1960 – 1979 | 1980 – 2000 | 2001 – 2020
Roald Dahl (1916-90) was a British novelist best-known for being one of the world's most popular 20th Century children's authors. Part of his popularity seems to stem from his willingness not to hide children from horrors but instead to present tragic things as having happened, but without going into details. Having experienced loss and the deaths of his father and sister as a child1 and, believing other children would naturally experience such losses, in his novels characters' parents often die or the heroes themselves may undergo permanent life-changing events. These include main characters being turned into an animal as well as heroic animals losing their tail.
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.
Despite the success of his books, film adaptations of his work have predominantly failed to make money. While there have been some successes, most have flopped or bombed2. This might be the reason why John Cleese's script for an adaptation of The Twits has been unproduced since 2003, despite occasional interest from animation studios such as Aardman and DreamWorks Animation.
Many of Dahl's novels have shared themes, which include the heroes living in (often extreme) poverty, heroic poaching from the undeservedly wealthy, and loss. Chocolate and greed often appear, with greedy characters often but not always receiving some form of punishment, and chocolate only suggested as good in moderation. As Dahl's novels are very short, for the stories to be long enough for an entire film backstories and other narrative devices have been created to provide padding.
As well as a summary of each film 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. Some of the 'films' strictly speaking are television adaptations rather than films intended for release in the cinema yet have nevertheless been included. At time of writing (2021) many, though not all, of Roald Dahl's novels' screen rights had been bought by Netflix, with online adaptations in development.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Impoverished child Charlie Bucket and his family live near a chocolate factory run by the reclusive Willy Wonka, the greatest chocolatier of all time. After all his sweet recipes were stolen by rivals, Wonka fired all his employees – including Charlie's grandfather – but still makes chocolate despite no-one ever entering or leaving the factory.
Wonka announces a competition for children to win a tour of his factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate – the winners are those who find one of five golden tickets hidden in Wonka chocolate bars. Charlie's family are so poor that they can only afford to buy him one chocolate bar a year, on his birthday. However, after finding some money dropped on the road, Charlie purchases another Wonka chocolate bar, which contains the final golden ticket. He and Grandpa Joe, as well as four other, naughty children and at least one of their parents, enter the factory. They encounter the unpredictable Willy Wonka, who keeps acting bizarrely whenever the concept of 'family' is raised. During the tour of the chocolate factory the other children misbehave and are punished for their transgressions, much to the delight of the singing Oompa-Loompa workers who work in the factory for Willy Wonka.
Will Charlie survive the tour and what ultimate prize will he be offered? Can Willy Wonka face his own past?
|Setting||Fantastical chocolate factory and surrounding town|
|Studio||The Zanuck Company|
Plan B Entertainment
Village Roadshow Pictures
|Film Type||Live Action|
|Music||By Danny Elfman, songs by Danny Elfman lyrics by Roald Dahl|
A typical Burtonesque take on Dahl's classic novel emphasising the dark humour, with delightful performances - particularly by Deep Roy as the Oompa-Loompas performing their songs in a variety of different styles. Depp's Wonka is more subdued and weirder than Gene Wilder's wilder performance, with a new backstory - his dentist father prevented Willy Wonka from eating sweets as a child, causing massive trauma in later life.
There are references to other films throughout the story, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Psycho. Mr Bucket works at the Smilex toothpaste factory - Smilex is a brand that featured in Burton's Batman (1989) film. The factory tour begins with a homage to the famous Disney 'It's A Small World After All' ride.
Unusually for a Roald Dahl film adaptation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was financially successful, being the 8th highest grossing film of the year3.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Mr Fox is an accomplished bird thief who swears to give up poaching poultry when he learns that his wife, Felicity, is pregnant. Years later Mr Fox, Felicity and their son Ash move to a beech tree close to the farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Unable to resist the temptation, Mr Fox enlists his friend Kylie to join him in a plan to steal from all three. Meanwhile Felicity's nephew Kristofferson is staying with them while his father is ill, much to the frustration of Ash who feels insignificant in comparison.
After Mr Fox robs all three farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean swear revenge. They utilise their entire workforce to completely destroy not only the foxes' home, but also the hill on which it once stood in their determined attempt to dig them out, not caring about whether their disproportionate actions kill all the other animals living in the area. How can Mr Fox and his family save the community and outfox the farmers?
|Setting||Late 20th Century Britain/America|
|Film Type||Stop motion|
As Fantastic Mr. Fox is quite a short novella the film adds more details as well as more characters, such as Kristofferson and Agnes, while Mr Fox and Felicity's three children are combined into one son, Ash. Mr Fox's technique of drugging berries to make the guard dogs pass out is borrowed from Danny The Champion of the World. The role of Badger is largely replaced by Kylie the Opossum as the film is uncertain which side of the Atlantic it is set on. So while the town has a pub and a red post box, the cars are American station wagons5 and newspapers are delivered by being thrown into gardens in the American tradition rather than posted through letterboxes. Cider is also called 'Alcoholic cider' throughout - in the UK all cider is alcoholic. Typically, the heroes are voiced by American actors and the villains have British accents.
The film is incredibly well made. Notably the voice artists recorded outside the traditional sound studio to record scenes set in a forest in a forest, and scenes set in an attic in an attic. They even recorded underground for other scenes to try to get the correct background noises. The setting was inspired by Roald Dahl's hometown of Great Missenden, with the Fox family tree modelled on one in Roald Dahl's garden, and Dahl's outdoor caravan office inspired the look of Mr Fox's den and desk. Mrs Fox is named Felicity in the film after Dahl's widow. Another influence is the stop-motion animated films of Rankin-Brass of the 1960s - it features songs sung by Burl Ives, who had voiced the snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).
In 2014 Time Out Magazine listed it at 10th of the World's Top 100 Animated Films. Oscar-nominated for both Best Animated Feature and Best Score, it lost both to Pixar's Up. Costing $40 million to produce, it recouped its production cost, but with a world gross of $46 million, it was a box office disappointment, failing to get into the top ten most successful animated films of 20086, yet was still at time of release the fifth most successful stop-motion animated film of all time7.
Esio Trot (2015)
Elderly man Mr Hoppy is madly in love with the lady who lives in the flat below his, a widow called Mrs Silver. She, though, loves only her pet tortoise Alfie. When he hears her wishing that Alfie would grow bigger and double in size, he comes up with a plan to impress her. He tells her that he knows how to make Alfie grow with a magical Bedouin chant, which begins 'Esio trot' (which is 'Tortoise' spelt backwards). He secretly buys 99 tortoises and plans to replace Alfie with a slightly-larger similarly-coloured tortoise every few days until Silver's tortoise appears twice the size.
|Setting||A block of flats in London in mid-2010s.|
|Film Type||Television Film|
The script for this adaptation was written by Richard Curtis. It differs slightly from Roald Dahl's final novella by introducing the character of Mr Pringle as a love rival, and the main change is the ending. In the novella Mrs Silver never learns what Hoppy has been doing and her original tortoise Alfie is adopted by a girl called Roberta Squibb. In this adaptation she is reunited with the original Alfie and Roberta is the name of the narrator's daughter, with the narrator and his family living in the flat beneath Mrs Silver.
The BFG (2016)
Orphaned girl Sophie is unable to sleep one night and sees a giant pointing a trumpet into a bedroom window. 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 at least 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.
|Setting||1980s London, also Giant Country and Dream Country|
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (US), numerous others worldwide including Entertainment One (UK), Reliance Group (India) etc
|Film Type||Live Action / Mo Cap giants|
Made for $140 million and directed by one of the most famous filmmakers of all time, this adaption flopped. With much of the horror elements of the story toned down and a greater run time than the 1989 adaptation, this film went through a complicated gestation period with numerous drafts – purportedly including one by Monty Python star Terry Jones – written since the early 1990s, and the film rights were held by differing companies. In 2011 DreamWorks Pictures8 bought the rights, with a distribution deal with Disney's Touchstone Pictures division. In 2016 following substantial investment with Reliance Group and Entertainment One9, DreamWorks Pictures became part of Amblin Partners alongside Amblin Entertainment. In the United States The BFG was distributed by Walt Disney Pictures who also were one of the film's main investors, although Disney did not distribute this film outside the United States, where it was handled by other companies with a stake in Amblin Partners or other distributors. The last film that Disney had co-produced with co-financiers Walden Media was The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) which had also been a box office disappointment.
In this version it is made apparent that the BFG is by far the smallest giant, dwarfed by the others. The ending is slightly different with the giants marooned on a remote island with nothing but snozzcumbers to eat, rather than being imprisoned in a hole. Also, Sophie lives in the palace with Mary while the BFG returns to Giant Country and grows different fruit. This adaptation states that the BFG had befriended a child before Sophie, a boy named Danny who had been eaten by the giants. This was based on a proto-version of the BFG character appearing in Roald Dahl's 1975 novel, Danny, the Champion of the World. Many sequences were inspired by Quentin Blake's illustrations and even the 1989 Cosgrove Hall adaptation.
Revolting Rhymes (2016)
|Directors||Jakob Schuh & Jan Lachauer|
Babysitter Miss Hunt is about to babysit for Red Riding Hood when she is approached by a wolf. The wolf tells her the true intertwined stories of Red Riding Hood and Snow White, who were childhood friends. When Snow White was a young woman, her stepmother, Miss Maclahose, plotted to kill her at the time that Red Riding Hood's grandmother was eaten by a wolf. Meanwhile, two pigs ask their brother pig, who runs a bank, for a loan to build houses out of straw and twigs, with the banker pig sneakily using all Hood's savings to cover the pigs' house-building expenses. Who will survive encounters with the big bad wolf's nephews, Rex and Rolf?
In the second half the big bad wolf, disguised as the babysitter, tells Red Riding Hood's children the stories of Cinderella and her neighbour Jack. Cinderella lives with two ugly sisters and wishes to attend the prince's disco, while Jack sells his mother's cow for a bean from the fairy godmother's magic shop. Will Cinderella marry the prince or will Jack find himself in a jam with a giant?
|Length||2 × 30 minutes|
|Setting||City and surrounding Fairy Tale Kingdom|
Magic Light Pictures
Triggerfish Animation Studios
|Film Type||Computer Animation|
|Characters||In Alphabetical Order:
An award-winning animation that has been shown both as two half-hour shorts and as a combined hour-long film. The first half was nominated for a Best Short Film Oscar and is by the team behind numerous Julia Donaldson adaptations such as The Gruffalo. Though the rhymes in Roald Dahl's series of poems are unconnected, with the exception of Red Riding Hood also appearing in the Three Little Pigs story, this adaptation successfully intertwines five of Dahl's six rhymes10. The adaptation is very much based on Quentin Blake's original illustrations, to the extent that the major plot point of the big bad wolf reading Red Riding Hood's children a fairy story isn't actually in Dahl's anthology, but instead comes from Blake's front cover illustration.
It is appropriate that one of the voices belongs to David Walliams, the actor best known for Little Britain, who has since become an established children's author with a style often compared to that of Dahl. Rob Brydon would appear in another television adaptation of Roald Dahl's work four years later.
The Witches (2020)
After the death of his parents in a car accident in Chicago, a boy moves in with his grandmother in Alabama. She gives him a pet mouse named Daisy to look after. In a shop a strange woman tries to give him sweets but his grandmother reveals that the woman was a witch. Witches are demons disguised as women who secretly have claws, deformed feet, bald heads, huge mouths and stretching nostrils. To flee the witch they go to a nearby posh hotel which, unbeknownst to them, is hosting a witch gathering under the disguise of a children's charity.
The boy learns the witches plan to turn all the children in the world into mice. He sees Bruno, another boy, turned into a mouse by poisoned chocolate before he, too, is turned into a mouse. He also discovers his mouse had been a child called Mary. Can the mice and a granny save the world from witchcraft?
|Studio||Warner Bros. Pictures|
|Film Type||Live Action|
A film delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, this had a limited cinematic release and in the United States was initially released directly online through Warner's HBO Max online streaming service. It had taken 12 years for this film to come to the screen, with Guillermo del Toro having been involved in proposing a stop-motion adaptation back in 2008. Although this was not made, he was still credited as a writer and producer on the final film.
Instead of the novel's original setting in Norway and England, this adaptation has been transferred to take place in the United States with African-American characters rather than Norwegian. Despite this, much of the filming took place in the UK. The film is lighter in tone than the previous 1990 adaptation. It is also the first children's film made by ImageMovers since the box office disaster Mars Needs Moms (2011). Unlike many of their former family friendly films, this is live action and not Mo-Cap, although high definition video camera helmets were used to capture the facial expressions of the actors playing children turned into mice that were replicated in the computer-generated rodents.
Curiously, although the estate of Roald Dahl insisted that the film stayed true to the novel's original ending following a clause in Dahl's will in which he stated that films based on his books must stay true to his stories, in this adaptation Bruno is not reunited with his parents12. In this adaptation the boy is poisoned by having the potion poured in his ear, which Anne Hathaway's character calls 'the Shakespeare way' in reference to Hamlet, and also because Anne Hathaway shares her name with William Shakespeare's wife.
This film attracted some criticism as it changed the witches' hands from having claws instead of fingernails to their hands only having three fingers, leading to criticisms that the film was biased against individuals with ectrodactyly13 and other limb differences.
Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse (2020)
In the run up to Christmas 1922 six-year-old Roald Dahl's life has been turned upside down following the sudden deaths of both his sister and father. Before she died, his sister had written a letter to Father Christmas asking for a new Beatrix Potter book as Roald had read her all the existing ones numerous times. Told he would have to go to boarding school, Roald decides to run away and meet Beatrix Potter. When found by his mother she takes him on a journey from Wales to Cumbria to meet his hero.
Beatrix Heelis, née Potter, is an elderly woman with failing eyesight who is fed up of her publisher seeing her as a blank cheque to make money rather than caring about the artistic integrity of her work, and is constantly hounded by carol singers and fans. Her passion is raising enough money to purchase and save the Lake District from being developed, but to do this means agreeing with her publisher's representative Anne Landy that she should re-write the nursery rhyme 'Three Blind Mice' to make it less violent. Will she take the easy way out, how will she react to Roald, and is it all a storm in a teacup?
|Setting||1922 Wales and Lake District|
|Film Type||Television Film Biopic with animated highlights|
A film very loosely based on real events in Roald Dahl's life. He really did meet his childhood heroine, author Beatrix Potter, aged six in 1922. However, he was three when his sister and father died in 1920. The biopic follows Dahl's autobiography, Boy. This biopic contains references to both the works of Potter and Dahl, with Dahl scrumping from Potter's garden while wearing a coat just like Peter Rabbit's. There are magical animated elements too which seem inspired by both Potter and Dahl's work.
The biopic implies that Potter created the famous nursery rhyme 'Three Blind Mice' when in fact it dates back to at least 1609. Though it is true that her publisher Fruing Warne was worried about the violent content in that nursery rhyme, much to Potter's dismay. The film also implies that Potter put more effort into creating this book than was perhaps the case, as Potter did not actually write any of the content of Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes (1922) - she instead collected existing rhymes, as well as one by a friend, Louie Choyce.
The Bona Fide Gent who appears briefly in one scene played by Bill Bailey talks in Polari slang, which is implied to be an inspiration for Dahl's love of wordplay.