Tuesday, 9 August 2016
Spielberg's The BFG: Rethinking Dahl
We took the children to see Spielberg's The BFG this afternoon with Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant and Ruby Barnhill as the child, Sophie. We all loved it. It was funny, beautifully inventive, superbly acted by both main actors, wonderfully visualised and full of a warmth I hadn't really associated with Dahl.
I don't think we ever read The BFG to our own children when they were young. We certainly read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach and George's Marvellous Medicine as well as a number of the shorter books. I think the children read The BFG for themselves.
I remember I had ambivalent feelings about Dahl. His work seemed all about appetite and full of cruelty, revenge, and an overindulgence in the childhood desire to shock. I had reservations about Michael Rosen too. If Dahl was about appetite, Rosen seemed to me to be about gangs and crowds united in some escapade. There seemed very little sense of the individual isolated from the crowd. I wanted more of that.
I think it may have been a case of prissiness on my part. The fact is both Dahl and Rosen were, and remain, very popular with children themselves. They clearly understood some aspects of childhood far better than I did. My early school memories involved edging round threats rather than throwing myself full heartedly into group occasions. I had very little group confidence: the world was what existed in my head.
Whether it was prissiness or not though I was plainly wrong. Particularly about Dahl. It would be interesting to go back to the books now and read them again and more of them. Spielberg's Dahl certainly constitutes an invitation. Spielberg has a touch of Chagall. in his treatment of children and adults. By Chagall I mean the best of Chagall, the early younger artist for whom magic wasn't a form of sentimentality but a normal element of the given, perfectly real world.
The Dahl story-as-film could easily have been sentimental. A little girl in an orphanage is abducted by a magical creature, overcomes monsters and learns something about the world in the process. It could have been an 'uplifting', morally approvable soft fable. The little girl could have been the wrong kind of cute, the magical creature could have been a soppy cardboard cut-out and the monsters perfectly unthreatening. Any humour involved would have been incidental, a coy joke cutting this way or that on the general map of cute.
The underpinning principles of the tale: that innocence is never fully innocent and yet is vulnerable, that a child can imagine the adult world as a complex group of comforting, comical yet pathetic and threatening figures, that the developing imagination can take flight into the ridiculous and laugh full-heartedly at the vulgar - all this offers a persuasive vision of the world. The world is genuinely a dangerous place. Terrible giants are slumbering just under your feet. Courage and wit can help to see you through but they don't always do so. And there is something uproariously ridiculous about the whole project of being wise or good.
There are only two central characters in the film: a serious, psychologically mature child and a childish overgrown adult with certain limited powers. Rylance is superb. His understanding of his lines is extraordinarily subtle, and Barnhill as the girl is perfectly convincing as a proper girl not a Disney projection. The late episode about visiting the queen and the farting at breakfast is not just an interlude to make the children laugh: it is the Rabelaisan asserting itself in the halls of majesty, procedure and dignity.
The film is marvellous but the figure of Roald Dahl stands behind it. He is the truthful wild-child with a sense of humour, able to be both enchanted and ironic about the enchantment.