Bring up the name Roald Dahl and you will get explosively mixed reactions. For every reader who celebrates his writing as magical and fun — half the households in America, it seems, possess at least one battered paperback of a children’s book by Dahl — there is another who will decry his dark cruelty, his juvenile desire to shock and subvert, not to mention the misogyny and even anti-Semitism with which he is charged. What, if we could bottle it, would be the quintessence of this writer who inspires devotion and censure in equal measure?
Roald Dahl was famous for all of his adult life. While still in his midtwenties he turned the RAF myth of the gremlins that bedeviled WW II pilots into a children’s story and sold the idea to Walt Disney, who nearly made it into a movie. A decade later he married film star Patricia Neal, and not long after that was selling his trademark macabre short stories to the New Yorker. But it is in his later guise, as a children’s author, that most of us know Dahl — as the writer of the extraordinary James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The latter, made into the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder, propelled Dahl to wider fame than he had previously known, but it is the recent film version of the former — James and the Giant Peach — that represents a kind of apotheosis for its author.
That film, produced by Disney, has received lukewarm notices. It fails for a number of reasons. That the music is flat and forgettable is its most unexpected shortcoming, viewed against Disney’s annual triumphs in the animated musical genre. But the movie’s biggest and saddest problem is that it misses the lightness and sweetness of Dahl’s book. The movie’s insects, designed by illustrator Lane Smith, are ugly chic, which is to say hiply and deliberately unattractive. One doesn’t expect plush versions of these peach-dwelling creepy-crawlies to be hot gift items come Christmas.
But the story and characters have been darkened, too. In the book, James’s awful aunts are flattened by the rolling peach at the very beginning of its journey, and their demise has a cartoon quality to it. But in the movie, they linger on to chase James all the way across the ocean — and their comeuppance is less comical than strictly vengeful. The paradisiacal innocence of the book is nowhere to be found.
Executive producer Tim Burton and his protégé of sorts, director Henry Zmirak, who collaborated on Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, seem to have intended this. The decidedly dark vision of their other movies — Burtons Batman Returns, most typically — are of a piece with Dahl’s fictional universe, which, with the exception of James, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and BFG, is also powerfully bleak. Burton and Zmirak have made a James and the Giant Peach that, while unfaithful to the book, is surprisingly true to the spirit of Dahl’s greater oeuvre.
Readers who know Dahl only through James, Charlie, and BFG have caught slight splashes of his darker leanings, but anyone familiar with his adult writings has caught the whole wave. Before Dahl ever wrote books for children he was the celebrated author of self-consciously perverse short stories. In a typical one, a dotty landlady murders and then mummifies the bodies of the young men who come to her rooming house, We are not exactly in the realm of Willy Wonka here. What is most noticeable in such stories is the dark relish with which Dahl spins his transgressive yarns, always pointing to what he believes is a deeper truth than any treacly notions of redemption.
But this is true for most of his children’s stories as well. In almost all of them, rebellion, deceit, and subversion are high virtues. But revenge seems positively an obsession. In Danny, the Champion of the World — superficially a touching story of a boy and his father — Dahl raises theft and revenge to the level of the heroic. In Mathilda — also out in a movie version this year — an initially delightful little girl employs her extraordinary intelligence to wreak revenge on her parents and a tyrannical headmistress. Even in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka takes a wickedly cruel pleasure in the sufferings of the bad children.
Another pervasive them is that of putting something over on someone. In Esio Trot, a man employs an elaborate ruse to win a woman’s love. Reading that story, which is undeniably sweet, we cannot but expect an ending in which we learn that the woman loved the man anyway, that the trickery and deception were unnecessary — but that never happens. Deceit wins the day, as though there were no other possibility.
It often seems there is really no good and evil in Dahl’s fictional universe, just us and them, as though everything were subjective. We always triumph over them, but never in any noble way. The dramatic change isn’t that good triumph over evil, only that power shifts hands. There is no redemption, just revenge. The saddest loss in all of this is that many of the delightful characters Dahl creates — the ones we are rooting for — become just like those we are rooting against.
Dahl has been criticized innumerable times for being subversive and antiauthority in his children’s stories. Most of the adults in his stories are trying to keep children from having fun — at first blush, simply a cute theme, and a perennial one at least since Mark Twain. But in Dahl’s books the only exceptions to the oppressive adults are those adults who, in their rebellion to authority, are just like children themselves. There aren’t any fun-loving adults, really, in Dahl’s universe — just killjoys and children, just oppressors and oppressed. It follows, then, that fun and freedom are to be found only in subversion and rebellion. Where have we heard this before?
The opening lines of one of Dahl’s least-known books, The Minpins, give perhaps the clearest — and most brazen — statement of his world-view:
Little Billy’s mother was always telling him exactly what he was allowed to do and what he was not allowed to do. All the things he was allowed to do were boring. All the things he was not allowed to do were exciting. Every now and again his mother would call out to him saying, Little Billy, what are you up to in there? And Little Billy would always call back and say, I’m being good, Mummmy. But Little Billy was awfully tired of being good.
Most of Dahl’s books preach a similar gospel. Obedience is boring; all authority figures and all rules are oppressive. Good riddance to being good! It’s a classic Gnostic reading of the Fall. According to this view, sin and disobedience are desirable, and the Devil will lead us to enlightenment and freedom. And on cue, as if to prevent us from misinterpreting his theology, Dahl makes things startlingly explicit as we read further:
Through the window, not so very far away, [Billy] could see the big black secret wood that was called the Forest of Sin. It was something he had always longed to explore. Just then a funny thing happened. Little Billy began to hear somebody whispering in his ear. He knew exactly who it was. It was the Devil. The Devil always started whispering to him when he was especially bored.
The average reader will at this point assume ( or at least imagine and hope) that Billy will either resist the Devil’s temptation or, if he succumbs to it, learn a lesson. But that is not what happens. What happens is that Billy follows the Devil’s advice to enter the Forest of Sin and — mirabile dictu — is handsomely rewarded with a magical and life-changing adventure. At the story’s end, Dahl invites the reader to do the same.
And so, though James and the Giant Peach seems to escape the criticisms of Dahl’s other books almost entirely, the movie version invites them afresh. Here, James does not rise above his evil aunts through his innocence and good nature, by the time the story is over, he is participating in their evil, imperiously commanding them to be hoisted up on a winch for all to scorn. What has happened to the innocent little boy who so easily won our hearts? He has become powerful and mean-spirited, just like his awful Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. Power has shifted hands, and he is exacting revenge.
Alas and alack, it seems that in this celluloid retelling, even our dear friend, little James Henry Trotter, has left the oppressive innocence of Paradise to enter the liberating realm of the Forest of Sin.
This piece first appeared in Books & Culture, which may be accessed online at booksandculture.com.