How the great Steven Spielberg finally adapted the great Roald Dahl’s The BFG, by the not very great Mark Dinning
Could there be a more perfect creative marriage than Steven Spielberg and Roald Dahl? Frankly, given their shared sensibilities – both are undisputed masters of big-hearted family entertainment, often with a sinister edge – it’s a wonder that this meeting of brilliant brains has taken so long to happen.
But happen it finally has, as this month Spielberg’s blockbuster adaptation of Dahl’s (appropriately) huge hit novel, The BFG, hit screens across the emirates. It’s been a long time coming; it has very much been worth the wait.
On the surface it’s a simple story, but beneath it lies a tragic reality – one of fathers and their children, the devastating power of loss and the creation that can sometimes spring from it.
The BFG is about orphan Sophie, who late one night spies a Big Friendly Giant blowing dreams into kids’ bedrooms and then finds herself transported away to his homeland, where his considerably less friendly (and bigger) giant peers repeatedly try to eat her.
Spielberg first encountered it in 1982, when he would read it as a bedtime story to his oldest son, Max. Dahl wrote it in the late ’60s, a way for him to grieve his daughter Olivia, who had died, aged just seven, from measles encephalitis. The book opens with the dedication: “For Olivia. 20 April 1955 – 17 November 1962.” Little wonder he was always so protective of it.
This year marks the centenary of Dahl’s birth (he died in 1990), and Spielberg’s treatment of his story is beautiful – full of spectacle and emotion. What Dahl would have made of it, of course, is anyone’s guess. Infamously combative when it came to movie adaptations of his work, Dahl’s dealings with Hollywood were, with only the rarest of exceptions, explosive.
In 1942 Dahl was wooed by Walt Disney, to make an adaptation of his book, The Gremlins. The story of a bunch of critters who help a downed airman, he had written it, again, based on his personal experience, having crashed his RAF plane in the Libyan desert in 1940 – an accident that would require him to undergo facial reconstruction surgery. Dahl and Disney’s creative relationship was tortuous, to the point that, bored with Dahl’s constant demands, Disney pulled the plug on the film entirely.
In 1956, Dahl did a rewrite of Moby Dick for John Huston. Huston rewrote parts of it. Dahl said publicly he’d never work with him again. In 1966, off the back of Dahl’s successful screenplay for the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, producer Cubby Broccoli enlisted him to adapt another Ian Fleming novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Dahl added a character that would stalk children’s dreams from that point forward – the terrifying, net-waving Child Catcher – but otherwise never engaged with the process, turning in a screenplay Broccoli would describe in words so strong that we are unable to print them. (In response, Dahl called the final film “ghastly”.)
And then there was Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches (Dahl hated it), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (which he detested, largely because of Gene Wilder’s “pretentious” performance) and even the massive success of You Only Live Twice, which he claimed was, “the biggest load of nonsense I have ever put my hand to”.
For Spielberg, The BFG didn’t just mean his biggest technical challenge since Jurassic Park – it meant him reteaming with screenwriter Melissa Mathison. The genius writer of E.T., she and Spielberg had met on the Tunisian set of Raiders of the Lost Ark – Mathison was accompanying Harrison Ford, whom she would later marry – and their relationship is one that has resulted, now, in two heartfelt family movies for the ages.
Tragically, on November 4, 2015, Mathison died from neuroendocrine cancer. The film had finished shooting, and Spielberg had been unaware she had been ill. And now he had to finish it on his own, without his great friend and ally. “I don’t miss Melissa yet,” Spielberg recently told Empire magazine, in an interview to celebrate their final achievement, “because I haven’t had a chance to mourn her, because she is still with me…
“Because Melissa is alive in every single frame of The BFG.”
The BFG is out now in cinemas across Dubai.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind Reteaming with Richard Dreyfuss after Jaws – and reeling in François Truffaut to co-star – Spielberg’s seminal sci-fi features Spielberg’s most indelible shot: Cary Guffey’s little boy, opening the door to the blazing alien arrival outside.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial The movie that had Princess Diana weeping at the premiere is timeless and, well, perfect. Melissa Mathison wrote the screenplay in eight weeks. It was so immaculate that Spielberg made the fewest revisions to it that he had ever done to a screenplay before, or ever since.
Jurassic Park Jurassic Park simply changed cinema, taking computer effects to a level no-one had dared dream of and reinventing the blockbuster (ironic, given Spielberg had invented it with Jaws in 1975). Most incredibly? Spielberg made it simultaneously with his other masterpiece that year, Schindler’s List.