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Roald Dahl Films: 1980-2000

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Roald Dahl Films:
1960 – 1979 | 1980 – 2000 | 2001 – 2020

Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was a British novelist best-known for being one of the world's most popular 20th Century children's authors. During much of his lifetime he was best known for writing dark, horror short stories – many of which were adapted into his horror television series Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88) - yet today this has been eclipsed and he is remembered almost exclusively for his children's fiction novels. In 2017 he was voted in an online poll organised by imaging company Canon as 'the greatest storyteller of all time' – much to the delight of his publishing company who have since celebrated that in large letters on the covers of all his books. His work has been translated into 65 different languages and are among the world's best-selling books of all time.

Between 1980 and 1990 Roald Dahl cemented his reputation as an author of children's fiction, publishing many of his best-known novels:

  • The Twits (1980)
  • George's Marvellous Medicine (1981)
  • The BFG (1982)
  • The Witches (1983)
  • Matilda (1988)
  • Esio Trot (1990)

It was towards the end of the 1980s, and shortly before Dahl's death, that film adaptations of his work began to increase in frequency, although initially only on television. 1989 saw three television movie adaptations of his work, including Breaking Point, an American adaptation of his 1944 short story 'Beware of the Dog', while in the UK Thames Television were involved in two adaptations of his children's stories. This was despite Dahl's notorious and extremely vocal dislike of most adaptations of his novels, particularly any that made any changes to his work whatsoever.

The Films

Despite being acknowledged as the most popular children's author, films based on his novels have consistently failed to make money. All the film adaptions of his work released in the 1980s and 1990s flopped or bombed1.

Also mentioned is whether the films pass the Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more female characters who have a conversation together that does not focus on men in general or a specific male character or man.

Danny, the Champion of the World (1989)

DirectorGavin Millar

Danny and his widowed father live in a caravan behind the garage and petrol station where they work, on the only piece of land in the nearby area not owned by Victor Hazell. Hazell, a war profiteer who has amassed a fortune by fair means and foul – and indeed fowl - is desperate to purchase their garage as it is the centrepiece of his secret development plan. Hazell plans to ingratiate himself with the local aristocracy by holding a pheasant shoot on his land.

Danny's father reveals to his son that he used to be a poacher. Despite experiencing school problems with the sadistic, caning Captain Lancaster, Danny hatches a plan to poach every single pheasant from Hazell's land before the big shoot, thus making Hazell a laughing stock who would be too ashamed to return to the area in the future. Yet how can anyone poach so many birds in one go? Anyone able to do such a thing would be the champion poacher of the world.

Length95 minutes
Setting1955 Rural England
StudioThames Television
Walt Disney Television
Children’s Film and Television Foundation
Film TypeLive Action Television Movie
  • William Smith, mechanic and poacher (Jeremy Irons)
  • Danny Smith, his nine-year-old son (Samuel Irons)
  • Victor Hazell, scheming spiv (Robbie Coltrane)
  • Doc Spencer, Smith's best friend (Cyril Cusack)
  • Lord Claybury, local aristocrat (Sir Michael Hordern)
  • Mr Snoddy, headmaster (Lionel Jeffries)
  • Captain Lancaster, sadistic teacher (Ronald Pickup)
  • Rabbetts, gamekeeper (Jimmy Nail)
  • Miss Hunter, social worker (Jean Marsh)

A fairly close retelling of Dahl's simple tale which, of all his children's novels, is by far the most autobiographical, with Captain Lancaster based on his own sadistic teacher. The novel's setting has been changed from the 1970s to the 1950s for this film. It has the charm of a family story as Isle-of-Wight actor Jeremy Irons' son Samuel plays his character's son Danny, and Doc Spencer is played by Samuel's maternal grandfather Cyril Cusack.

Other story changes were made, with the pheasants now intended to be rescued and released by Danny and his father rather than eaten. The novel also has the pheasants hidden beneath a baby in the vicar's wife's modified perambulator. The vicar's wife plays almost no role in this film and is not seen with a baby. The pheasant shoot is now merely a step in Hazel's plans to build a new town rather than Hazell's chief hobby. The film has far more of the town rallying round Danny's scheme to steal Hazell's birds, with the whole community angered and alienated by the upstart intruder. In this film Lancaster quits as a teacher at the end but receives no punishment in the novel.

Filmed in Oxfordshire by Thames Television, it looks gloriously period, with genuine 1950s vehicles used throughout. The film was pre-sold internationally to WonderWorks, a company co-owned by Disney Television and PBS. Lionel Jeffries had previously played Grandpa Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), a film whose script had been written by Roald Dahl.

The BFG (1989)

DirectorBrian Cosgrove

Orphaned girl Sophie is unable to sleep one night and sees a giant pointing a trumpet into a bedroom window. After being spotted, she is taken by the giant to his cave in Giant Country. There the giant explains his name is the BFG – Big Friendly Giant – and he kidnapped her to stop her from warning authorities and starting a giant hunt that will result in his capture and being displayed in a zoo.

The BFG shows Sophie his work of capturing dreams, his hobby of breaking wind and his unappetising diet of snozzcumbers, the only edible vegetable in Giant Country. The nine other giants – who are all twice the BFG's size - survive by crossing into our world where they eat children. After a child they had given a pleasant dream to is eaten, the BFG and Sophie plan to ask the Queen to help them capture the giants to stop them eating anyone else.

Length88 minutes
SettingLondon, Giant Country and Dream Country, late 1980s
StudioCosgrove Hall Films
Film TypeCel Animation
  • The BFG, a Big, Friendly Giant who gives children dreams (David Jason)
  • Sophie, five-year-old orphan (Amanda Root)
  • Queen Elizabeth II (Angela Thorne)
  • Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater, giants, and also Sergeant (Don Henderson)
  • Mr Tibbs, butler (Frank Thornton)
  • Mary, queen's maid (Mollie Sugden)
  • Head of Air Force and Head of Army (Michael Knowles & Ballard Berkeley)
SongsBy Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe:
  • 'Mirror, Mirror'
  • 'Whizzpopping!'
  • 'Sometimes, Secretly'
  • 'Two Worlds'

This was Cosgrove Hall's only cel-animated feature film. It was made for a then-unprecedented £3 million, making it the most expensive British animated film made for television yet2. Cosgrove Hall was a Thames Television company so The BFG was broadcast on ITV on Christmas Day 1989 as their big Christmas family film. The character of Sophie had originally been conceived as a more stereotypically 'pretty' girl with long blonde hair, but when Brian Cosgrove spoke to Roald Dahl and learned that the character of Sophie was based on Dahl's granddaughter Sophie, the character was redesigned to be 'plainer', with short hair and John Lennon-type spectacles. Sophie Dahl went on to become a highly successful fashion model. In another Cosgrove Hall cameo, a boy has a Danger Mouse poster in his room, Danger Mouse being a cartoon character originally voiced by David Jason.

Unusually, Roald Dahl actually liked this adaptation of his story. It does stick fairly closely to the original story, with only minor changes. A cute animal in Giant Country is introduced, the capture of the giants is slightly different, the eating of people from around the world is downplayed, and at the end the BFG isn't given his own palace to live in but instead returns to his home. There is also a song all about breaking wind: 'Whizzpopping!'

The Witches (1990)

DirectorNicolas Roeg

While he is visiting his Norwegian grandmother, eight-year-old American boy Luke Eveshim's parents are killed in a car accident. Luke moves to England with his grandmother and, soon after, he encounters a woman whose purple eyes and other attributes help identify her, thanks to his grandmother's warnings, as a witch. After Luke gets pet mice for his birthday, his grandmother discovers she has diabetes. The doctor tells her she will recover after resting for a day or two, and so they go to a seaside hotel3.

Unbeknownst to them, the hotel is hosting a gathering of witches. The Grand High Witch unveils her plans to use a magic potion to turn all the children of the world into mice – demonstrating first on Luke and then another boy called Bruno. Can Bruno, Luke and his grandmother stop this evil scheme?

Length87 minutes
SettingNorway and England, especially a seaside hotel, in the 1980s
StudioJim Henson Productions
Lorimar Film Entertainment
Film TypeLive Action and puppetry
  • Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston)
  • Helga Eveshim, Luke's Norwegian grandmother (Mai Zetterling)
  • Luke Eveshim, nine-year-old boy turned into a mouse (Jasen Fisher)
  • Mr Stringer, hotel manager (Rowan Atkinson)
  • Bruno Jenkins, greedy boy (Charlie Potter)
  • Mr & Mrs Jenkins, his parents (Bill Paterson & Brenda Blethyn)
  • Miss Irvine, Grand High Witch's assistant (Jane Horrocks)
  • Head Chef (Jim Carter)

Jim Henson felt that adapting Roald Dahl's story would be the perfect showcase for his creature shop's puppetry and prosthetic expertise and collaborated with media production company Lorimar Productions' film department. The Witches was made in 1989 on location in both Norway and (principally) in Newquay. Unfortunately, as the film was being finished, Lorimar was bought by Warner Communications at a time when it was merging with Time Inc to form Time Warner, and The Witches was left in limbo for a year. Finally released in May 1990 in the UK, where it did reasonably well, it was distributed in the United States with little promotion in late 1990, where it made little impact at the box office.

This film, described as 'a horror film for children', is by far the most critically-acclaimed adaptation of Dahl's story. Curiously Rowan Atkinson's hotel manager character dresses identically to his Mr Bean persona, though Atkinson has said he was inspired by John Cleese's Basil Fawlty. The Witches was filmed before Mr Bean's creation, but released after.

Unlike the 2020 adaptation this is set in both Norway and England like the novel, though the heroic boy, unnamed in the novel, in this version is named Luke and is American. The witches use magic other than poisoning children and unlike the story the poison takes an hour to take effect rather than at a set time the following day. Many of the actors playing witches at the conference are actually men wearing dresses.

Director Nicholas Roeg shot two endings for the film, one matching Dahl's and another, happier ending. Test audiences overwhelmingly preferred the new ending; Dahl, however, was appalled and threatened to remove his name from the film. He then stipulated in his will that any further film adaptations of his work should stick closer to his novels.

Both Jim Henson and Roald Dahl passed away in 1990 soon after this film's release.

Four Rooms (1995)

DirectorsAllison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino

Ted starts work as a bellhop at a Los Angeles hotel on New Year's Eve. In each room he visits as part of his job he encounters increasingly bizarre characters and situations.

Length94 minutes
SettingFour rooms within Hotel Mon Signor, Los Angeles, on New Year's Eve
StudioA Band Apart
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Film TypePortmanteau horror, with four stories in four rooms linked by Ted
  • Linking Characters
    • Ted, bellhop in every story (Tim Roth)
    • Angela – in 'The Wrong Man' and 'The Man from Hollywood' (Jennifer Beals)
  1. 'The Missing Ingredient'
    • Elspeth, witch (Madonna)
    • Jezebel, Athena, Eva, Raven, Kiva, Diana - witches (Sammi Davis, Valeria Golino, Ione Skye, Lili Taylor, Alicia Witt & Amanda de Cadenet)
  2. 'The Wrong Man'
    • Siegfried, man who has tied his wife up for being unfaithful and suspects Ted (David Proval)
    • Long Hair Yuppie Scum (Lawrence Bender4)
  3. 'The Misbehavers'
    • Husband & Wife (Antonio Banderas & Tamlyn Tomita)
    • Sarah & Juanco, their young children (Lana McKissack & Danny Verduzco)
    • Adult Channel Dancing Girl (Salma Hayek)
  4. 'The Man From Hollywood'
    • Chester Rush, famous director (Quentin Tarantino)
    • Norman, man making foolish bet (Paul Calderón)
    • Leo, friend of Chester (Bruce Willis, uncredited)

Most Roald Dahl films are for children. This unusual film certainly is not and cannot truly be said to be a Roald Dahl adaptation. In fact this portmanteau or anthology horror film is made up of four different stories, each created by a different writer/director. The fourth - 'The Man From Hollywood' directed by Quentin Tarantino - is the section with the Roald Dahl connection. One of Dahl's most famous dark and horrific short stories was 'Man from the South', first published in 1948. This story involves one character betting another that his cigarette lighter will light ten times in a row – if it does he will win a car, if it doesn't his little finger will be cut off. This story has been adapted for television three times, including as the first episode of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (1979), and in 1960 as part of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, with Marc Cavell playing the bellhop. The 1960 adaptation is drunkenly discussed by the characters in Four Rooms and they decide to recreate the bet, with Ted the bellhop paid to be the one to potentially bury the hatchet and make the final cut.

At this stage in Tarantino's career he was perhaps most notorious for Reservoir Dogs' scene in which one character's ear is sliced off (offscreen), which may well explain his choice for loosely using Dahl's story as a background for his contribution to this collaborative film. Bruce Willis was so keen to work with Tarantino again after Pulp Fiction that he appeared in this film for free, which violated Screen Actors Guild regulations and meant his name was not allowed to appear in the credits. The film contains numerous references to other films by Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, such as Big Kahuna Burger drinking cups and snippets from other films they directed appearing on the television screens. The opening credits were inspired by the credits for The Pink Panther film series. Madonna won the 'Worst Supporting Actress' Golden Raspberry Award ('Razzie') for the first time for her role in this film, also winning it for Die Another Day (2002). She had previously won 'Worst Actress' three times as well. Unsurprisingly perhaps, members of the Golden Raspberry Award Foundation chose Madonna for their 'Worst Actress of the [21st] Century'.

Less than a sum of its parts, this film flopped on original release and remains largely a footnote in the careers of those involved in its making.

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

DirectorHenry Selick

After his parents are killed by a rhinoceros, young James lives with his sadistic aunts and is fed only fish-heads. After rescuing a spider from being squashed by his aunts he is given a magical bag, but trips and loses all the contents into the soil next to a dying peach tree. This tree then grows a giant peach that is larger than a house, and inside there are a group of sentient insects.

Along with the insects James decides to escape from his cruel life, attach the giant peach to a flock of gulls and fly it to New York City to fulfil his life's dream of visiting the Empire State Building. Can a peach fly across the ocean?

Length76 minutes
SettingEnglish coast, Atlantic Ocean and New York City, 1949
StudioSkellington Productions
Allied Filmmakers
Walt Disney Pictures
Film TypeStop Motion & Live Action Musical
Characters (live)
  • James Henry Trotter, orphan (Paul Terry)
  • Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margolyes)
  • Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley)
  • Narrator & Magic Man (Pete Postlethwaite)
  • Cop (Mike Starr)
Characters (Stop Motion)
  • Mr Grasshopper, musician (Simon Callow)
  • Mr Centipede, insect from Brooklyn (Richard Dreyfuss)
  • Mrs Ladybug, a ladybird (Jane Leeves)
  • Miss Spider, French arachnid (Susan Sarandon)
  • Earthworm (David Thewlies)
  • Glowworm (Miriam Margolyes)
SongsBy Randy Newman:
  • 'My Name is James'
  • 'That's the Life for Me'
  • 'Eating the Peach' – lyrics by Roald Dahl
  • 'Family'

A stop-motion film by the team behind Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, but not as successful. Failing to recoup its production cost, it bombed at the cinema and Skellington Productions was closed by its owners, Walt Disney Pictures. The film had been a co-production with Allied Filmmakers, a division of Pathé, who distributed the film outside the US.

The opening and closing segments are live action, while the voyage across the Atlantic was filmed in stop-motion, with both a stop-motion and live action James. The insects remain stop-motion characters in the New York sequences.

There are a few changes from the novel. For instance, the insect characters are slightly different, with the silkworm omitted, the Centipede different to how he is portrayed in the novel, gaining a cigar and now being from Brooklyn for no readily apparent reason, and the Spider now French. The peach has a row of fencing embedded in it in a spiral, allowing the characters to travel up and down the side of the fruit. Sponge and Spiker are not completely squished in the film and instead drive underwater to New York, arriving shortly after James and the peach. Instead of encountering a school of sharks that try to eat the peach, a shark-shaped submarine tries to devour them all instead, turning a school of fish into fish-head pies just as Sponge and Spiker make. Whether the shark submarine is related to them, or if not, what its significance is, is never explained. The rhinoceros also has a much larger role, seemingly haunting and following James throughout. The film has had its setting changed from the 1960s to 1949, which gives the story a more timeless quality, and contrasts rationing in England with New York's plenty. Also instead of encountering Cloud-Men who make weather, the peach is trapped in a frozen wasteland with pirate skeletons, one of which is Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

There is plenty to look out for in this film, with references to numerous other films, particularly King Kong. There is even a post-credits sequence. Randy Newman was hired to compose the songs for this film following his success with Toy Story (1995). This film was executively produced by Tim Burton, who in 2005 would direct an adaptation of Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Matilda (1996)

DirectorDanny DeVito
PlotChild genius Matilda Wormwood is neglected by her parents and routinely mistreated by her father, a crooked second-hand car salesman. She believes in punishing those who misbehave and develops telekinetic powers. When sent to school at Crunchem Hall she has a wonderful teacher named Miss Honey, who is the niece of the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull. A former Olympic athlete in shot put, javelin and the hammer, Trunchbull routinely punishes children by throwing them or locking them inside a cabinet called the Chokey. She had previously dishonestly deprived Miss Honey out of her inheritance, including her house, and had killed Miss Honey's father Magnus. Can Matilda use her powers to make both her life, and that of Miss Honey, better?
Length94 minutes
SettingLate 1990s United States of America
StudioTriStar Pictures
Film TypeLive Action
  • Matilda Wormwood, six-year-old neglected girl with telekinetic power (Mara Wilson)
  • Harry Wormwood, her abusive crooked second-hand car salesman father (Danny DeVito)
  • Zinnia Wormwood, her neglectful mother (Rhea Perlman)
  • Miss Jennifer Honey, kind and devoted teacher (Embeth Davidtz)
  • Miss Agatha Trunchbull, cruel headmistress at Crunchem Hall school (Pam Ferris)

A fairly faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1988 novel, only set in a busy town in the United States instead of a quiet village in England because, inexplicably, in the 20th Century, film studios believed that American audiences would not watch a fantasy film about a British schoolchild with magical powers5. Despite this, Miss Trunchbull, the villain, is played by a British actress.

That said, some of the changes made for the film improve and streamline the story, with Wormwood using glue to attach car bumpers, leading naturally to his hat being covered in glue, rather than superglue being introduced for no apparent reason. A greater emphasis is placed on why Matilda starts punishing adults in the film, with this being a result of what her father tells her in the film rather than being something Matilda decides to do for herself in the novel. Also, two sequences set in Miss Trunchbull's house work well. Miss Honey's home is a far more picturesque cottage, one that the National Trust would use to sell tea towels, rather than the hovel the novel describes.

When making the film, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman were married, although they have since separated. They provided much support for young actress Mara Wilson when her mother Suzie died from breast cancer during the film's production. Matilda is dedicated to the memory of Suzie Wilson. The picture of Miss Honey's father above the fireplace is a picture of Roald Dahl himself while her toy, Liccy Doll, is named after Roald Dahl's second wife Felicity 'Liccy' Dahl.

Despite being well-regarded, Matilda flopped on original release.

1A box office disappointment makes back both its production and marketing costs but less profit than hoped. A flop fails to recoup both its production and marketing cost and a box office bomb fails to recoup even its production costs.2This is still a small fraction of the $40 million spent on Disney's animated film that year, The Little Mermaid.3This is the prognosis in the film but should not be considered valid medical opinion.4The co-founder of A Band Apart who was credited with the same role in Pulp Fiction.5At time of writing (2021) the Harry Potter and Wizarding World film series, in which a British schoolchild has magical powers, is the third highest-grossing film series of all time behind only the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars series.

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