To date, and including Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches, sixteen feature films have been adapted from Roald Dahl’s work to varying degrees of success, but which is best? Including several repeat adaptations, some of the beloved author’s poetry and short stories, and of course his dark but charming children’s stories, there is a real spectrum in those adaptations.
Born in Wales to Norwegian parents, Dahl’s books are popular worldwide and he is known for his darkly comic children’s stories that never fail to delight. Traditionally accompanied by Quentin Blake’s gorgeous illustrations, Dahl’s work lends itself to film very well. In fact, he even worked on a number of screenplays – including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the James Bond film You Only Live Twice – but like Stephen King, tended to dislike adaptations of his own work, aside from a few notable exceptions.
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Given Dahl’s extensive bibliography, it’s a wonder that more movie adaptations haven’t manifested over the years – though Netflix are due to produce a string of animated Dahl projects in the near future, including Taika Waititi’s take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its lesser-known sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. As they currently stand, here’s every Roald Dahl movie adaptation ranked from worst to best.
15. Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (2017)
The most insulting Dahl adaptation by a country-mile, Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory manages to butcher both properties – its dedication to the late Gene Wilder (who played Wonka in the 1971 classic) feeling like a slap in the face to the great actor’s memory. It’s basically an animated remake of the original film, but with Tom and Jerry added for seemingly no reason at all. Essentially, it’s a feature-length meme – and feels like something the animators pitched when they were high, only to regret their choices during the actual production of the movie.
14. Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (2015)
Esio Trot is one of Dahl’s lesser-known works, about a lonely old man (Dustin Hoffman) falling in love with his tortoise-keeping neighbor (Judi Dench) and hatching a plan to win her affection. While that might be an unusual plot for a children’s story (it totally is), Dahl made it work – with a heightened, comic tone and snappy pacing throughout. The TV movie, adapted by Richard Curtis, is a by-the-numbers rom-com that pads out the plot with cliche, unnecessary conflict, and offers little kid-appeal while simultaneously patronizing older viewers. That said, Judi Dench does her best – while Hoffman is frightfully bland in the lead role.
13. 36 Hours (1964)/Breaking Point (1989)
36 Hours is an adaptation of Dahl’s WWII short story Beware of the Dog, about an RAF pilot who wakes up in a “British” hospital but begins to suspect that his caregivers have ulterior motives. It’s a great premise, one of Dahl’s best, but the film doesn’t really go anywhere with it – building tension and suspense in the first half, before tossing every cliche at its audience in the second. Breaking Point, a TV movie, re-tells the same story – but in a cheaper, more theatrical manner. Neither is good enough to recommend, nor bad enough to laugh at, which is mostly all that can be said for both.
12. The Witches (2020)
A toothless adaptation of Dahl’s classic novel, Robert Zemeckis’s The Witches re-locates the story to the American south, with Jahzir Kadeem Bruno playing an orphan who is turned into a mouse by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) and her minions. Teaming up with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), the boy-mouse races to overthrow the witches’ plans to rid the world of children. Sadly, the film is more concerned with CGI spectacle than storytelling and ends up falling extremely flat. Though it retains most of Dahl’s plot, the film lacks his heart and feels cheaply-made: a cash-grab, looking to ride on Nicolas Roeg’s coattails and the cult status of his 1990 adaptation.
11. Four Rooms (1995)
Four Rooms – an anthology film, with segments directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (among others) – is likely the strangest adaptation in the Dahl canon; inspired by his adult short stories and starring Tim Roth as a bellhop who can’t catch a break. Each director wrote their own chunk of the script, with Roth encountering a variety of strange guests in the hotel from Hell. As is often the case with anthology films, some of the segments are more effective than others, leading to a disjointed feature that might be of interest to Tarantino fans, but will likely alienate general audiences. At the very least, it’s bold – with an outsized, comedic performance from Roth, a questionable cameo from QT, and a fun, animated title sequence that recalls the work of Saul Bass and Chuck Jones.
10. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
The weirdest of the “straight” adaptations, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an ill-advised mess – with Johnny Depp’s performance as Wonka clearly (and regrettably) based on Michael Jackson. Intellectually, this connection makes sense, with Wonka portrayed as psychologically stunted in some way as a result of childhood trauma, but – in practice – he’s unlikeable and creepy and, largely, insufferable. The rest of the film also feels off; like Dahl’s book, it’s sinister, but not in the right way, and (in a bizarre sequence) explores Wonka’s childhood under the iron fist of his dentist father (Christopher Lee). The whole thing is like a parody of a Tim Burton film, steeped in Gothicism whether it suits the material or not, and – for that reason- is almost worth seeing. While Depp has jumped the shark many a time, Willy Wonka might be his greatest acting sin yet.
9. The BFG (2016)
The BFG, based on Roald Dahl’s novel about a young girl being whisked away to the land of giants, is one of director Steven Spielberg’s biggest box-office failures – a harsh indictment of what is, by most accounts, a perfectly okay movie. Stacked with CGI and whimsy (in that order), the film sanitizes Dahl’s vision somewhat, though Mark Rylance delivers in the title role. Spielberg certainly attempts to imbue the proceedings with a sense of wonder, but things tend to feel pretty forced – like someone who’s become bored re-telling the same bedtime story, over and over again. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely not great either – which actually makes it far less interesting than some of the lower entries in this list.
8. Revolting Rhymes (2016)
Revolting Rhymes, loosely based on Dahl’s poetry collection of the same name, is an animated TV movie that riffs on classic fairytales with a darkly comic twist. Aimed primarily at young children, it feels understandably cutesy but manages to link the stories well – something that the book doesn’t really attempt. Re-telling classic fairytales with a subversive twist has become a subgenre unto itself and, while Revolting Rhymes is entertaining enough, Dahl’s poems are shorter and funnier than the film is ultimately able to muster.
7. Danny, the Champion of the World (1989)
One of the few adaptations that Dahl actively endorsed, Danny, the Champion of the World is an underrated gem. Based on the novel of the same name, the TV movie tells the story of Danny and his father William (Jeremy Irons) who plot to overturn a millionaire’s plans to buy their land by poaching his pheasants. Like Dahl’s book, it’s understated and charming, with a wonderful father/son relationship at its heart – played by real-life father/son duo Jeremy and Samuel Irons. Robbie Coltrane is menacing as the despotic millionaire, and the Oxfordshire scenery shines in every frame – though the pacing is a little slow at times.
6. James and the Giant Peach (1996)
When orphan James drops a bag of crocodile tongues in his back garden, they cause a tree to bear giant fruit. Climbing inside, James discovers a group of talking insects who unmoor the peach – whisking them away on a grand adventure. Thus is the plot of James and the Giant Peach – adapted using a combination of the same stop-motion animation as The Nightmare Before Christmas and live-action footage by director Henry Selick. A box-office bomb on release, it has since become a cult hit – though the film is pretty disjointed and Randy Newman’s musical numbers are, largely, uninspired. It’s stylish, sure, and the stop-motion portions have a certain charm, but the narrative is pretty ropey (Dahl’s novel is guilty of this too, to be fair) and the whole thing comes off like a surreal, messy experiment.
5. The BFG (1989)
The BFG is a delightful animation produced for TV by Britain’s Cosgrove Hall – with Only Fools and Horses star David Jason voicing the titular giant. Stylistically, it’s reminiscent of the work of Ralph Bakshi or Disney’s The Black Cauldron; gloomy and atmospheric, with textured backgrounds and simple character animations that perfectly capture the tone of Dahl’s dreamlike novel. The author, it is reported, thought so too – giving the film a standing ovation at a screening in London. Like Danny, the Champion of the World, The BFG is understated and quintessentially British – with Jason’s performance among the best that any Dahl adaptation can offer.
4. The Witches (1990)
Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches is likely the darkest in the Dahl canon – offering genuinely creepy moments and grotesque imagery while maintaining the author’s dark sense of humor throughout. Angelica Huston’s Grand High Witch is the highlight of the movie and her transformation from seductive femme fatale to hideous creature is executed brilliantly by The Jim Henson Company with elaborate, practical effects. The only real flaw with this film is its saccharine ending; very different from Dahl’s novel and at odds with the dark tone – though, the change was likely enforced to quell some of that darkness, allowing the earlier scenes to hit harder by delivering a happier, more traditional ending that parents could more readily get behind. Either way – it gave kids nightmares.
3. Matilda (1996)
Matilda is, essentially, Stephen King’s Carrie for kids – with its young protagonist developing telekinetic powers and using them to get revenge on a bully. Danny DeVito’s film adaptation stars Mara Wilson in the title role, with DeVito and Rhea Pearlman as her neglectful parents and the excellent Pam Ferris as her thuggish principal, Miss Trunchbull. DeVito’s voice is felt keenly throughout, offering an Americanized take on the source material while retaining Dahl’s heightened characters and twisted sense of humor. Like Dahl, DeVito understands children and refuses to talk down to his audience – cementing Matilda as a family classic, and proof that the actor ought to direct more often.
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
While Tim Burton’s trademark stylings didn’t do Dahl any favors, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is a horse of a different color (or, rather, a fox) – Anderson’s picture-book, stop-motion aesthetic working in perfect harmony with Dahl’s farmyard heist story. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) plots to steal food from three notorious farmers but, when the plan goes awry, he and his family are forced underground. Charming, funny, and a loving tribute to Dahl (the animators going so far as to replicate the author’s belongings in the films’ model sets), Fantastic Mr. Fox fires on all cylinders to create the perfect family-viewing experience.
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more iconic film in existence than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – with a screenplay written by Dahl himself, though he disowned the film after numerous rewrites and disliked the casting of Gene Wilder in the title role. A musical adaptation, it never fails to inspire wonder in its audience and, while the filmmakers certainly take some liberties with Dahl’s book, it’s all in service of their technicolor joy-ride. With a Pythonesque sense of humor, almost every character is memorable – from the scientist arguing with his computer, all the way up to Wilder’s volatile Wonka. Roald Dahl may have disliked it – but audiences are firmly on-board with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: a beloved classic.
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