10 great Roald Dahl films and TV series

Clever girls, wicked witches and friendly giants. With the new film of Matilda the Musical about to open the BFI London Film Festival, we tot up the best attempts to bottle that Roald Dahl magic on screen.

29 September 2022

By Nikki Baughan

London Film Festival
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (2022)

More than 30 years after his death, Roald Dahl remains one of the most prolific on-screen storytellers, his astonishingly imaginative books remaining ripe for adaptation – often numerous times over – for both cinema and television. 

Following the publication of his first novel The Gremlins (no, not that one) in 1943, which started life as a serialised story in Cosmopolitan and was inspired by his Norwegian mother’s folk tales, Dahl went on to create numerous characters who have become favourites for generations. Think of the deliciously tempting world of Charlie and that wondrous chocolate factory, for example, or the adventures of Matilda and her incredible mind. These are just two of several Dahl stories that have been filmed more than once, with a big-budget musical version of Matilda, adapted from the Tony and Olivier-award winning stage musical, set to open this year’s BFI London Film Festival before arriving in UK cinemas in November. 

And there’s yet more to come. In 2023, audiences will be treated to Wonka, director and co-writer Paul King’s origin story about the eccentric confectionary king as played by Timothée Chalamet. There’s also television adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG in the works, and Wes Anderson is in pre-production on The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar – the filmmaker’s second foray into Dahl’s mind, following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. 

Ahead of these new takes on old favourites, here’s a look back at Dahl on screen to date. And beware: some of these may bite…

36 Hours (1964)

Director: George Seaton

36 Hours (1964)

James Garner and Eva Marie Saint in a Dahl adaptation? Yes, although this German-American war film is not based on one of his famed children’s books but instead his 1944 short story ‘Beware of the Dog’, originally published in Harper’s magazine. 

In a transplant from the British characters and setting of Dahl’s story, Garner plays an American major who believes he is recuperating from his injuries back in the USA, only to find he has been kidnapped by the Germans who want him to spill secrets. It’s a delightfully dark Dahl set-up – one that was also turned into the less successful 1989 TV movie Breaking Point – and a great opportunity to see one of his adult stories given some screen time.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Director: Ken Hughes

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

While not adapted from one of his own books, there’s no mistaking the influence of Dahl on this eccentric 1968 family adventure. It’s loosely based on Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel, but Dahl co-wrote the screenplay and makes it feels like one of his stories, involving a fabulous flying car, children involved in extraordinary adventures and even a typically hideous villain, in the shape of the malevolent child catcher. 

Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes give it their all as the gloriously named Inventor Caractacus and Truly Scrumptious, but they are routinely upstaged by Chitty herself, a handsome flying car with its own distinct personality, which takes them to the fictional land of Vulgaria so that they may topple a ruthless baron. This was not the first time Dahl was involved in penning the screenplay for an outlandish Fleming story: he also co-wrote the screenplay for Sean Connery’s 1967 Bond outing You Only Live Twice.

Tales of the Unexpected (1979 to 1988)

Tales of the Unexpected: Lamb to the Slaughter (1979)

This British TV series ran for nine seasons, and was originally based on adaptations of short stories in three of Dahl’s collections – Someone like You (1953), Kiss Kiss (1960) and Tales of the Unexpected (1979) – although series two and beyond featured episodes by other writers. Dahl himself introduced most of the stories, which, despite largely being set in the real world, are intriguingly off-kilter and, in many cases, particularly chilling. 

Take, for example, the macabre ‘The Landlady’ and ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, both of which deal with murderous protagonists. Both had also been adapted – along with four other of Dahl’s short stories – for the US series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1950s and 60s; ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ being nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 1959. Elsewhere, Dahl’s short ‘William and Mary’ was also adapted for the short-lived BBC series Late Night Horror, which ran for six episodes in 1968.

The Witches (1990)

Director: Nicolas Roeg

The Witches (1990)

As the high-priestess at the centre of The Witches (published in 1983), Anjelica Huston must rank as one of the most memorable of all Dahl portrayals. Her towering stature, pointy nose and long black gloves combine to render her utterly unforgettable. And her transformation from the poised, respectable philanthropist that is her real-world disguise to her true self – a cackling, wart-infested crone with a hatred for children so deep that she turns them into rats – is a thrillingly terrifying moment. 

That it all takes place at a sleepy British seaside hotel, where the witches are holding their annual conference, is the icing on the cake. In fact, Nicolas Roeg’s version is all so very good that a visually slicker but considerably less atmospheric 2020 remake starring Anne Hathaway failed to topple it. 

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Director: Henry Selick

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Dahl’s first story written specifically as a novel for children, 1961’s James and the Giant Peach is one of his most charming works. Like many of his tales, its protagonist is a small boy lacking in the parental department. He’s an orphan forced to live with his cruel aunts, who befriends the eclectic bugs who live inside a giant peach, and sails away with them for a new life in New York. 

Directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton, the 1996 Disney animation blends stop-motion and CGI to great effect, channelling magical wonder to offset the darker tones of a boy looking for the safety his home does not provide. As the voyagers overcome perils and adversity – including The Nightmare Before Christmas’s Jack Skellington in a cameo as a ghostly pirate captain – and forge a makeshift family of sorts, Dahl’s peerless imagination really takes flight.

Matilda (1996)

Director: Danny DeVito

Matilda (1996)

One of the enduring joys of Dahl is that he is so naturally attuned to the universal desires of children. What kid wouldn’t want to sail away in a giant peach or own their own chocolate factory? And what young person would turn down the chance to run rings around their parents, and have the power of being able to move things with their minds? The first adaptation of Matilda (published in 1988) encapsulates the world of its eponymous protagonist so completely you’ll be convinced that, with practice, you too can make your pencil move across your desk.

Mara Wilson is a scene-stealing delight as the apple-cheeked youngster with the out-of-this-world brain, while Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman have great fun hamming it up as her terrible parents, and Pam Ferris is genuinely horrifying as the sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull. (Pity the poor child who defies Trunchbull’s rules and wears their hair in pigtails.) As Matilda slowly turns the table and wrestles back control of her life from the adults around her, never has a happy ending been so well deserved. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Director: Tim Burton

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

While many regard the Gene Wilder-starring, psychedelic 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as the superior adaptation of this most famous of Dahl stories (published in 1964), Tim Burton’s mid-2000s remake more than gives it a run for its money. Johnny Depp deploys his now-standard eccentricity to great effect as Wonka, giving the quirky factory owner both a sharp-edged wit – like many of Dahl’s adult characters, he hates less-than-perfect children – and a poignant vulnerability.

Freddie Highmore is appealing as Charlie, with David Kelly an utterly lovable Grandpa Joe. But the real star of this show is the film’s luscious look: delectable production design from Alex McDowell and Oscar-nominated costumes by Gabriella Pescucci bring this fantastical world to eye-popping life.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Director: Wes Anderson

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Who but Wes Anderson could do such justice to this anthropomorphic tale of the cunning Mr Fox and his attempts to bring down the local farmer? Anderson’s decision to tell Dahl’s story, published in 1970, in stop-motion animation is a masterstroke, giving the whole thing an otherworldly texture. Also crucial is the decision to use the caramel tones of George Clooney as the voice of the charming but really-quite-selfish Mr Fox, who risks his home and the safety of his family and friends in order to pillage the brutish farmer next door. 

Despite its use of cute, furry animals, Dahl’s story makes a sharp comment about established social hierarchies and abuses of power. The screenplay by Anderson and Noah Baumbach retains this social messaging while also creating a witty, fast-paced woodland adventure. It was nominated for both an Academy Award and a BAFTA for best animated feature of the year.

The BFG (2016)

Director: Steven Spielberg

The BFG (2016)

With the first BFG adaptation, a frantic animated version released in 1989, giving children nightmares for weeks, Steven Spielberg took a rather more gentle approach for his live-action take on Dahl’s 1982 novel, which uses modern CGI effects to help create this larger-than-life world ruled by giants. Mark Rylance gives an outstanding, multi-layered motion-capture performance as the titular Big Friendly Giant, who befriends a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill). 

True, Spielberg’s version jettisons some of the sarcastic wit of Dahl’s original, which was as damning about the behaviour of some ‘human beans’ as it was about the horrid giants who eat them. But it’s a visually stunning piece of cinema, which vividly encapsulates that Dahl magic.

Revolting Rhymes (2016)

Directors: Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer and Bin-Han To

Revolting Rhymes (2016)

The first part of this delightful BBC One animated adaptation of Dahl’s grotesque kids rhymes was Oscar-nominated for best animated short film. As with the original book, published in 1982, the attraction lies in his subversion of traditional children’s fairy stories, all told in verse: like Cinderella, in which the prince is actually a homicidal maniac; Jack and the Beanstalk, where seven dwarves are all compulsive gamblers; and Little Red Riding Hood, in which Red is a gun-toting action hero. (“The small girl smiles / One eyelid flickers / She whips a pistol from her knickers.”) 

A stellar voice cast embraces the wicked rhymes as a delicious contrast to the gorgeous visuals. The poems were previously adapted for a more traditional 1990 animation, featuring the original artwork of regular Dahl collaborator Quentin Blake and voiced by Prunella Scales and Timothy West.

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