Roald Dahl was an RAF fighter pilot, an intelligence officer, the screenwriter of two Ian Fleming adaptations (You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and, oh yes, the beloved author of several fantastical tales for children that have since become classic films...and a few that have not. Let’s rank ‘em!
An important note: Dahl’s 1944 short story “Beware of the Dog” was adapted into 36 Hours, a 1965 military thriller starring James Garner as a U.S. Army Major in possession of valuable intel who’s kidnapped by Germany in 1944 and mind-fucked into believing it’s 1950. It’s definitely recommended for fans of suspense and military intrigue, but since it’s sort of thematically incompatible with the rest of this list, we’re not including it here.
Also, it seems like there’s always news of more Dahl adaptations coming. Remember that long-in-development new Willy Wonka movie? Robert Zemeckis’ remake of The Witches? And yes, a Taika Waititi series set in the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For now, here’s where we find ourselves:
Dahl’s 1964 novel got a definitive big-screen version in 1971; however, that didn’t prevent Tim Burton from taking a crack at it in 2005. This movie’s strengths—the story’s dream-world factory setting as interpreted through Burton’s signature brand of goth whimsy; the appropriately bratty kid actors cast to contrast Freddie Highmore as sensitive Charlie; the narration (and menacing cameo) by the legendary Christopher Lee—can’t make up for the fact that this slick adaptation is dominated by one thing only. You already know what it is: Johnny Depp. That overly mannered performance. That wig. Those teeth. Depp gobbles the scenery like Augustus Gloop gobbles chocolate, and despite some very enthusiastic Oompa Loompa dance numbers, you just don’t remember anything else about the movie once it’s over.
This 1989 TV movie, based on Dahl’s 1975 novel but set in 1955, boasts a bit of stunt casting, with father-son duo Jeremy Irons and Samuel Irons playing father and son William Smith and Danny Smith (Cyril Cusack, Irons’ father-in-law, also pops up as the town doctor). Unlike the other stories on this list, there’s no magical element at play, though there is an oversized villain in the form of greedy, mustachioed, loud-yellow-vest-wearing tycoon Victor Hazell (Harry Potter’s Robby Coltrane). There’s also a slightly lesser villain in the form of Danny’s mean schoolteacher, some cool vintage cars (Danny’s dad is a mechanic), and probably the most prominent subplot about pheasant poaching in all of children’s literature.
Dahl’s 1982 book first inspired a 1989 animated film made for British TV by Brian Cosgrove (Danger Mouse). A far more lavish, ostensibly live-action version came in 2016 from Disney and Steven Spielberg, with Mark Rylance (a 2015 Oscar winner for his supporting turn in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies) providing the motion-capture performance for the title character. The special effects bring major eye candy to The BFG, which is otherwise a sweet tale about a spunky orphan (Ruby Barnhill) who befriends a kindly, dream-catching giant, then helps him (with a little assistance from the Queen) prevent his much bigger, extremely unfriendly giant brethren from sneaking into London and gobbling up children.
That certainly sounds scary, but despite all the talk of eating kids the giants themselves are so comical the stakes feel pretty low throughout. The scene where the clumsy BFG is invited to eat fancy breakfast at Buckingham Palace then introduces everybody (including all the royal corgis) to his fart-making beverage of choice, has more tension than pretty much anything else in the movie.
Danny DeVito directs, narrates, and stars as odious patriarch Harry Wormwood in this 1996 adaptation of Dahl’s 1988 novel, released just two years before the author’s death in 1990. Rhea Perlman co-stars as Harry’s equally odious wife and Mara Wilson plays the daughter they resent from birth, a feeling that only gets worse when it’s revealed that the precocious girl—whose hunger for learning runs contrary to their tacky, TV-loving ways—has telekinetic powers. This being Dahl, there’s also a sadistic school principal (Pam Ferris) to torment Matilda, as well as a kindly teacher (Embeth Davidtz) with her own sad secret.
DeVito helps the story’s comedic tone with an emphasis on slapstick (witness the iconic and repulsive cake scene, shared above), balanced out by Wilson’s earnest performance that shows just the right amount of delight when she starts to turn the tables on her awful, awful enemies. Add to that Matilda’s evergreen message about not despairing when you feel like you don’t fit in, and you can see why this offbeat children’s film has developed such a cult following.
At a certain point, all Dahl adaptations just become excellent Dahl adaptations, and your mind begins to wander to questions like “Which of Dahl’s young protagonists had to endure the absolute worst?” One compelling contender is James (Paul Terry), the title kid in Dahl’s 1961 novel and main character in Henry Selick’s Tim Burton-produced 1996 adaptation. After James’ loving parents are killed by a rampaging rhinoceros (!), he’s sent to live with his cruel aunts (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes), who subject him to misery until he’s able to escape to New York City inside a giant peach with his newfound array of human-sized insect buddies.
This adaptation gets extra points for being a musical (with tunes by Randy Newman) and cleverly switching to adorable (yet still kinda macabre) stop-motion animation once James enters the peach pit. There’s also fun voice work by Susan Sarandon as the francophone Miss Spider, Richard Dreyfuss as the boisterous Mr. Centipede, among others.
Director Wes Anderson’s live-action movies can sometimes feel exceedingly twee and overly art-directed, but those tendencies were put to their best possible use in this 2009 animated adaptation of Dahl’s 1970 novel. Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s screenplay takes some liberties with the source material, but it’s difficult to imagine a funnier or more gorgeous way to approach the story, rendered in stop-motion so detailed you can see the individual grooves on Mr. Fox’s corduroy suit. Along with every other superlative you can apply to the production values, the voice cast is, of course, perfectly wry, with George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and others lending their talents to a tale that somehow feels both hipstery-y and timeless.
As we mentioned earlier, there’s a remake coming soon of this deliciously grim tale based on Dahl’s 1983 novel. But it’ll be very difficult to top this version, which hit the big screen in 1990 with director Nicolas Roeg and the effects wizards at Jim Henson Productions pulling the strings.
The story is as simple as it is nightmarish: after the death of his parents, a little boy (Jasen Fisher) and his kindly grandmother spend the summer at a seaside hotel... which happens to also be hosting a convention of witches, led by the elegantly terrifying Anjelica Huston. At the tippy-top of their agenda? The topic of turning all children into mice! The scene where the kid glimpses the witches revealing their true faces is not just the scariest moment in Dahl-movie history, it’s maybe the scariest moment in kiddie-movie history, full stop. And that’s a big reason why we love it so much.
Director Mel Stuart’s 1971 musical take on the 1964 Dahl classic has become a classic itself, led by a gentle, melancholy performance by the late, great Gene Wilder. It also boasts some pretty incredible practical effects, a few genuine scares (two words: tunnel scene), and a tone that embodies so many moods of childhood and beyond—profound wistfulness, crushing disappointment, giddy excitement, and the eternal hope that there’s still room for good, unselfish people to come out on top.
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