Among the first books that I really got into were those of Roald Dahl. Vivid characters, magnificent adventures, that very peculiar sense of humour both light and dark, Dahl was able to conjure up stories and worlds full of warmth and fascination. And few are remembered quite as fondly as his 1982 offering, The BFG. Aside from an animated effort decades ago, with David Frost voicing the titular dreamcatcher, The BFG has remained separated from the medium of film, the subject of a lengthy effort to get a live-action production going, which at one time or another has had names as varied as Robin Williams and Terry Jones involved. But now we have no less than directorial heavyweight Stephen Spielberg at the helm, and one of the most accomplished stage actors of the modern day in the role. Was their The BFG a suitable adaptation of a children’s classic, or as disappointing (to me) as their last bland effort?
Young Sophie (Ruby Barnhall) is snatched away from her orphanage during the “witching hour” by the “Big Friendly Giant” (Mark Rylance) after she spies him delivering dreams to sleeping children. Brought to “Giant Country”, Sophie discovers both the wonders of the BFG’s home in his craft of dreamcatching, and the horrors provided by his bigger, crueller neighbours, who would want nothing more to catch a devour this small “human bean”.
This is an almost unbearably sweet movie. It hits all of the right spots – the adorable child, the tragic backstories, the misunderstood but ultimately charming stranger, the burgeoning relationship – and despite some significant problems, it manages to stay true to the spirit of Dahl’s novel in just the correct way, while leaving room for a few extras.
Probably the most important thing to get right here is that central relationship, The BFG being the kind of two-hander that Spielberg tried to do in Bridge Of Spies without much success. And The BFG does get that right. Sophie is understandable horrified by getting kidnaped by this giant and altogether abnormal creature, but in classic Spielberg fashion, the relationship between the young and accepting with the otherworldly and strange evolves wonderfully, through encounters with man-eating giants and buzzing dreams. With Spielberg at the helm, you get that truly mesmerising mix of visual wonder and wonderised characterisation: The BFG soars the most in quiet moments where Sophie and the BFG catch dreams together, or as they deliver those dreams to the children of London. There’s more than a bit of E.T. in it all, but who better than Spielberg to bring life to a tale like this then?
All of the classic themes that made The BFG so great as a book are here in spades, potent story-telling with a brain and a lesson for those watching. Mishandled, this could have been a film more creepy than entrancing, as this older guy carries the young girl around his ramshackle home, but instead it’s a film where the point is to impress that, while some people might be a bit different, might have trouble speaking, might have difficulties making friends, they still deserve the same consideration and deference as others, whether they are trying to make connections or maintain a happy, dignified solitude. The BFG himself is the last of the giants with any kind of class, as he makes clear to his barbaric brethren: as deep as it gets The BFG is a bit about self-perceptions of class in some ways, and how one can rise above meanness and lowness. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a film about standing up to bullies and refusing to let yourself be pushed around: not always with fists, but with intelligence, guile, wits and the help of good friends.
Things in that regard could have gone pear-shaped fast, not least because Barnhall isn’t all that great as Sophie. You always have to check your fire when it comes to critiquing child actors, but Barnhall looked like she struggled with the green screen necessities of the role, and that puts a dampener on some of the exchanges, especially early on. Luckily, Mark Rylance is on hand to rescue things, imbuing the BFG with all of that wonderful heart, imagination and quiet dignity that the character needed, maybe a little bit darker than Dahl imagined him, bowled over by the cruelty of his world. Rylance’s emoting power transcends his own body here, as he uses his voice to get the point across the most, in conjunction with any computer/body imaging trickery. He takes that strange way of speaking and makes it his own, and makes the BFG someone endearing and likable almost right from the off, in every misspoken sentence and word that doesn’t quite come out right.
The film proceeds largely as Dahl wrote the book, with little variations. But Spielberg, with Melissa Mathison’s screenplay, isn’t happy with just leaving things as they are entirely, and we do get an interesting addendum, to the BFG’s life, an added backstory that focuses the tragedy and makes the stakes a bit higher moving forward. It’s simply and brilliantly done, a fitting addition that improvise upon the source material as it is adapted into a new medium.
And the stakes are high. Some of the films best CGI work is for the other giants, led by a Jermaine Clement voiced Fleshlumpeater, who terrorise their way across Giant Country when they aren’t eating Britain’s children at night. They’re big and they’re bullies: despite an excellently portrayed lack of intelligence, the audience is left in little doubt as to the animalistic violence they are capable of, and it’s one of the films great strengths, even if the manner in which the BFG and Sophie go about dealing with them might take a bit too much from the book in terms of crafting an engaging third act.
But never mind all that really: this is a film and story for children, and as such is largely beyond the vagaries of effective narrative pacing. Yes, the moments spent convincing the Queen of England – a fairly wooden Penelope Wilton – about the threat of the giants goes on for far too long and an extended sequence setting up flatulence humour will surely make the older viewers groan. The source material isn’t well set-up for a traditional beginning, middle and end in film-making, and so this faithful adaptation recreation seems to run out of steam in its resolution. But it doesn’t matter: even now, approaching my thirties, I can see something like The BFG and appreciate it as if I was watching with eyes only single digits old. Mathison’s script is a respectful and faithful adaptation of things from Dahl’s time, complete with whizzpoppers, frobscottles and troggle humpers.
It helps that its gorgeous too. Spielberg’s no stranger to the effective use of CGI: with the help of Janusz Kamiński, his BFG is a stunning creation, a giant that never feels like an artificial construction, but inhabits his well-crafted world with aplomb. An opening vista of London merging into the silent and dark of its witching hour sets the mood early: from there it’s on to some mesmerising views and intelligent shots, such as when we see the BFG coming upon the dream tree from afar, or as Sophie scrambles to avoid detection from the bean hunting giants, dipping, diving and ducking in the BFG’s really charmingly animated cave home as Spielberg swings his camera around. This isn’t his first run at the CGI rodeo of course, and he demonstrated an excellent sense of cinematography in The Adventures of Tin-Tin, but it’s still admirable that someone of Spielberg’s age and experience can still showcase his ability to work well in a medium he hasn’t the longest CV in. I could watch that dream tree sequence again and again, or any number of moments in the cave, like Sophie hiding in one of those revolting snozzcumbers or the BFG reading lines from Nicholas Nickleby.
So yes, Barnhall’s bit disappointing with her delivery, and yes the last act trundles where the rest of the film ran effortlessly. But overall, The BFG is another Spielbergian triumph of character, dialogue and visuals. It brings one of the best books of mine and many others’ childhood to life in a way that has never been done before, with Mark Rylance acting up a storm, and leaving few dry eyes in the house by the time that the last frame fades to black. It’s a serious tugger of heartstrings, but in the best way possible. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).