Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dahl Goes Hollywood

Roald Dahl is awesome. Can we all agree on this? No matter what he may have been like as a person, one cannot argue with the fact that A) he was a badass pilot and spy during WWII, and B) he wrote wonderfully grotesque children’s books that were free of cloying, sentimental bullshit. Roald Dahl knew that kids are smart enough to enjoy a story with dark themes, loathsome villains, and just desserts. Hollywood, on the other hand, has difficulty grasping this concept, and so the film adaptations of Dahl’s books are a mixed bag. Let’s take a look!

By the way, this idea came from a magazine I read once as a kid...Muse, I believe it was called. Credit where it’s due!

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Plot of the Book:

Charlie Bucket is desperately poor and lives with his parents and grandparents in a tiny shack. Nearby is a huge chocolate factory, owned by the eccentric and reclusive Willy Wonka, whom no one has seen in years. When Wonka announces that he’s hidden five Golden Tickets inside chocolate bars, and that the recipients of these tickets will win a tour of his factory, there’s a worldwide rush to find them. The first four are claimed by bratty little shitheads; Charlie finds the fifth. Together with his Grandpa Joe, he enters the factory and meets Wonka. The inside of the factory is a limitless place filled with wonders and staffed by a society of jungle pygmies called Oompa-Loompas. During the tour, the other four kids meet amusing and appropriate fates: fat Augustus Gloop falls in a chocolate river and is sucked up a pipe, gum-addicted Violet Beauregard turns into a giant blueberry, spoiled Veruca Salt is tossed down a garbage chute by squirrels, and entertainment junkie Mike Teavee is shrunk in a teleporter. Charlie then learns that, as the one non-awful child, he gets to inherit the factory from Willy Wonka. No more abject poverty!
What the Movie Does:
Well, for starters, the action is moved to America (this happens a lot). Charlie’s father is dead in the film, apparently to generate more pathos. Gene Wilder memorably portrays Wonka as a quiet psychopath as opposed to the hyper, jolly little guy he is in the book. The four brats are about the same, though Veruca Salt’s squirrels are replaced by geese (easier to render with ’70s special effects), and we never see the kids emerge from the factory at the end, so I guess they all died?
A couple “dynamic” plot twists are stuck in: the fifth Golden Ticket is allegedly found by someone else, then turns out to be a hoax. Also, all five kids are approached by Wonka’s rival, Slugworth, who asks them to steal one of Wonka’s new everlasting gobstoppers. At the end, Wonka angrily dismisses Charlie at first (because he and Grandpa Joe drank Fizzy Lifting Drinks without permission earlier), but changes his mind when Charlie returns the gobstopper. Turns out “Slugworth” is working for Wonka and it was all a big test of character.
Oh, and the movie’s a musical. Yep. Plenty of lame songs are inserted, the most infamous of which is the Oompa-Loompa Song, performed by midgets with orange skin and green hair. True, they also sing in the book, but it’s not nearly as insipid. I’m guessing that the song is stuck in your head now that I’ve mentioned it. You’re welcome!
Is It Any Good?
Yeah, I suppose. I mean, it’s become a cult classic. It’s incredibly campy and often slips into cheese-and-syrup territory, which Roald Dahl would not have approved of. Apart from Gene Wilder’s bug-eyed performance, the movie’s missing a lot of the menace that’s prevalent in Dahl’s books; I find it a tad too cute, colorful, and non-threatening. Still, it has its charms and is a good product of its era, for better or for worse. But, seriously, what is UP with that fucking creepy tunnel scene?

The Witches (1990)
Plot of the Book:

A young British boy (whose name we never learn) narrates. After his parents are killed in a crash, he goes to live with his awesome Norwegian grandmother, who teaches him about witches. A real witch, it turns out, is a loathsome creature who disguises herself as a lady in order to kill children. When the boy and his grandmother vacation at a seaside resort, he accidentally eavesdrops on a meeting of all the witches in England, led by the dreaded Grand High Witch. She outlines a plan to snuff all the kids in England by turning them into mice with a magic potion. Our hero is discovered by the witches and turned into a mouse, along with a fat brat named Bruno Jenkins. They escape, and then the boy-turned-mouse and his grandmother plot to steal the potion and sneak it into the witches’ food, turning them into mice as well. The plan works, and all the witches are presumably killed by hotel staff. The narrator is stuck as a mouse, but as the book ends, he and his grandmother are excitedly planning to infiltrate the Grand High Witch’s castle, make more mouse-juice, and get rid of all the witches in the world. Sorry, there’s no sequel.
What the Movie Does:
The movie does some really weird shit. The hero is turned American and given a name (Luke), which makes sense in a cinematic context. The plot’s about the same, with minor changes and a lot of odd editing to hide how bad most of the special effects are. The Grand High Witch is played by Anjelica Huston (an odd choice, since in the book, she’s very tiny), and the Jim Henson folks provide witchy make-up and freaky human/mouse puppets.
Back to the editing. It’s....weird. Off somehow, like a bunch of stuff got left on the cutting room floor. There is, for instance, a bizarre sequence where Luke gets chased around the hotel by witches, and then saves a baby in a carriage after the Grand High Witch tries to push it off a cliff, which makes NO sense as witches are supposedly really careful not to give themselves away. Also, wouldn’t the hotel guests wonder why a kid was being chased by a bunch of women? Just saying. This and other scenes often end abruptly or with an awkward transition. It’s weird.
And then there’s the ending. Don’t fucking get me started on how lame, saccharine, and condescending it is. In the book, the two boys are stuck as mice forever (it’s even implied that Bruno is done in by his unloving parents), and the protagonist realizes he won’t live very long -- but that’s okay with him and his grandmother, because neither wants to outlive the other. They agree to die together. It’s very sad and touching.....and way too downbeat for Hollywood. So in the movie, one of the witches survives, TURNS GOOD (after it’s been established that witches are evil by nature), and changes Luke and Bruno back into boys. I’m usually too busy puking to watch the end credits.
Is It Any Good?
Nope. It has some nice squirmy moments, but for the most part it’s ruined by lousy effects and choppy editing. They got the grotesqueries in there, more or less, but that doesn’t help if the story is dumbed down, which it seriously is. And I despise the ending...did I mention that? I hate it when Hollywood insists on tacking an awkward happy ending onto a story that works much better without it. Dahl was brave to avoid a textbook Happily Ever After, but some studio head was too moronic to honor his decision. Fail.

James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Plot of the Book:

When James’s parents are eaten by a rhino (???), he’s sent to live with his two cruel aunts, who treat him like a slave. One day, a weird old man gives James a bag of magical crocodile tongues, which will totally bring him fame and fortune. He promptly spills them. Then a peach the size of a house sprouts from the aunts’ tree. James ventures through a hole in the peach and finds a group of human-sized talking insects, who are fortunately friendly types. They cut the peach loose and it rolls away (squishing the two aunts to death in the process) and lands in the ocean. When sharks attack, James and the bugs use spider and silkworm silk to lasso a bunch of seagulls and lift the peach into the sky. After drifting a bit and encountering manlike creatures who live in the clouds and make the weather, they wind up over NYC. An airplane cuts the seagulls’ tethers and the peach falls onto the spire of the Empire State Building. James and the bugs become instant celebrities; the giant peach is eaten by children and its pit is installed in Central Park as James’s home.
What the Movie Does:
Actually, the movie is surprisingly faithful; it mostly just adds stuff to the story, and the stuff is mostly cool. The bugs are rendered in stop-motion animation, as is James after he enters the peach. The script gives the bugs more varied personalities (the spider is a femme fatale, the centipede is a brash Yankee, etc.) and eliminates one bug, the silkworm, who wasn’t really necessary anyway. New sequences include an attack from a robot shark (???), a visit to a sunken, skeleton-infested pirate ship to retrieve a compass, and a showdown with a giant rhino made of thunderclouds, which symbolizes James having to face his childhood fears and so forth. Also, the two aunts don’t die, but show up in NYC at the end, having apparently driven across the Atlantic Ocean. They try to get the peach back and even attack James with fire axes (!!!), but are wrapped up by the bugs and hauled off to jail.
Again, it’s a musical, but there are only like three songs and they aren’t too hard on the ears. In fact, the peach-eating song (in which the bugs sing about all the weird foods they’ve eaten and how the peach trumps all for deliciousness) is copied verbatim from the book, with Dahl’s original lyrics put to music. How cool is that?
Is It Any Good?
Yes! It was conceived and directed by the folks behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the stop-motion works great with such a bizarre fable. More importantly, it stays true to Roald Dahl and captures his offbeat sense of humor and dark, sometimes nightmarish images. The acting and voices are top-notch (featuring Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Pete Postlethwaite, among others), and the kid who plays James is just too adorable. I totally recommend this for families with bright children!

Matilda (1996)
Plot of the Book:

Matilda Wormwood is a brilliant, well-read little girl whose loutish parents neglect and ridicule her. She also has a streak of mischief, and “punishes” her folks by playing pranks on them. They eventually send her to Crunchem Hall Academy, ruled over by a vile and sadistic headmistress named Agatha Trunchbull. Matilda makes new friends there, including her sweet but impoverished teacher, Miss Honey. Along the way, Matilda discovers she can move objects with her mind. That’s telekinesis, Kyle! She learns that Trunchbull is Miss Honey’s aunt and has stolen her inheritance -- and, quite possibly, murdered her father. To set things right, Matilda uses her strange power to convince Trunchbull that her murdered brother has returned from the grave. Trunchbull flees forever, as do Matilda’s parents (her dad is a crooked car salesman and the cops finally catch up with him). Miss Honey adopts Matilda and they live happily in a beautiful old mansion.
What the Movie Does:
The book is quite low on action, so the movie “corrects” that by twisting Matilda’s story into a lively “Kid Power” romp. It’s set in America, and Matilda is turned from a quiet introvert to an overly precocious and perky moppet. Her parents are way nastier (in the book, they display occasional affection), but the hilarious/monstrous Trunchbull remains much the same....nothing extra needed for such a pitch-perfect villain.
Overall, the film ups the action and slapstick and dials down the pathos. In the book, Matilda could barely master her psychic power and only used it a couple times, in fairly small ways. In the movie...hoo boy. She flings people and furniture around. She causes playing cards and poker chips to swarm in the air. She singlehandedly reenacts Poltergeist just to fuck with Trunchbull’s head. It is, quite literally, Home Alone meets Carrie. There’s also a random scene where Matilda and Miss Honey sneak around Trunchbull’s mansion, and a pointless subplot in which FBI agents spy on Matilda’s dad. Thanks, Hollywood!
In the midst of all this nonsense, most of the major scenes from the book remain intact. What’s missing is the tragedy. I mean, Matilda is an abused child in a broken home! The book understands that this is a sad thing for a small girl; the movie plays her parents’ awfulness purely for yuks. The book also places Miss Honey in a dire situation: she lives in a bare shack, cooks food on a camp stove, and is basically starving. In the movie she has a picture-perfect cottage that looks way cozier than the creaky mansion she’s supposed to inherit. Anything that might disturb or sadden is carefully stripped away.
Is It Any Good?
Meh. It’s definitely aimed at young viewers who love to watch smart kids triumph over dumb adults. It’s sometimes funny, often exciting, always upbeat. But it’s dumb, really dumb, and it utterly misses the point of the book, which is that A) children have more to say than you think, and B) there are bad people in the world and it’s up to good people to keep each other safe from them. The movie is ultimately condescending and too precocious for its own good. So I can’t endorse it much.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Plot of the Book:

See above.
What the Movie Does:
Hear me out before you crucify Tim Burton’s version. This movie strives to avoid being a “remake” of the 1971 film, and in terms of faithfulness to the source, actually comes out on top. The location of Wonka’s factory is unspecified, but Charlie and his family are British and his dad is alive and well and working in a toothpaste factory, just like in the book. His parents and grandparents are better defined, and the other four ticket winners are wonderfully unpleasant (the kid actors are having a ball, you can tell). Even the brats’ parents are pretty funny.
Again, we get a unique spin on Willy Wonka; Johnny Depp plays him as a deeply neurotic and socially incompetent weirdo who has no idea how to interact with human beings and is literally paralyzed by daddy issues. The factory is all CGI fireworks and the Oompa-Loompas are played by one single guy, digitally copypasted a million times. Oooookay. They perform quirky musical numbers that probably made Danny Elfman jerk off as he was writing the music, but the lyrics are once again taken straight from the book. Everything proceeds along faithful routes, the squirrels are in there, and there are even hints of Dahl’s original undercurrent of menace. But just hints.
Is stuff added? Of course! Again, the fifth ticket is found and then debunked as a hoax (why would both films add this? Dunno), and Wonka himself gets lots of flashbacks; we see the origins of his factory, the chocolate palace he builds for an Indian ruler (also from the book), his first jungle encounter with the Oompa-Loompas, and -- most prominent -- his troubled childhood under an overbearing dentist father. There’s another false crisis at the end, only this time it’s Charlie who turns down factory ownership after learning that his family isn’t invited along. Wonka sulks for a bit, then manages to reconcile with his own dad and all is well. The movie has a tidy ending with the Bucket family moving into the factory, whereas the book ended with all of them flying around in Wonka’s glass elevator, thereby setting up the sequel that Dahl eventually wrote, in which they go to outer space and fight evil aliens. Seriously. Look it up.
Is It Any Good?
I think it’s okay, though some will disagree. People seem affronted that this movie exists at all, as if the cult appeal of the 1971 film is being spat upon. But, dammit, Burton’s movie is not based on the 1971 film. It’s based on the book, and it does a fine job of adapting it. Burton’s signature goth/quirky/candy-coated aesthetic does get a little tiresome, but I found his Chocolate Factory to be entertaining, with a streak of cynicism that Dahl might have liked. So there!

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Plot of the Book:

Mr. Fox lives in a cozy hole with his wife and four children. Every night, he steals from three loathsome local farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. When the farmers discover the Foxes’ home, they first try to shoot Mr. Fox (he escapes, but loses his tail), then attempt to dig the hole up (the Foxes outdig them), then put all the local animals under siege. Starvation seems imminent, but the clever Mr. Fox enlists his kids and his friend, Badger, and they dig a tunnel system all the way to the three farms, stealing food from under the farmers’ noses. All the animals have a huge feast and plan to dig a whole underground township and use the tunnels to steal all the food they can eat. Meanwhile, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are sitting stupidly around on the surface, waiting.....
What the Movie Does:
I don’t even think this is a film for kids. It’s directed by another master of quirk, Wes Anderson, and he pretty much tosses out everything but the bones of the plot. In his world, the animals are the middle-class bourgeoisie: Badger runs a law firm and Mr. Fox is a frustrated newspaper columnist in a tie and slacks. The animals have a comfy middle-class world that’s far removed from the rustic humans, who are clodpoles and buffoons to a man. All this is depicted in Autumn-tinted, old-fashioned stop-motion animation that looks crude but is oddly endearing and gives our furry heroes an impressive level of expressiveness.
The book was very short and the movie has to add a ton of material. Mr. Fox rouses the ire of the farmers after returning to his old, thieving ways; Mrs. Fox deeply disapproves; they lock horns affectionately; etc. There’s only one Fox kid, Ash, who’s going through a massive crisis of adolescent angst and is jealous of his overachiever cousin, Kristofferson. The movie continues the plot past the book’s ending, with the animals’ victory feast being interrupted as the farmers flood the tunnels with hard cider and wash everyone into the sewers. Kristofferson gets captured and the critters mount a surreal, Ocean’s 11-style caper to get him back. In the end, the animals are living in the sewer system, Mr. Fox has found his way into a supermarket, and everyone is embracing cozy, materialist, middle-class bliss, just like you and me. Only, you know, with talking animals. I honestly can’t tell if Anderson and co. are trying to make some kind of statement, or if they’re just faffing about. There’s also music by Burl Ives.
Is It Any Good?
I confess to loving this movie, though I can’t defend it as a faithful Roald Dahl adaptation. It basically has nothing to do with the book other than the basic concept (humans dumb, woodland creatures rock), and is more an experiment in subversive social and cinematic satire. Or something. Like I said, I have no idea what goes through Wes Anderson’s little mind. But the animation is way too cool, the voice cast includes George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Michael Gambon, and the overall visual aesthetic makes me very happy. If you’re a scholar of Dahl (or would that be a “Roald’s Scholar,” ba-dum tish!), you’ll be pissed. If you hate Wes Anderson, sorry. Everyone else, watch this movie because it rocks.

Bonus Feature: Make This Dahl Movie!
Not all of Dahl’s books have made it to the big screen. As long as Hollywood insists on adapting everything in sight, they really should take advantage of the author’s oeuvre. I would totally support the following film adaptations, assuming they don’t fuck them up.
The BFG: A little girl is kidnapped by a Big Friendly Giant and they team up to stop all the other, nastier giants from snacking on people. They do this by enlisting Queen Elizabeth and sending out the Royal Air Force. Seriously. Doesn’t that sound cool? This was actually made into an animated TV movie, but fuck that noise; give it an epic, big-screen treatment! Get somebody like Andy Serkis to play the BFG and have Helen Mirren play Her Majesty again. Helen Mirren would be all over this; you know she would.
Danny the Champion of the World: A boy lives with his awesome dad in an old gypsy caravan. He discovers that his dad is a poacher, and they hatch a plan to steal all the pheasants from a nasty, arrogant local lord. This one’s free of the fantastical but still pretty neat and would work as an indie production. Find a perky British newcomer to play Danny, and for his kindly and mischievous dad....a cool and somewhat strapping character actor. David Thewlis? Viggo Mortensen? Ewan MacGregor if he were a little taller? Hell, even Gerard Butler has dabbled in kiddie films. The director should be whoever made Waking Ned Devine.
The Twits: Monkeys vs. evil old people. That alone should be an awesome selling point. I can think of plenty Actors of a Certain Age who’d totally don makeup and prosthetics to play the ghastly Mr. and Mrs. Twit (Meryl Streep again?), or you could make this one an animated film. Dreamworks would do it....though I’m not sure we should let them, since they’d cast fucking Jack Black as the monkey. Ugh.
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: Make the sequel, Tim Burton! Blast Willy Wonka and the Bucket family into outer space! You can do a little rewriting to get around your tacked-on happy ending in the first film (maybe Wonka and the Buckets test-drive a brand-new glass elevator and it goes awry?), and just think of who you could get to sign on as the goofy U.S. President and his cabinet, who freak out when the elevator docks at the world’s first space hotel. Clooney? Penn? De Niro? Walken? The mind boggles! How can you go wrong? Quick, before Freddie Highmore gets any older!
The Witches: Remake it, and fucking get it right. Spend more than five minutes on the special effects. Restore the proper, bittersweet ending. Judi Dench as the grandmother. Are you writing this down, Hollywood?