For Would-Be Dahl Movie Adapters, A Critical Test

Roald Dahl's stories have proved irresistible for movie makers as well as children. But before they can start shooting, filmmakers must get permission from Dahl's widow and live up to her rigorous standards.

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Now, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is unusual for a Roald Dahl story because its about animals, not children. As NPRs Elizabeth Blair reports, some of the best movie adaptations are made by filmmakers who share Mr. Dahls understanding of childrens fears.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Its almost unbearable what Roald Dahls children endure: James is an orphan forced to live with his evil aunts.

(Soundbite of movie, James and the Giant Peach)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) And get these stupid dreams out of your head and get back to work.

BLAIR: Augustus Gloop falls into a chocolate river and gets sucked up a pipe.

(Soundbite of movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

Ms. FRANZISKA TROEGNER (Actress): (As Mrs. Gloop) Hes done. Hell be melted into marshmallows in five seconds.

BLAIR: And Matilda Wormwood, a brilliant little girl who loves to read, is tortured by her parents.

(Soundbite of movie, Matilda)

Mr. DANNY DEVITO (Actor): (As Harry Wormwood) Listen, you little wise-acre. Im smart, youre dumb. Im big, youre little. Im right, youre wrong, and theres nothing you can do about it.

BLAIR: But these same children almost always triumph in the end. James lives happily ever after in the pit of the giant peach and Matilda gets the loving home she deserves.

(Soundbite of documentary film)

Mr. ROALD DAHL (Author): I certainly see myself totally on the side of children when I write books for children.

BLAIR: Roald Dahl from a British documentary about his life.

(Soundbite of documentary film)

Mr. DAHL: Its very important this, because most adults have forgotten how children are thinking. You really do get into it. Its quite fun.

BLAIR: Wicked fun, and filmmakers love it. But for the privilege of adapting one of his stories, they must first get permission from the Roald Dahl estate and prove that they could think like a child the way Dahl could. Only a handful of screenplays pass the test.

Liccy Dahl is Roalds widow.

Ms. LICCY DAHL (Widow of Roald Dahl): I cannot tell you the number of screenplays we have had written for various other books, and you just know its nowhere near it.

BLAIR: Because it doesnt have the what? The

Ms. DAHL: The wit and the charm and the spooky and the

BLAIR: Director Wes Anderson got the nod for Fantastic Mr. Fox, and so did Henry Selick for James and the Giant Peach.

Mr. HENRY SELICK (Director): Im a huge fan of Roald Dahl. Hes one of the few adults who really understood the nature of children and what they want, what sorts of stories, what their fears are.

BLAIR: To turn the story of James and the Giant Peach and his eccentric insect friends into a movie, Selick spent time at Gypsy House, Roald Dahls estate in the English countryside.

Mr. SELICK: One of the most thrilling moments was simply to see the original first draft of James and the Giant Peach in Roald Dahls handwriting, when everything was different. It wasnt a peach, it was a cherry. Hed change things along the way to make it better and it gave me a little sense of liberty in making some of the changes I felt necessary in making the film.

BLAIR: The Dahl estate gave Selick license to make changes because they were confident he would keep the unusual spirit of Dahl intact. Selick made the centipede from Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of movie, James and the Giant Peach)

Mr. RICHARD DREYFUSS (Actor): (As Centipede) Hey, teach you to mess with me, you overgrown sardine.

BLAIR: And made the spider exotic, with a Polish accent.

(Soundbite of movie, James and the Giant Peach)

Ms. SUSAN SARANDON (Actress): (As Miss Spider) Everything we did was part of the brilliant plan of James.

Ms. ROBIN SWICORD (Screenwriter, Matilda): Theres a little tweaking that always goes on when youre trying to make things fit into kind of a dramatic construct.

BLAIR: Robin Swicord and her husband Nick Kazan loved the story Matilda so much, they co-wrote a screenplay on spec and submitted it to the Dahl estate. Liccy Dahl

Ms. DAHL: They were so desperate to have it, and we said, well, alright, have a go, have a go.

BLAIR: In the movies opening scene, the Wormwoods are leaving the hospital with their newborn baby Matilda already complaining about her. Mr. Wormwood is carrying the infant like shes a gym bag.

(Soundbite of movie, Matilda)

Mr. DEVITO: (As Harry Wormwood) What a waste of time.

Ms. RHEA PERLMAN (Actress): (As Zinnia Wormwood) And painful.

Mr. DEVITO: (As Harry Wormwood) And expensive, 9.25 for a bar of soap?

Ms. PERLMAN: (As Zinnia Wormwood) Well, I had to take a shower, Harry.

Mr. DEVITO: (As Harry Wormwood) $5,000? Im not paying it. What are they going to do? Repossess the kid?

BLAIR: This classic Roald Dahl scene was never in the book, and it was a liberty the filmmakers could take because they understood the world Dahl created. Screenwriter Robin Swicord

Ms. SWICORD: My feeling about adaptation in general is that if you move simply in lock step with the novel page by page, you might as well read the book. The idea in an adaptation is that youre making something slightly other.

BLAIR: And for his widow, Liccy Dahl, the whole point in making these movies is to attract more readers to Roald Dahls stories.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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In 'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' The Dazzle Is In The Details

W: Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) in 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fantastic Mr. Fox

  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Genre: Animated Comedy
  • Running Time: 87 minutes

Rated PG: Action, smoking and slang humor

With: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray

Fantastic Mr. Fox goes to your head like too much champagne — which is what you'd expect with George Clooney and Meryl Streep voicing Mr. and Mrs. Fox, the Nick and Nora Charles of the forest world.

The film follows the plot of the Roald Dahl book, which is a battle of wits between the larcenous title character and the combined forces of Boggis, Bunce and Bean. They're not a law firm, but three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers in Mr. Fox's part of the world. And the richest.

Mr. Fox swore off robbing these three once he and Mrs. Fox became parents, but he still has the yen. Working with Kylie the Opossum, an old partner in crime, Mr. Fox plans that film-noir movie staple, One Last Job that will set him up for life. Mrs. Fox, not surprisingly, is unamused when she catches them in the act.

As written by director Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, the film's ultrasophisticated characters do run the risk of sounding a little too arch. Then again, they're animals, which is a big help when it comes to keeping things grounded.

Fantastic Mr. Fox has been made in the painstaking process known as stop-motion animation, a technique that's brought all kinds of things (giant peaches, dogs named Gromit) to life over the years. Here it reanimates the career of filmmaker Anderson, whose love of quirky details is tailor-made for this.

Stop-motion allowed Anderson to create his own very specific environment, complete with animal puppets that sport real hair and an autumnal palette with no use at all for the color green. He even found places for his usual cohort of actors — people like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson — as voice talent. "I'm a wild animal and a husband and father," our hero declares, and this movie succeeds because of its ability to strike the right balance between those poles.

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