Movie adaptations of Roald Dahl books

Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Fantastic Mr. Fox.PHOTOS: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX, MEDIACORP, YOUTUBE
Mara Wilson.
Mara Wilson.
Anjelica Huston.
Anjelica Huston.
Dustin Hoffman.
Dustin Hoffman.
Johnny Depp.
Johnny Depp.
Jeremy Irons.
Jeremy Irons.

The good

FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)

Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Voice talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, OwenWilson

What: Dahl’s 1970 story tells the tale of clever Mr Fox who steals from three wicked and selfish farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

What’s good: Anderson’s stop-motion interpretation fleshes out the novella by adding certain plot points, such as providing a backstory for M rFox being a former thief, as well as the jealous competition between his son and nephew– and all of it works. Known for making quirky films about dysfunctional families and kids wise beyond their years (The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001), Anderson is a natural fit for Dahl’s whimsical stories. The director’s signature cinematic style of bright colours and direct camera angles also serves well in taking Dahl’s story from print to screen. It is no surprise that this movie often ranks as one of the best, if not the best, Dahl film adaptations of all time.


MATILDA (1996)

Director: Danny DeVito
Stars: Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris

What: In Dahl’s 1988 novel, a young girl named Matilda is a genius in her studies, but is completely neglected by her parents. She soon learns telekinesis, which comes in very handy when tackling the evil school headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

What’s good: This adaptation pulls no punches in portraying the villainy of the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull – she flings a young student around by pulling on her pigtails and throws students into a tiny cell with spikes. So it is all the more satisfying when Matilda wins in the end. Child star Wilson,who was presented a Young Star Award by The Hollywood Reporter for the role, is excellent here, displaying the character’s smarts and sweetness all at once.


THE WITCHES (1990)

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Stars: Anjelica Huston, Jasen Fisher, Mai Zetterling, Rowan Atkinson

What: Dahl’s 1983 novel has a boy named Luke scheming to thwart the plans of a cabal of evil witches to turn children into mice.

What’s good: Huston’s brilliantly vile performance as the Grand High Witch has scarred many young viewers and there is nothing as memorable as the scene when all of the evil witches start peeling off their human faces to reveal their true selves (done with the help of some imaginative puppetry by Jim Henson’s puppet shop). Wicked.


The not-so-good

ESIO TROT (2015)

Director: Richard Curtis
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Judi Dench

What: Based on Dahl’s 1990 book, this is about Mr Hoppy, a shy retiree who is secretly in love with Mrs Silver, a woman who lives in the apartment below his. He decides to win her affection by scheming to make her tortoise Alfie appear to grow bigger after she laments about its small size.

What’s not-so-good: This made-for-television film has winning performances from big names Hoffman and Dench. But the feel-good movie is overly sentimental and does not quite work. Dahl is just not the same without sprightly children and mean adults. This is one of the writer’s lesser-known works, and for good reason.


CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)

Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, David Kelly

What: Based on Dahl’s 1964 book, impoverished kid Charlie and four other children win tours to visit the colourful chocolate factory owned by the reclusive Willy Wonka. Unknown to the kids and their parents,Wonka intends to find an heir from among the young ones.

What’s not-so-good: Depp’s completely manic take on the role of Willy Wonka, complete with pale face and wide eyes, was a bit too weird and scary, even for adult viewers. Dahl’s stories are about bizarre and horrible people, but the overall experience was never meant to be a nightmare.


DANNY, THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD (1989)

Director: Gavin Millar
Stars: Jeremy Irons, Samuel Irons, Robbie Coltrane

What: This is based on Dahl’s 1975 novel about a father and his son who poach an evil businessman’s prized pheasants when he refuses to stop harassing them.

What’s not-so-good: This feels like a personal pet project of Jeremy Irons, who acts opposite his real-life son Samuel. Although the two of them share an easy chemistry (naturally enough), the pacing is off and the story plods along.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Movie adaptations of Roald Dahl books'. Print Edition | Subscribe