Like so many slightly odd, library-obsessed kids, some of my earliest youthful fantasies (and nightmares) were a product of Roald Dahl’s mind. His stories are as terrifying as they are beautiful, and as aspirational as they are painfully, realistically tragic—despite Matilda’s woeful parentage situation and deplorable elementary school, I wanted to live in her shoes nonetheless. The author’s stories don’t falsely promise an egalitarian planet— they understand how silenced and misunderstood young children can feel. But Dahl’s work also weaves storylines where the rot of the grown-up world is no match for the unassailable imagination of an unsinkable kid.
Dahl’s ubiquity among bookish, whimsical youth also presents a real challenge for film adaptations, with no perfectly formulaic answer. Animation highlights Dahl’s absurdity well, but so do the expressive mannerisms of performers like Anjelica Huston, Gene Wilder, and Danny DeVito. Master directors like Wes Anderson, Robert Zemeckis, and even Quentin Tarantino have tried their hand at putting Dahl’s text to screen, to varied effect (read: not all of them have made this list of best adaptations). No matter your general aesthetic, there’s just no one way to do it.
That’s not to mention the subjectivity of taste, which rings particularly true given the affecting, well-drawn nature of Dahl’s diverse characters. From witches to chocolate connoisseurs to well-meaning upstairs neighbors, his characters always had a sparkle that, when captured well on film, translates into magic. When you connect with Dahl characters, whether as a young child or an adult, they stay with you; the same is true for a skillful film adaptation of Dahl’s world. Ahead of the Netflix premiere of Matilda: The Musical on December 9, here are the 10 best film renditions of Dahl’s stories (in this writer’s humble opinion).
10. Danny, Champion Of The World (1989)
Danny The Champion Of The World Danny Made Champion
Could a pheasant-poaching father be Jeremy Irons’ most wholesome role? Although this wonderfully British television adaptation of the 1975 Dahl book can lean into the formulaic, there’s something delightfully replay-worthy in the story of Danny (Irons’ real-life son Samuel) and his father’s fight to save their land. For the sake of eliminating too much bias, it’s also fair to note an “absence makes the heart go fonder” clause for this film. Largely unavailable on streaming, the re-watchable nature of Danny, Champion Of The World makes a great case for the value of collecting physical media.
9. The BFG (1986)
The BFG The Movie - Digitally Restored Trailer
Although the 2D animation in this 1986 film is far from perfect, it offers a distinctly ’80s aesthetic that brings a lightness and playfulness to Dahl’s beloved story of intergenerational, interspecies friendship. Dahl himself worked closely on this adaptation and reportedly gave the film a standing ovation when he saw it in theaters alongside his family. Young orphan Sophie (who wears the same round spectacles Dahl’s granddaughter wore as a child) is snatched one night from her orphanage by an enormous, knobby-knuckled hand soon revealed to belong to the rare affable giant in Giant Country, The BFG. The adventure they embark on is full of roll-off-the-tongue vernacular like “whizzpoppers” and “snozzcumbers,” and the relationship they build together could warm the iciest heart. Once the fright wears off, who wouldn’t want a BFG to dance through their dreams with?
8. Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (2016)
A Bedouin rhyme - Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot: Preview - BBC One Christmas 2014
Judi Dench as a manic pixie dream neighbor in a coiffed red bob? Dustin Hoffman lowering turtles of varying sizes down to her, a dream of romance in his heart? For a TV movie, BBC’s Esio Trot has star power leaking out its ears—but there’s more to the story than that. Few Dahl tales have such a cut-and-dried, adorable realism—the drama here isn’t in witches or wicked principals, but in the outlandish and odd things one does for love when smitten by the girl next door.
Esio Trot would likely rank at least two places higher were it not for the incessant narrative interruptions by James Corden. To be fair, the film was released in 2016, before the comedian had reached such, well, annoying heights. Unfortunately, upon revisit, it’s difficult not to wish he would leave our charming protagonists and their budding love story alone.
7. 36 Hours (1965)
36 Hours (1965) Official Trailer - James Garner, Eva Marie Saint War Thriller Movie HD
Who knew the author behind The BFG would have a knack for noir as well? With James Garner and Eva Saint Marie at the lead, this adaptation of Dahl’s short story “Beware Of The Dog” moves at a slow, simmering pace, but pulls it off nonetheless. A less memorable 1986 adaptation of the tale, Breaking Point, doesn’t quite capture the metered tone of the World War II story, which follows an American soldier who wakes up in an unknown hospital with his memory wiped. As he begins to realize the strange nurse and doctor caring for him aren’t exactly who they say they are, danger swiftly ensues. Despite its adult skew (and a thoroughly different tone than most of the other films on this list), this adaptation still captures Dahl’s ability to imbue layered, lived-in tales with an air of the unexpected.
6. Revolting Rhymes (2017)
Revolting Rhymes clip
Of all the adaptations on this list, Revolting Rhymes perhaps best captures the sensation of being read aloud to. Aired in two 30-minute sequences, Revolting Rhymes won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film back in 2017 for its off-kilter depiction of Dahl’s poetry collection. Although the characters here are as ubiquitous as they come—Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White both make an appearance—don’t expect tried and true endings to these sagas. Top-notch grumbling and expressive narration from Dominic West ties all six of these tales together (if only he’d been available from Esio Trot ...).
5. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory - Pure Imagination Scene (4/10) | Movieclips
Call it nostalgia or call it the effect of Gene Wilder’s piercing blue eyes: time and time again, this 1971 adaptation of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory nails the wondrous emotional rollercoaster of the book (and of childhood itself). Adapting a story based on the Eden of a magical candy factory (not to mention the motley crew of golden-ticket winners who run rampant through it) is an enormous feat, and Mel Stuart’s adaptation stands out as a film that truly expanded upon its source material. For what it’s worth, Dahl himself hated this film so much that he shut down a planned sequel, Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator—but we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Songs like “Pure Imagination” and scenes like the infamous boat ride of terror make Wonka and his hermetic world feel even more sublimely drawn.
4. James And The Giant Peach (1996)
The Rhino That Confronts us all | James And The Giant Peach
One look at some of the original drawings in Dahl’s body of work indicates a clear alignment between his artistic vision and that of James & The Giant Peach director Henry Selick. Selick, who also directed a fabulous Coraline adaptation, has a real skill for capturing the darkness and oddity of forms traditionally reserved for children (and working with Tim Burton as a producer doesn’t hurt.) This lends perfectly to the existential travelogue of orphaned James, who sails to New York City on a boat fitted from a giant peach and bonds with a colorful crew of insects along the way. Rarely does a film meld real actors and stop motion in such a seamless manner—here, it’s a definitive choice for characterizing the dichotomy between James’ life at home with his exploitative aunts and his adventure out at sea. Using that surrealism, Selick manages to merge James’ far-fetched adventure with real, resonant themes of chosen family, nurturing environments, and self-acceptance.
3. The Witches (1990)
The Witches (4/10) Movie CLIP - Maximum Results! (1990) HD
What an apt metaphor for growing up, when rewatching 1990’s The Witches, to suddenly envy Anjelica Huston’s chameleonic star power here—the fear I felt as a young girl reading about the dastardly head couldn’t hold a candle to the terror I felt a few years later watching Huston peel off her own skin before her disciples. This adaptation of The Witches captures the high-drama of Dahl’s work and plays with the more adult themes of glamour and aging in an ingenious way. From the wardrobe to the script, director Nicholas Roeg’s take on The Witches manages to embody camp without leaning cutesy—even a deviation from the book’s darker ending doesn’t kill the film’s gleefully wicked spirit. With Huston in the lead, the sky’s the limit.
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (1/5) Movie CLIP - Boggis, Bunce and Bean (2009) HD
Despite director Wes Anderson’s penchant for über-specific stylization, of all the films on this list, Fantastic Mr. Fox likely has the most fun. While more than a few titles in our countdown demonstrate how well animation lends to Dahl’s stories, Anderson’s stop-motion project exemplifies the possibilities of the format. Buoyed by the dextrous voice talents of George Clooney and Meryl Streep (plus Anderson favorites Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson), Dahl’s idiosyncratic yet loving fox family shines onscreen. Beyond that, however, Anderson allows them to grapple with some heavier themes than they’re allotted in the book. Whoever said existential banter and complex family conflict were off-limits for a well-dressed group of wild animals?
1. Matilda (1996)
Matilda (1996) - Pigtail Hammer Throw Scene (3/10) | Movieclips
Few movies have remained with me in a more profound way than 1996’s Matilda, my favorite Dahl adaptation and one of my favorite coming-of-age movies in general. The telekinetic and well-read little girl’s world feels both true to life and deliciously fantastical—the absurdist physical comedy of Principal Trunchbull and the poor children who come into her path ring as true today as it did in childhood. But in every way that Matilda’s plot centers around reviling children, this adaptation embodies a fierce love for childhood and all its scaly bits.
Even after a musical adaptation, and a movie adaptation of the musical (now streaming on Netflix), director Danny DeVito’s gleefully wicked vision of Matilda still stands as a benchmark for adapting Dahl. Even Matilda’s most formidable foes—Trunchbull and her Chokey, Harry and Zinnia Wormwood’s delectable douchebaggery—are afforded layers and nuanced arcs. The adults around Matilda have emotions just as big and wily as she does, and their age has made them no less volatile. Growing up is hard, yes, but sometimes being grown is even harder—Matilda ruminates on and luxuriates in both spaces. The result is a film with something new to offer on each revisit, as inviting and personal as a dog-eared favorite novel.
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