The Dark and the Light: Dahl on Paper and Film

By Catherine DiMercurio

When I learned that September was the first ever Roald Dahl month, I tumbled instantly and joyfully back to my childhood, to another September day when I was beginning the third grade at a new school. My classmates and I sat clustered on the floor, around the feet of our teacher. She was kind and soft-spoken and smelled of vanilla, and she began reading James and the Giant Peach to us. The freckled blond boy next to me kept poking my shoulder, trying to annoy me or get me in trouble or both. But he was easy to ignore because I was instantly enveloped by the story of James and his horrible aunts and his glorious, magical adventure. And his new friends. Making new friends in a strange world sounded pretty lovely too, and just as fantastical and unlikely to a shy girl at a new school as James’s giant insect companions were to him.


This September, my love of Dahl and his work was darkened by the recent passing of Gene Wilder, who brought to life one of Dahl’s most memorable characters, Willy Wonka, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At the same time, the occasion that brings us a month of Dahl is a celebratory one, his 100th birthday (September 13th). And there is much to celebrate.

Among the most intriguing things about Dahl’s work is the menacing undercurrent that bubbles beneath the wacky surface of his fiction: The Oompa Loompa’s ominous songs in Charlie or the cruelty of James’s aunts and the violence of their deaths. As both a child reader and an adult reader of these stories I’ve appreciated this dark streak as Dahl’s nod to reality in the midst of the joyful escapist fantasy fiction—life is often cruel, and bad things happen to good and bad people alike. But good things, amazing things, can happen to everyone as well.


This marriage of bitter reality and uplifting whimsy is a difficult union to foster. A number of directors have attempted to translate this recipe on film. As a fan of both Dahl and Wes Anderson, I was particularly delighted at the selection of Anderson to direct a stop-motion animated version of Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In a world where movie adaptations of beloved childhood classics are so common, and commonly disastrous, Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox is one that could, and should, be studied at length, both cinematically and as a literary adaptation.

  • As a starting point for a classroom discussion, after reading the story and viewing the film, Gale’s Magill’s Cinema Annual 2010: A Survey of the Films of 2009 offers a detailed summary of the film, as well as the observation that Anderson adds a lot of meaty subtext to the bones Dahl provides. Consider the reviewer’s take on this. Does what Anderson adds in terms of a dysfunctional family subplot enhance Dahl’s story? Or does he go too far? What conflicts, familial or otherwise, does the book explore? Does Anderson successfully flesh these out?
  • A similarly rich book-to-film analysis could be undertaken with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was adapted for film twice, first as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in 1971, by Mel Stuart, and in 2005 as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Tim Burton. Each adaptation is faithful in many ways to Dahl’s text, but both depart from it in a different fashion. Comparing both films to the book is a valuable method of fleshing out stylistic motifs as well as issues related to theme and character. Gale eBooks on GVRL offer several avenues of approach for such a classroom analysis, including Gale’s Authors and Artists for Young Adults (“Burton, Tim”) and Children’s Literature Review (“Dahl, Roald 1916–1990”).
  • The most recent Dahl film adaptation is Steven Spielberg’s 2016 The BFG. Spielberg’s take on Dahl’s story by the same name is discussed in General OneFile in a number of reviews assessing the director’s efforts to bring the Dahl classic to life.
  • Don’t forget to check out the Roald Dahl website. It includes activities for students, lesson plans for teachers, and a wealth of information about Dahl and his works.

Though Dahl’s work holds up on its own after all these years, the interest in bringing his fiction to the big screen insures that readers young and old who haven’t yet discovered him will get a dose of Dahl. It’s impossible to imagine that such a taste would fail to inspire viewers to seek and read, to lose themselves in fiction undergirded with enough dark reality to make readers appreciate the escape that much more. And for long-time Dahl fans, both the movies and books offer a door back to our own childhood, to the hope and wonder we felt when we first came in contact with Dahl’s magical words and worlds. Happy Birthday, indeed.

Megan McCarthy

About the Author

Catherine is a developmental editor at Gale, an enthusiastic vegan runner, and a recent graduate of an MFA in Creative Writing program. If spare time is to be had, she is either writing or enjoying some down time with her two teenagers.

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