Sunday, 14 August 2016

The BFG by Roald Dahl and Melissa Mathison

The BFG, as you no doubt know, is a Big Friendly Giant, here incarnated quite brilliantly by Mark Rylance, put through the CGI mill, in a new film directed by Stephen Spielberg and adapted by Melissa Mathison from Roald Dahl's children's novel.

Roald Dahl is a masterful writer and something of a household god of mine for his brilliant, concise, acerbic short stories which are often deeply disturbing and hilarious at the same time. 

They also invariably have a sting in the tail. Allow me to recommend, for a start, 'Lamb to the Slaughter', 'The Great Switcheroo', and 'The Champion of the World'.

But Dahl is more widely known for his kids' fiction, with tens of millions of fans worldwide. So it isn't surprising that his back-catalogue is being busily strip-mined for movie adaptations — all the more so since the writer's death. 

As I discussed in last week's post, Dahl was unhappy with the way his work was treated on screen and blocked film projects during his lifetime. But since his passing there's been something of a goldrush of Roald Dahl children's movies, usually heavy on the special effects because of the fantastic nature of these tales.

The latest of these is The BFG, based on one of Dahl's most beloved works. Sad to report, the movie is likely to be gone from the cinemas by the time you read this. Despite being a Spielberg film it isn't showing much box office mojo and has already tanked in America. 

All this makes sense because, despite its many fine attributes, the movie doesn't work. But before we examine why that is, let's dwell for a moment on those fine attributes...

I already mentioned how terrific Mark Rylance is in a subtle, nuanced performance (playing a CGI giant!). There's also dazzlingly imaginative production design — I love the way the giant uses everyday human objects repurposed to his scale. So, for instance, a red London phone box with its top removed becomes a receptacle for kitchen implements.

Plus the movie has a fine score by John Williams, and there's a captivating cameo by a delightful little ginger cat. And a nice running gag about how there are giants more giant than the BFG... indeed, he's a shrimp by comparison.

But of course, none of this is sufficient to save the movie. One fundamental flaw is that there just isn't enough story... the screenwriter Melissa Mathison is certainly distinguished, and has a laudable grasp of movies for children — she wrote The Black Stallion and ET.

The lack of plot is a major flaw, though. The only real story here is the BFG versus the nasty, bigger giants (who eat children) and how he defeats them with the help of Sophie (named after Dahl's granddaughter), the intrepid little orphan girl he befriends.
This isn't enough to fill the movie, and there are long soporific sequences where the BFG and Sophie explore a magical realm together, yawn... (I really did nearly fall asleep during this bit).

And, it has to be said, the character of Sophie, as played by Ruby Barnhill is also a problem. It sounds terribly unkind, but I don't think she's right for the part.  

She's a superb actor. But the viewer just doesn't warm to her, or care about her fate. We don't empathise. Instead we sit there thinking, gosh, that little girl can really act, but feeling quite unmoved by her and her situation.  
Oh well, at least The BFG has the best fart scene since Blazing Saddles. It doesn't sound like much, and it isn't exactly the Odessa Steps sequence from the Battleship Potemkin... 

But I do find fond recollections of it almost tempting me to see the film again...

(Image credits: The movie posters are, as usual from the reliable Imp Awards. The book covers ditto from the ditto Good Reads.)

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that Dahl felt that way about movie adaptations since he adapted others' works for film himself. I always preferred Roger Zelazny's view on the matter. When people saw the movie "Damnation Alley" and asked if he was mad that they ruined his book, he'd just look over to his bookshelf and say something to the effect that his book was just fine.
    As for BFG, I have no plans to see it, but thank you for the review.