For generations, children everywhere—and the adults who read to them—have been lucky to have the worlds of Roald Dahl to spark, mix and mingle with their own imaginations. The author, whose darker stories find echoes today in the work of writers like Lemony Snicket, knew early on that children are far savvier about the world than most might think, and his best work reflects that. In a Dahl book, the velveteen rabbit has real teeth.
There is also, often, a child without much supervision, solitary and self-reliant and perhaps just a bit lonely. Dahl lost his father young; he spent time at boarding schools after that, missing his mother and perhaps planting the seeds of his future stories. Indeed, it was at one such school that Dahl indulged in the free chocolates sent over by a nearby Cadbury factory, which used the pupils as a type of testing kitchen for their new recipes. Years later, Dahl would write Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, about a poor boy who finds the key to a new life in the wrapper of a chocolate bar.
That story turns 50 this year, and in the last half-century has been adapted as a musical (in London’s West End), an opera, and twice as a film. Of those films, it is 1971’s Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory that has proved to be the lasting version; a 2005 retelling with Johnny Depp as the madcap candy magnate Wonka was less successful, despite hewing closer to the original story.
Or perhaps that’s precisely why it missed its target—note the name change in the title of the ’71 version: that film, which returns to the big screen this week at local Cinemark theaters, was really about Gene Wilder’s Wonka; the innocence of Charlie played second fiddle to the unhinged candyman’s lickable wallpaper and everlasting gobstoppers. But if the details of Charlie’s life were underplayed, the message—about kindness and caring for those around you—was all the more lasting for it. (With its disapproving take on overindulgence, childhood obesity and television, the film also feels remarkably up to date.)
Decades later, Dahl’s story, and his sense of invention, still have the power to take viewers to what Wonka calls a “world of pure imagination.”
Also this week: One of Dahl’s less seen works is The BFG, or “The Big Friendly Giant,” a story about Sophie, a young orphaned girl who teams up with a kind giant to put an end to the child-eating of other, not so friendly giants like the Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler. The BFG, who catches dreams—floating, sparkling things that he later blows into the bedroom windows of sleeping children—uses his special skills to enlist the help of the Queen in their fight.
A new version from Steven Spielberg (with a screenplay from Melissa Mathison, the writer of E.T.) is slated for a 2016 release, but the original 1989 animated film is available for streaming right now on YouTube, or for purchase via iTunes.
Finally this week, Beatlemania takes hold on Sunday and Wednesday at Amherst Cinema when A Hard Day’s Night screens for two special shows. Director Richard Lester’s lighthearted look at the group’s insane celebrity in 1964 is a G-rated piece of rock ’n’ roll history that makes today’s music world look a heck of a lot less fun.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.