Bringing The BFG and the worlds of Roald Dahl to life

26 Jul 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

9 mins
The BFG
The BFG

First published in 1982, The BFG began life as a bedtime story created by Roald Dahl, with the character of orphan girl Sophie named after his own granddaughter. The book is actually an expansion of a short story which appears in one of Dahl's earlier books, Danny the Champion of the WorldDahl later said that The BFG was his own personal favourite of his stories.

Although the story has been adapted as an animated television film and for the stage, this is the first time The BFG has made his way into cinemas, perhaps because of the giant technological challenges the story presents. While he was alive, Dahl famously hated many of the films of his work - even classics such as Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory - which might explain why it took such a long time for many of his most popular stories to get the big screen treatment. Like many writers, Dahl did not like to see his work changed or tampered with, and felt that films such as The Witches differed too significantly from the humour and messages of his books.

Following his death in 1990, more adaptations of Dahl's work appeared, but only ever after his family had approved the script and were confident about the filmmakers. There was also a proviso that no sequels ever be produced - very rare in modern Hollywood. Therefore, latter Dahl films such as James and The Giant Peach and Matilda are arguably more in keeping with their story's original tone than earlier adaptations.

In the case of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the narrative actually differs significantly from the book, but the Dahl family were so taken with writer/director Wes Anderson's intrinsic love of Dahl and understanding of his humour that they allowed him greater creative freedom. They even let Anderson move into Roald Dahl's home while he was writing the script! Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also differed from its source material, adding a great deal more backstory for the character of Willy Wonka, which caused controversy at the time, but was eventually agreed upon by the family. What Roald Dahl himself might have made of it all is anybody's guess. 

The BFG's journey to the big screen has been even longer than a trip to Giant Country. Negotiations went on for many years about just how and when to tell the story. However, there was only ever going to be one filmmaker who could take on the ginormous task...

Steven Spielberg has long been considered one of the masters of family entertainment, through such timeless classics as Jurassic ParkClose Encounters of the Third Kind and of course E.T. - the latter of which was released in the same year that The BFG was first published. The parallels between the two stories are numerous; Elliot and Sophie could easily be swapped, with the stories remaining remarkably similar.

As young audiences in 1982 were falling in love with the transformative friendship between a lonely young boy and an alien visitor as they embarked on whiffling adventures in E.T., they were similarly transfixed by the magical friendship between two other lonely individuals in strange surroundings - Sophie and the BFG. And these young audiences included Spielberg's own family. He first encountered the book - like many others - while reading it to his children as a bedtime story. Often accused of excessive sentimentality, many of Spielberg's films contain the same slightly dark humour and scary sequences that characterised so much of Dahl's work, making the merger of these two storytelling geniuses a natural fit.

In the 1990s, it looked like Robin Williams would play the BFG. Surprisingly, he struggled to unlock the character and get to grips with the distinctive 'gobblefunk' language. After numerous screenwriters had wrestled with the book, producers turned to Melissa Mathison to write the film's script. Melissa had already cemented her place in film history by writing the screenplay for E.T. In striking up a relationship with Dahl's family, she frequently visited his family home in Buckinghamshire, where she had access to his library and study, enabling her to be immersed in his world and capture the tone of his voice as accurately as possible in the script. Tragically, Melissa passed away during post production on The BFG, and the finished film is dedicated to her.

The BFG is ultimately a simple story about friendship, and so it was absolutely crucial that the right actors were cast. Spielberg cast Mark Rylance as the title character on the first day of shooting their previous film together, Bridge of Spies. He was drawn to the extraordinary range of Rylance's acting, as well as the warmth and humanity he exuded. Crucially, Rylance was also comfortable with the tongue-twisting aspects of 'gobblefunk'. Predominantly a theatre actor, Rylance was initially concerned about the artificiality of being on set for a big-budget blockbuster, which tend to be made up of lots of green screens. However, Spielberg's commitment to making the actors believe where they were when on set meant that the shoot felt like being in a play-box for the actor.

Had the film been made only a few years ago, it is likely it would have been an animation. This is because of the technical challenge in creating not just Dream Country, but the BFG himself. Most important of all, the film required a believable relationship between Sophie and the giant. Eye contact is crucial in the film, and the filmmakers were determined to use as much live action as possible. Spielberg went as far as shooting a 90-minute dry run of the film in his garage in 2014, with a production assistant playing the BFG so that he could be as confident as possible in how to overcome the technical challenges the story presented. 

In the end, a mixture of live action and performance-capture was used. Everything was shot on real sets, often made in three different sizes (one for the BFG, one for Sophie, and one for the 50-foot giants), enabling Rylance and Ruby Barnhill (Sophie) to act together at the same time as much as possible.

Despite the astounding visuals and magic on show, what really shines through in the film is its playful love of language. Whether it's Sophie eagerly devouring "Dahls Chickens' Nicholas Nickleby", or the 'delumptious' words conjured up by the BFG, language remains at the heart of the story, just as it does in the original book. Together with this, there is a heartfelt and tender message about learning to stand up for yourself, not judging people by their appearance, and accepting those that are different to you. 

Remaining remarkably faithful to its source material, the big screen version of The BFG is sure to delight audiences all over again, sending many 'human beans' to sleep with phizzwizards rushing around their imaginations.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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