Roald Dahl and the Back Story to “The BFG”

Behind Spielberg’s film is the secret autobiography of a writer and his heartbreak at the death of his seven-year-old daughter.

Steven Spielberg’s new movie The BFG (Disney Studios) is a largely faithful version of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book with the same title. The one significant departure from the book is downplayed in the film: In the novel, the last sentences make clear that the BFG (the Big Friendly Giant) has become a writer and is the author of the very book you are holding in your hands. Indeed, Dahl’s book about a writer is a kind of secret autobiography. Knowing how that is so might add to your appreciation of Spielberg’s terrific film.

Roald Dahl (1916–1990) was a World War II fighter ace who became a writer for adults and then an immensely popular writer for children. Among his well known books for kids are James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, and The Twits. With more than 200 million books in print, Dahl is ranked among the best selling authors of the world; and, far and away, he is the best selling children’s writer in the U.K. I remember going to a bookstore there and looking at two sections of children’s offerings: one was devoted to Dahl’s works and another to everyone else (from Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter).

Dahl was married for thirty years to the actress Patricia Neal and had five children. The BFG is dedicated to his daughter Olivia who was seven years old when she died of measles encephalitis, a rare side effect of measles. Dahl was crushed and, according to family members, rendered “limp with despair” for the rest of his life. Olivia died in 1962. The BFG was published in 1982.

Olivia and Roald Dahl. (Read her father on his daughter’s death and on the need for universal vaccination:

Olivia’s death provoked the Writer in Dahl, and he penned pamphlets widely distributed by pro-vaccine organizations. His vehement conclusion was “Parents who now refuse to have their children immunized are putting the lives of those children at risk.” School children at risk, a handful of them plucked nightly from their beds and meeting a grisly end–you might say the stage was set for “The BFG.”

In the story, a little girl named Sophie (played in the film by Ruby Barnhill) is abducted one night by a giant, pulled out of the second-floor window of her orphanage, and hauled back to the monster’s cave. It turns out that the BFG (played by Mark Rylance) is really a Big Friendly Giant and a vegetarian, but outside his cave is a band of giants who are carnivores and whose very audible bone-crunching disturbs Sophie, especially after she learns these creatures engage in nightly scouring of various countries where they snatch children and chew them up. In the end (and I’m leaving out a lot here), Sophie and the BFG, as well as the Queen of England and her armies, capture and imprison these fifty-foot high monsters who delight in eating “human beans,” preferably children.

The BFG, it should be said, is a typical Dahl story — full of the darkly comic, creepy big people, vulnerable children, and food issues. Think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the screenplay he wrote for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with its characters “Truly Scrumptious” and “Child Catcher.”

Not surprisingly, Dahl is often associated these days with goth storytellers like Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman, and Lemony Snicket. But, in truth, his stories about the young-being-gobbled-up seem squarely within the oral traditions of fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk”–especially the latter, given the giant’s threat to “grind [Jack’s] bones to make his bread” and his comeuppance at the hands of the young and small hero.

But in Dahl’s tall tale, it needs to be remembered, the BFG is a giant exception. It is not only that he is a vegetarian among his cannibal cohort, but that he is a Writer and the author of this book. In fact, the novel presents in fantasy terms a wonderful explanation of what writers do. The BFG spends time in Dreamland netting dreams, placing them in jars, labeling their contents, later mixing them with others, then traveling to the human world where he uses a trumpet-like device to blow these dreams into the bedrooms of sleeping children where they are inhaled and gloriously unfold in their minds. (I can’t think of a better or more poetic way of describing to the young what a Writer does.) And the BFG is different from you and me because he can hear “the secret whisperings of the world”; because he has exceptionally large ears, he can “hear” what each dream says and discriminate between them.

Like Dahl, the BFG is also a writer associated with wordplay. For example, his favorite drink is “frobscottle” which has an unusual property: unlike soda, bubbles in this drink go down rather than up so that the problem that may arise (or descend) is not burps but “whizzpoppers”–as farts are known. Likewise, food is divided between the “scrumdiddlyumptious” and the “rotsome.” In fact, there are so many verbal inventions of this kind throughout the book and Dahl’s work in general, that lexicographer Susan Rennie has recently published a volume titled The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary.

Given his strenuous written efforts for universal vaccinations, Dahl seems reincarnated in the BFG in another way in the book’s vision of the Writer-as-Savior. If writing is the mixing of dreams and their delivery, then in the last pages the BFG comes to the rescue. He mixes a dream for the Queen of England that tells her about the gang of giants and their nocturnal abductions; and this prompts her majesty to call out the army and the air force to trap the miscreants and imprison them in a gigantic hole built in London for that purpose and eventually sealed off so that no one might fall into that pit. The book ends with Sophie loving the BFG “as she would a father” and helping him become “a real writer.”

In the movie, this episode is accompanied by a funny moment where the Queen seeks advice about how to handle the giants by calling the White House and asking for Nancy and Ronnie. A joke like this reminds us that Dahl’s story about Sophie’s capture and imprisonment was published at the time of Iran hostage crisis and Reagan’s election. But, then, the book and the movie are full of many echoes, some that go backwards from King Kong to Gulliver to Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops. And some that go forward, since the story seems to offer almost prescient anticipations of, say, the captivity narrative of television’s Kimmy Schmidt or the Cincinnati nightmare of the child falling into a zoo’s gorilla enclosure.

In the end, however, all these lines lead back to Roald Dahl and to The BFG as his consummate autobiographical work (albeit, in fantasy form). In the end, the book and the movie are the work of a father and a writer whose seven-year-old daughter was taken from him too soon but who found a way in story to save her and other children.

The giants in “The BFG” (1982) call the tiny people they eat “human beans.” At the opposite end of the scale, the miniature people who live beneath the floorboards of a house in Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers” (1952) refer to the very large but ordinary sized folks who live above them as “giants” and “human beans.” For related reading (on size in children’s books and movies), see my essay in the Los Angeles Times: Smallness: Miyazaki’s “Arrietty” & Norton’s “The Borrowers.”

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01. July 2016 by
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