What films would Roald Dahl be making if he were alive today?

13 Sep 2016 BY Joe Ursell

8 mins
The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises

Roald Dahl has been enchanting readers and cinema-goers alike for generations and is often regarded as one of the greatest storytellers of all time. September 13 marks the centenary of his birth, but what sorts of stories might Dahl have been telling were he still alive in 2016? And where can we see his influence in the films of today? Dahl himself famously disliked many of the films produced of his own work, but we think he would have loved some of these titles, which all display an influence of and affection for his storytelling in clear, but sometimes very different ways.

A hallmark of many of Dahl's stories - including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches - is an understanding of the special bond that can develop between younger and older people. With this in mind, he might well have enjoyed Pixar masterpiece Up, in which a lonely widower facing eviction from his home embarks on an extraordinary aeronautical adventure with a young boy scout, forming a strong friendship along the way. 

Turning to live-action, Dahl would surely have appreciated Whale Rider, the story of a young Maori girl in New Zealand fighting to fulfil a destiny her grandfather does not recognise. Himself a grandfatherly figure to his army of devoted readers, Dahl understood that as people get older they can also rediscover a child-like view of the world, complete with a spirit of adventure, and often a whole lot of silliness with it. As such, he is likely to have been charmed by the very British comedy-drama Is Anybody There?, in which a ten-year-old boy is living at an old-people's home run by his parents, and develops a deep friendship with Michael Caine's elderly ex-magician, who has recently checked in.

For many people, including Dahl himself, school can present lots of different challenges to overcome. To try and fit in, Dahl loved to get up to all sorts of mischief, and would likely have identified with Horrid Henry and the constant battle he faces with his teachers, as well as Greg's ongoing attempts to navigate school life in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Dahl's stories were known for their anti-bullying themes, playful language and villainous characters that audiences cant help but enjoy. As such, he might also have been drawn to the high-school movie genre. In particular, with its world of 'queen bees' and 'plastics', and a new-girl-in-town narrative, cult high-school classic Mean Girls has several surprising similarities with Dahl's work. 

Being sent away to boarding school had a big impact on the young Dahl, as he found himself alone in a strange place, not knowing anybody. Therefore, he would probably identify with the story of Paddington, as the young bear arrives in London from Peru, and encounters all manner of weird and wonderful (and sometimes rather frightening) characters, but also a warm and friendly new family who are all too happy to welcome him in. Indeed, adoptive families feature in many of Dahl's best stories.

Much of the emotional sadness of Dahl's own childhood found its way into his work, and as such he is likely to have felt a great affinity with Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli. The powerful Grave of the Fireflies - about a young boy and his little sister struggling to survive in Japan during World War Two - is likely to have had a big impact on the author, as would the studio's later World War Two-set film, The Wind Rises, the story of an adventurous young aeronautical engineer - a character Dahl might have identified with hugely, having been an RAF pilot during the war himself. Another story, that of a lonely young girl striking up a bond with a kind and elderly artist who encourages her to use creativity to express her feelings, When Marnie Was There is one of Ghibli's most enchanting and magical stories, in part an ode to the imagination that Dahl would surely have appreciated.

Dahl loved the idea of grown-ups being like big kids, so he may well have been drawn to some of the films featuring American comedian Will Ferrell. His classic Christmas movie Elf and The LEGO Movie both play with the idea of grown-ups in a world of small people. The wildly inventive LEGO Movie's chaotic world full of wacky characters bears many of Dahl's tropes, but is also an unusually satirical film for one aimed at young audiences, introducing serious ideas whilst still being hugely entertaining. And is there perhaps a shade of Willy Wonka in the figure of President Business?

Films sharing Dahl's adventurous spirit and child's perspective on the adult world - as well as containing more than a dose of his humorous style and language - include Son of RambowJumanji and Swallows and Amazons. The upcoming Hunt For The Wilderpeople builds on this theme, also incorporating a developing bond between a curmudgeonly older man and a slightly troubled, lonely young boy in extraordinary circumstances. The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, meanwhile, tells the story of a young inventor embarking on a solo road-trip across America and is full of Dahl-style humour, while Moonrise Kingdom centres around a young boy scout escaping camp and heading into the wilderness with his girlfriend, and is packed with quirkiness and dysfunctional characters. Its director, Wes Anderson, has a professed love of Dahl, having previously directed stop-motion Dahl animation Fantastic Mr Fox.

Animation studio LAIKA, responsible for CoralineThe Boxtrolls and the recent Kubo and the Two Strings, are also known for their use of stop-motion techniques. As well as a spirit of adventure, and often using young protagonists, all of LAIKA's titles display the same slightly dark and macabre humour that characterised so much of Dahl's storytelling.

Dahl understood how much young people love scary stories - something never better expressed than in The Witches. The Nightmare Before Christmas, in which Coraline director Henry Selick (who also made James and the Giant Peach) collaborated with Tim Burton (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), is a classic stop-motion film full of Dahl's humour, a playful use of music and song, and a healthy dose of scares! For older audiences, extraordinary imagination, vivid visuals, childlike wonder and genuine fear all combine to darkly magical effect in Guillermo Del Toro's fantasy masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth and Swedish horror Let The Right One In. Definitely not for the faint-of-heart, these titles are interesting examples of the kinds of stories Dahl might have been drawn to had he shifted his focus to slightly older audiences. Legendary director Nic Roeg also made his name in iconic horror films (such as Don't Look Now) and clearly carried that experience with him when adapting The Witches.

Dahl's stories have attracted some of the most famous and distinctive filmmakers of all time, with Steven Spielberg most recently tackling his work in this summer's The BFG. All of these directors managed the delicate balance of accurately capturing Dahl's own spirit and style and blending it with their own. But if there is one filmmaker today who perhaps bears the closest relation to Dahl's distinctive storytelling, it is perhaps Terry Gilliam.

Former Monty Python star Gilliam has directed a host of starkly original and visually playful and imaginative films, including BrazilTime Bandits, and The Brothers Grimm, whose dark fairy tales in turn provided much of the inspiration for Dahl's own classic series of Revolting Rhymes. Gilliam's films are defined by a wide cast of extraordinary, eccentric characters; a dark humour; pervading sense of magic; and frequent clashes between good and evil. It seems likely that he and Dahl would have felt a great affinity with one another's storytelling techniques and we would love to see Gilliam tackle one of Dahl's books one day. Terry, if you're reading, we'd like to suggest that George's Marvellous Medicine is ripe for the cinematic treatment! 

Want more Roald Dahl? Watch our young reporters pick their Top Five Roald Dahl heroes, and listen to Joe and Elinor discussed the wondrous worlds of Roald Dahl on their latest podcast for club leaders, including discussions of his many famous animations, the anti-bullying messages that are weaved into his stories, and some more recent films that have a distinctly Dahl-esque spirit.

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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