Reasons to celebrate the works of Roald Dahl
Today is Roald Dahl day, the annual marketing push… sorry, I mean opportunity to celebrate the birthday of the man who remains Britain’s best-loved children’s writer, with no real rivals to the crown since his death in 1990. I think it’s fair to say that JK Rowling doesn’t really deserve the title. By the time kids get to Harry Potter, they’ve already devoured most of Dahl. If they haven’t, they’ll probably never actually read Rowling’s books, just watch the films.
This year is the 30th anniversary of The BFG, not Dahl’s best book by a long stretch of the imagination although it does feature a cameo appearance from the Queen to rival that in the Olympic opening ceremony. To mark the occasion the organisers of the festivities are inviting us to download “whizzpopping” party packs and win “gloriumptious” prizes from their website. And see what I mean about The BFG being way down on the list of Dahl’s creations – all those grouchy-twee made-up words, not to mention the book’s gratuitous fart and burp gags to keep the kids onside.
So download your stickers and quizzes by all means, but perhaps we should take this opportunity to think a little more carefully about Dahl’s work and legacy. Here are my personal reasons to celebrate, and one not to:
Dahl’s work has been incredibly lucky with its adaptations in other media. Most recently of course, we have had the hugely successful musical adaptation of Matilda with music by Tim Minchin, which is still running in the West End and due to hit Broadway in the Spring. Then there was the defiantly left-field stop-motion animation take of Fantastic Mr Fox by US kook-meister Wes Anderson – for me, undoubtedly the director’s best film, with a couple of genuine and utterly unexpected, hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments. For the record: the raised fist salute between George Clooney’s Mr Fox and the wolf – who, the web tells us, was actually ‘played’ by an uncredited Bill Murray. While the dancing-in-the-aisles-of-the-supermarket ending might just be an allegory about the position of the auteur in the Hollywood system.
Further back than this, there is a quite splendid audiobook collection of Dahl’s best work read by a roll call of British comic and dramatic dependables, including Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Simon Callow and Miriam Margoyles. For anyone with a young family, this set which is available for under £20 (and that’s for 27 CDs, people) is easily the best-value purchase for the restoration of sanity to long car journeys, beating any DVD system or Sat Nav into a cocked hat.
On the same theme, just pause for a moment and think how well Dahl has been treated in these adaptations compared to his most obvious comparison in the US: Dr Seuss. Think about these versions of Dahl’s books, then think about the film versions of The Grinch, The Cat in the Hat and most recently,The Lorax, and try not shiver. Luck? Or perhaps it’s down to how well the Dahl estate have picked their collaborators. Either way thanks should be given. You’ll notice I’ve not mentioned Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Oh. Damn. Well, that’s not his best book either.
You can’t really blame the organisers of Roald Dahl Day for leaving them out of their celebrations, but let’s not forget that Dahl wrote some fantastic stuff for adults, too. The stories in collections like Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch which I have occasionally found mis-shelved in the kids section of libraries and bookshops – don’t worry, I moved them… They are just as dark and misanthropic as you’d expect from the author of The Witches and The Twits. That many of them ended up adapted for television either in Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Dahl’s own Tales of the Unexpected, means that, for a couple of decades in the last century this one man was simultaneously keeping Britain’s children and parents thrilled, titillated and scandalised. Bedtime stories, then bedtime nightmares.
In fact, though the main website doesn’t mention them, Penguin are pushing this more mature side to Dahl’s output, with a selection of his stories being made available as eBooks and intriguingly, as a set of individual audiobooks, read by the likes of Tamsin Greig, Juliet Stevenson and Gillian Anderson, and, for the men, Stephen Mangan, Richard Griffiths and Sir Derek Jacobi. It will be particularly interesting to hear the stories in the female voice, seeing as Dahl was sometimes accused of misogyny in his adult work.
Finally, something not to celebrate. In the years since Dahl’s death his work for children has been almost inseparable from the illustrations by Quentin Blake. Now, Blake is a fine draughtsman, and has some excellent books to his name but this enforced marriage of word and image has been to neither’s benefit. Quite simlpy, Blake is not up to the darkness of Dahl’s work. His revolting kids and monstrous adults are never revolting or monstrous enough. There was an attempt of sorts to break the mould with 2005’s Songs and Verse anthology, featuring such wonderful illustrators as Joel Stewart and Alexis Deacon, but even that had Blake’s cutesy-scatty pics on the cover. It’s not until Puffin have the guts to hand over the big books – Giant Peach, Charlie, Matilda, Danny, and the Witches – to a new illustrator or designer that Dahl’s books will truly stand on their own feet.Tagged in: Charlie and the chocolate factory, matilda, matilda the musical, Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl, the bfg, The Witches, Tim Burton, tim minchin
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