Sophie, during a sleepless night in the orphanage decides to sneak out of bed and gaze out of her dorm window. Of all the things she expected to see, a 25 foot tall giant was not one of them. But she does see him. And the giant sees her. Before she realises what has happened, she is snatched from her room and brought to Giant Country. Fortunately, Sophie is in the company of The BFG, the Big Friendly Giant, who would never dream of harming a human being. The same cannot be said for nine other giants, who regularly make meals of human beings and a horrified Sophie convinces The BFG to help her stop the massive murdering monsters.
Whenever a new film based on a Roald Dahl novel is announced I’m a little more cautious than interested. In the back of my mind there’s always a voice that says “They’re going to screw this up aren’t they?” My pessimism is not entirely unwarranted. I, like many people, grew up with his stories and poems. I read them and listened to the storybook tapes over and over and still love his work. But the reason I can’t get excited is because I find the track record of Roald Dahl movies less than impressive. Some have their own charm, just not much of Dahl’s charm. However upon seeing the new trailer for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG, my usual pessimism was absent. Why? Because a great film version of The BFG already exists. British animation studio Cosgrove Hall beautifully adapted Roald Dahl’s story into an emotional and hilarious animated feature.
Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall had made a name for themselves through a string of successful animated television shows such as Danger Mouse and Count Duckula. As well as that, British animation had quite the boom during the previous ten years, with iconic films such as Watership Down and When the Wind Blows receiving much praise for their drama and pessimistic themes. Although not as bleak as those two, it is after all a children’s film, The BFG does have a level of intensity and horror that seemed to run rampant through 80’s animated movies. The magic of The BFG however is its seamless integration of the darkness with the fantasy and humour that usually gets lost in big screen adaptations of children’s books, especially ones based on Roald Dahl. Its also a beautiful looking film. Giant Country is so mysterious and bleak, especially compared to the remarkable attention to detail in the human world. Plus the sequence where Sophie and The BFG catch dreams like butterflies is a whimsical delight This is all helped by a haunting score by Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe, utilizing percussion and synthesizers to go with the beautiful string section.
David Jason, star of Only Fools and Horses and frequent collaborator with Cosgrove Hall, provides the voice of The BFG. There are few actors of his caliber who could bring the warmth and friendliness required for the part as well as the tenderness for some of the films more emotional moments and is an absolute pleasure. Sophie is voiced by Amanda Root, an award winning stage and screen actress whom I actually remembered from my youth as the narrator of The BFG story tape. The rest of the cast is a delightful collection of comedy veterans such as Molly Sugden, Ballard Berkeley and Angela Thorne. Each one adds a comedic touch to be sure but also a good deal of sincerity, making for a thoroughly engaging film.
Of course, this is an adaptation and while it is indeed a very good one there are omissions from the book which would have been nice to see in the film. The wonderful conversations Sophie has with The BFG about his life and the existence of giants are absent as is the background of the BFG himself. While the film version keeps his loveable personality and charm, his universal knowledge of all the creatures on earth and his disdain of humanity is downplayed considerably. The BFG is as old as the Earth itself and has the wisdom and experience beyond any human comprehension yet none of that is displayed here. These omissions don’t really hurt the film but they may be missed by fans.
There are some changes though which I find improved on the book. The ending remains the same but the epilogue is different, opting for a more emotional conclusion which I enjoyed more than the delightful yet all too tidy conclusion Dahl wrote. Also, Dahl tries to downplay the scariness in his book. He never writes about the giants eating people and instead has the BFG tell Sophie of their exploits with dark, comic frankness complete with Turkey and Swede puns. I understand why he did this. Because he doesn’t want to scare the life out of his young readers, which is admirable. The film is a lot scarier. One particular chilling moment is where Sophie actually sees the Fleshlumpeater Giant reach into a child’s bedroom and screams in protest as the BFG runs away. While this may not be the way Dahl wrote it, I feel it creates a far more powerful ambience without betraying Dahl’s genius. It also gives Sophie a chance to actually see what these giants are doing and it further motivated to stop them.
ITV aired The BFG on Christmas Day in 1989. Since then we have seen many big screen adaptations of Roald Dahl’s novels and while some have been good this made for TV animated feature is, in my opinion, the only one to get if exactly right. Dahl’s ability to mix fantasy, awe, wit and drama are captured perfectly in this gorgeous little film. We shall find out next year whether or not the Spielberg film is any good but even if it’s a travesty of Burton-esque proportions, the sublime animated version will live on in my heart as the best film inspired by Roald Dahl’s brilliance.