Roald Dahl’s The BFG was a landmark childhood read for me, so any adaptation has a lot of expectation. Previously adapted as an OK animated TV feature, now Steven Spielberg has flexed his considerable cinematic muscles to put his spin on the source material, and I am pleased to report that the result is an overwhelming success. Not only is The BFG true to the spirit of Dahl, but it is also a deeply resonant continuation of themes Spielberg has been preoccupied with his entire career. Oh, and it’s a really, really first rate piece of entertainment for all the family, bringing a wonderful book to vivid life on the big screen.
The story begins in London 1982, whereby young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is kidnapped from a rather Dickensian orphanage by a mysterious giant, after she glimpses him in the middle of the night. Despite this frightening (and brilliantly atmospheric) opening, the giant is soon revealed to be far from malevolent. In fact, he is known as the Big Friendly Giant. Unfortunately the other giants in his realm are child-chomping lunatics who also bully the BFG for his aversion to eating “human beans”. Over time, Sophie and the BFG form a close bond. He reveals his secret dream-related work, whilst she in turn comes up with a plan to save the children of the world from the other giants.
Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is note perfect as Sophie. However, it is Mark Rylance who impresses most from the cast. He is absolutely superb in his motion capture performance as the BFG. Although this was a role that could easily have been played massively over-the-top, Rylance is nuanced and at times understated and subtle, despite the laughs and thrills on display. Penelope Wilton also impresses as Queen Elizabeth II, and there are good supporting parts for Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall.
Spielberg’s usual production crew are present and correct, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and of course composer John Williams, who contributes a lovely music score. Yet for me the late, great Melissa Mathison is particularly deserving of praise, as adapting Dahl is a fiendishly tricky business. She is one of my screenwriting heroes since she also wrote The Black Stallion and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Speaking of E.T., the spirit of that film very much haunts this one, not only because of the Mathison connection but because of the themes contained herein, with Sophie and the BFG forming a bond similar to Elliot and E.T. It also seems poetically apt that the novel was originally released in 1982, the year E.T. was released. Very appropriately, The BFG is dedicated to Mathison, who died of cancer last year.
Regarding the setting, Spielberg and Mathison allude to it very cleverly by showing old stamps on letters, era specific toys, or more amusingly in a moment when the Queen calls “Nancy” and asks her to “wake up Ronnie”. It always feels redundant to praise the sheer brilliance of Spielberg’s direction, but here he evokes wonder in a way that reminds us his incredible eye for memorable images remains unsurpassed. Take for example the clever way he foreshadows Sophie’s abduction by having her look into a dolls house; or shots of the BFG leaping over motorways, hiding in London streets and jumping across rocky pinnacles. And that’s without even mentioning the genuinely magical scene where Spielberg has the BFG and Sophie leap into the mirror-like watery surface that transports them into an upside down world of colourful floating dreams.
Arguably, Spielberg himself is the BFG, a bringer of dreams. It’s easy to see why he would be attracted to a story like this. He would also have been attracted by the orphan angle since virtually every film he has ever made is about broken families in some way (it could be argued most of his films are a reaction to his parent’s divorce). The BFG has plenty of bizarre thrills and laughs (especially the notorious whizzpopping flatulence jokes, which had the children in the screening I attended in hysterical laughter), but ultimately it is the quieter, more melancholy moments that give the story its magical power. This is, above all, a story about the power of dreams – a power that it seems only children can access easily. I therefore pay Spielberg the highest possible compliment when I say this film made me feel seven years old again.
Astonishingly (at least to me), this film has not done well at the box office in America. Yes, the film does skew towards younger children, and yes, as other reviews have noted, the pace is leisurely in the mid-section, faithfully taking time to include Dahl’s delightful, language mangling dialogue, but to me it is a tragedy if parents no longer feel a wonderful story like this is something their children would enjoy. I can only hope the film will do much better internationally, as it certainly deserves to.