Adapting Roald Dahl for the screen can be tricky—just ask Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, or Henry Selick, all of whom have attempted to bring the master storyteller’s children’s books to life, with mixed results. Dahl himself tended to dislike the film versions of his kids’ stories, with a particular hatred for the 1971 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which he felt took too many liberties with the book’s plot.
This is why when it was announced that director Steven Spielberg would be teaming up with Disney to bring The BFG to life, anticipation was high. Not only is The BFG a favorite of Dahl’s—the author used to regale his own children with tales of the giant at bedtime—it’s also been adapted for the screen before, as a 1989 animated TV movie that is about as heartwarming as an adaptation can be while still containing an entire song about farting.
So in bringing The BFG to the screen, did Spielberg take any of his own liberties with one of Dahl’s most beloved tales? We break down the differences between book and film below.
Spielberg’s film leaves the basic outline of Dahl’s story mostly intact: A young orphan named Sophie is stolen away by a big friendly giant—the Big Friendly Giant, to be exact. Though the BFG is a gentle soul, the other giants who live in Giant Country are carnivorous monsters who gobble up human beings, called “beans,” every night. Sophie helps the BFG devise a plan to take down Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, and the rest, a plan that involves dream manipulation, the queen of England, and, yes, a considerable amount of farting.
In the movie, newcomer Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie as a voracious reader with wide eyes and thick, round glasses. She’s so advanced that she’s halfway through a copy of Nicholas Nickleby when the BFG “kidsnatches” her—that despite the character being only 8 years old.
The original Sophie is certainly very clever but not beyond what one might reasonably expect of a third-grader. In that way, Spielberg’s precocious Sophie better resembles the titular hero of Dahl’s Matilda. (Barnhill even looks like a young Mara Wilson, who played Matilda in the 1996 film.)
It’s difficult to separate any of Dahl’s works from the illustrations of his longtime collaborator, Quentin Blake. Spielberg’s BFG, played using motion-capture by Mark Rylance, is clearly modeled on Blake’s depictions, as well as Dahl’s descriptions of the character, who has a “long pale wrinkly face” and truly enormous ears, “each one as big as the wheel of a truck,” that can hear the secrets of the world.
One of Spielberg’s greatest deviations from the original story is in giving the BFG a tragic past: In the film version, before Sophie came along, the BFG had another human visitor, a little boy in a red jacket, with whom he lived happily and from whom he learned to read and write—until the other giants found this little boy and ate him. This is grim stuff, even by Dahl’s standards.
It’s also pure invention. Dahl’s BFG has no tragic backstory; Sophie is the first human he ever steals, and he taught himself to read by “borrowing” a copy of Nicholas Nickleby from a random child’s nightstand.
Only a little of Dahl’s very entertaining wordplay makes it into the film, probably because so many of the puns are difficult to convey in speech. Take this exchange between the BFG and Sophie from the book, about the flavors of humans from different parts of the world, according to the other giants:
“Every human bean is diddly and different. Some is scrumiddlyumptuous and some is uckyslush. Greeks is all full of uckyslush. No giant is eating Greeks, ever.”
“Why not?” Sophie asked.
“Greeks from Greece is all tasting greasy,” the Giant said.
Turks taste of turkey, the Welsh of fish (or whales), and people from Jersey of—cardigans. Dahl’s wicked humor is tremendously difficult to translate to film, an issue Spielberg avoids entirely; in his version, there’s nothing funny about giants gobbling up people.
The BFG’s main occupation in both film and book is catching dreams, which he then blows into the bodies of sleeping humans using an enormous trumpet. In the book, these dreams are invisible until caught and placed in a jar, where they appear as “a mixture between a blob of gas and a bubble of jelly.” The dreams in the film are luminous and plasmalike even before they’re captured, flitting from place to place.
The movie also shows us a dream in action—a sleeping boy imagines that he receives a phone call from the president, an event that is pantomimed in silhouette against a cloudlike screen. The BFG has many such dreams in his assortment, several of which are featured in the book, accompanied by outlandish labels like “I has a pet bee that makes rock and roll musik when it flies.” (The film adds an original one to this collection: “I is naked at my wedding.”)
Fate of the giants
Sophie and the BFG enlist Queen Elizabeth to stop the giants, who are captured by the military. As punishment for their crimes, Fleshlumpeater and co. are transported by helicopter away from Giant Country to a remote island in the middle of the ocean, where they’re limited to eating only nasty snozzcumbers for the rest of their lives.
In the novel, the giants’ new dietary restrictions are the same, but their home is very different. Instead of being hauled a safe distance away from civilization, they’re dumped in a massive pit, “twice the size of a football field and five hundred feet deep” right in the middle of London.
But wait—surely having a quarry full of man-eating monsters in the middle of one of the world’s most populous cities would be dangerous? Yep! The pit becomes a tourist attraction, which results in “three silly men who had drunk too much beer” falling in, giving the giants a lovely snack.
In the film, Sophie finds a new home in the palace, seemingly having been adopted by the queen’s secretary. The BFG returns to his home in Giant Country, where he sets up a cozy, if lonely-looking, farm and writes about his adventures. He and Sophie apparently never see each other again, but because of his remarkable ears, he can hear her calling to him every so often, while looking wistfully into the camera.
Dahl’s ending is, shockingly, the happier of the two: The queen builds the BFG a special house next to her own castle for him to live in, and he becomes something of a celebrity, with children all over writing to him, begging for a visit. Sophie lives in a little cottage next door and tutors him so he can improve his English. He does eventually write down their story, but for the sake of modesty, he puts a different name on the volume: Roald Dahl.
Previously in Slate:
How Faithful Is The Giver?
How Faithful Is The Great Gatsby?
How Faithful Is Gone Girl?