfect balance between whimsy and adventure, Dahl sold millions of books since he began publishing stories after he retired from the Royal Air Force. And unlike some popular writers, the adaptations of his novels have been very successful, both artistically and commercially.

With the release of Steven Spielberg’s take on “The BFG” coming this Friday, it made sense to look back on the film adaptation of beloved Dahl novels and rank our favorites.

6. ‘The Witches’ (1990)

With Anjelica Huston starring as the Grand High Witch, “The Witches” — released in 1990 and based on Dahl’s 1983 novel of the same name— is the rare miss of the Dahl adaptations. The story revolves around a 7-year-old boy who is orphaned when his parents are killed in a crash and goes to live with his Norwegian grandmother. The boy learns about witches with infanticidal tendencies who parade around as real women, undetectable to the naked eye.

The boy accidentally stumbles on a meeting of witches and gets turned into a mouse and then has to figure out how to thwart the nasty bunch without being caught or squished.

“The Witches” — though it had the production help of Jim Henson — was less successful at navigating the line between too scary and kid friendly. My predominant impression was how creepy it was, even if the kid does eventually successfully thwart the gathering witches and becomes the hero.

5. ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (2005)

Used mainly as a reason for Johnny Depp and Tim Burton to frolic around in Technicolor, this remake of the Gene Wilder classic, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was widely panned as a less successful romp, despite fun performances from Freddie Highmore and David Kelly as Charlie Bucket and Grampa Joe, respectively.

For any who may not know, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is based on the 1964 Dahl novel of the same name which follows Charlie Bucket after he wins a golden ticket through the factory of mysterious candy maker Willy Wonka. The tour is anything but ordinary, however, as naughty children begin falling by the wayside as they disobey orders or allow their vices get the best of them.

Depp and Burton definitely put their personal spin on the story, which is already somewhat dark, but remaking what is already an iconic film with hallmark performances is, at best, ambitious and at worst, foolish.

4. ‘James and the Giant Peach’ (1996)

OK, this is where things start getting tough, because the four remaining films are all excellent in their own right.

Released the same year as “Matilda,” “James and the Giant Peach” is a brilliant combination of live-action and stop-motion animation as James — a boy being raised by his rotten aunts, Sponge and Spiker, in the wake of his parents’ untimely demise — transforms from a real boy to a fantasy version who crawls inside a gigantic peach made exceptionally large by magical influences.

When he makes it away from his aunts and into the peach, he makes friends with large anthropomorphic bugs who help him escape and make his way toward the Empire State Building.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but in the most wonderful way possible.

What made this movie so successful is the power James gets by escaping his awful aunts and surrounding himself with creatures who root for him. He’s instantly empowered by his new bizarre circumstances, and finds a way to help others along the way. Besides the message, the animation is beautiful and the songs are fun.

3. ‘Matilda’ (1996)

“Matilda” is the story of a little girl being raised by parents (played brilliantly by Danny DeVito and Rhea Pearlman) who don’t even begin to understand her. She’s brilliant and even a bit telekinetic. Her smarts eventually overcome her parents’ neglect and she makes her way to school, where she encounters a wonderful teacher and a brutish principal.

“Matilda” is near and dear to so many ’90s kids’ hearts, especially young girls who fantasized about walking themselves and their red wagons to the library by themselves and checking out every book they could handle. I never tried it, but I thought about it.

The story is just fantastical enough and the characters ridiculous enough to really capture young imaginations, besides being quotable to boot. It should certainly be a staple in everyone’s DVD collection.

2. ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ (1971)

Another musical on the list, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” is the confluence of so many seemingly disparate yet remarkable things: Roald Dahl’s screenplay (one he actually wrote), a bizarrely sugary art design aesthetic and Gene Wilder’s haunting performance as Wonka.

With the same plot as the previously detailed remake, “Willy Wonka” is easily the most iconic film on the list as Charlie Bucket made his way through the factory, seeing the likes of Veruca Salt and Augustus Gloop (literal embodiments of all manner of deadly sins) being eliminated from the tour along the way. The songs, the oompa-loompas, the bizarre flashing tunnel scene (“There's no earthly way of knowing/Which direction they are going. … There's no knowing where they're rowing”) is all part of brilliant movie making that transcended beyond cult pop culture status to being part of the public consciousness.

The movie is great. The performances are classic. And the source material is timeless.

1. ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (2009)

The most critically beloved of the bunch, Wes Anderson’s quirky take on the 1970 novella is hilarious, fun and stylish.

With the voice talent of George Clooney and Meryl Streep and a score from Alexandre Desplat, audiences enjoy watching the plight of Mr. Fox and his wife Felicity as the former tries to balance his thieving ways with his wife’s desire for him to remain living. Even after becoming a journalist, Fox ignores his lawyer Badger and moves into a tree close to three murderous farmers: Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Fox rekindles his love for stealing with the glut of available goods available on the nearby farms and the alliterating farmers vow revenge.

The stop-action animation juxtaposed with the vocal performances really gives the movie a unique style that Wes Anderson films are dripping with. The movie is caper filmed, well-paced and a perfect testament to Dahl’s writing.

Which is your favorite? Take our poll.

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