Every Roald Dahl film adaptation, ranked

Eight of Dahl's books have been turned into films - but which ones had the magic touch?

Willy Wonka Gene Wilder
"A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men"
(Image credit: Warner Brothers)

13 September is Roald Dahl Day - the birthday of the Anglo-Norwegian children’s author dubbed the “master of the macabre” for darkly comic tales such as Matilda, The Twits and George’s Marvellous Medicine.

And what better way to celebrate than by revisiting the big-screen version of his most loved novels? Here they are, all ten, ranked from best to worst:

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

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Roald Dahl’s first draft screenplay for this musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was so heavily rewritten that he ended up loathing the finished product, but it remains the most beloved screen adaptation of his work.

That is largely thanks to Gene Wilder’s iconic performance as the eccentric chocolatier. Wilder “fills Wonka with idiosyncrasies and charm,” says Sky’s Rich Phippen, with a rich seam of darkness at the core.

The musical numbers “add a haunting dimension to the narrative”, writes IGN’s RL Shaffer, and “even more innocent songs like “Pure Imagination” have a hint of melancholy and dread woven within”.

Even if Dahl himself had little time for the film, it has what so many other adaptation have failed to achieve - “the true magic touch of fantasy,” says Time Out.

Matilda (1996)

Hollywood’s take on Dahl’s tale of a gifted girl with supernatural powers departs from the source material by transporting the action to the US, but it retains the “darkly comic” sensibility of its author, wrote Roger Ebert at the film’s release.

Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman are a riot as Matilda’s narcissist parents, while Pam Ferris is unforgettable as grotesque headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

The madness is anchored by a precocious performance from Mara Wilson (now better known as a must-follow Tweeter) in the title role, and Embeth Davidtz’s spot-on Miss Honey.

Fantastic Mr Fox (2010)

Fantastic Mr Fox is surely among Dahl’s most popular stories, but its short length and limited plot meant it was passed over for big screen treatment until Wes Anderson’s charming stop-motion animation proved that it could be done.

Skillfully adding backstory and subplots to pad out the succinct original gives the film real emotional heft, says the Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez, “but its themes - family, self-identity and existential angst - are all engagingly adult”.

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

One of Dahl’s most whimsical novels, this 1996 take on the story of a boy who travels from Britain to America in an oversized fruit crewed by talking insects is given a unique charm by its stop-motion animation, which Gene Siskel called “superb”.

Its appeal is further boosted by voice acting from the best of British talent, including Joanna Lumley, Pete Postlethwaite, Jennifer Saunders and Miriam Margolyes.

Esio Trot (2015)

Esio Trot ranks among the less essential works in Dahl’s oeuvre, which is just why the resounding success of this TV film, broadcast on New Year’s Day 2015, was a pleasant surprise.

Leading turns from Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench as lonely oldsters who bond over a tortoise and a script by rom-com master Richard Curtis make for a “warm, witty and whimsical adaptation... which would have melted even Victor Meldrew’s heart,” says The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Hogan.

The Witches

Dahl was never one to pull his punches when it came to spooking his young readership, and Anjelica Huston’s skin-crawling turn as the Grand High Witch in this 1990 fantasy might be the scariest on-screen Dahl villain of the lot.

Like its source material, this film adaptation of Dahl’s tale of an orphan who uncovers a convention of witches at a seaside hotel is “deliciously cruel”, says Empire’s Ian Nathan.

However, the author was reportedly furious that the film-makers changed the downbeat ending of the book - the young narrator resigning himself to a life as a mouse - by allowing poor Jim to turn back into human form.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Master of the eccentric Tim Burton seemed like an ideal candidate to direct the second cinematic adaptation of Dahl’s most famous novel - and in some ways he succeeded.

“In its best sections, it’s magically deranged in a way no other filmmaker could even come close to pulling off,” writes Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek.

But while Freddie Highmore makes an appealingly wide-eyed Charlie, Johnny Depp’s giggling, high-pitched Willy Wonka wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

In fact, it was “terminally creepy”, said The Observer’s Andrew Sarris. “I wondered if he was going to perform a prolonged parody of Michael Jackson in Neverland.”

The BFG (2016)

With the full force of Dreamworks and Steven Spielberg at play, it’s no surprise this big-budget 2016 revamp of The BFG is “visually stunning”, says the New Zealand Herald’s Alex Casey, but it “lacks the beloved bite of other Dahl film adaptations”.

Mark Rylance injects warmth and humour into the titular friendly giant in, but the film never captures the magic touch of the book. In fact, says the Toronto Sun’s Liz Braun, the proceedings are “mild-mannered to the point of snoredom”.

Danny, the Champion of the World (1989)

Real-life father and son Jeremy and Samuel Irons starred in ITV’s take on the tale of Danny and his poacher father, who come up with a daring plot to get one over on despicable landowner Victor Hazell (a scenery-chewing Robbie Coltrane).

The film adaptation isn’t outright bad, but it’s made-for-TV serviceability suffers especially in comparison to the source material, Dahl’s most sensitive and heartfelt novel. “One hopes for something a little meatier,” says Empire’s Kim Newman.

The BFG (1989)

David Jason is perfectly cast as the voice of the simple, kindly giant who takes a lost girl under his wing and protects her from his less-friendly, more murderous members of his race.

However, the low-budget animation is “rough and unappealing”, says DVDTalk, and in tandem with a meandering plot and grating score, the overall result feels “slight and unimpressive”.

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