This month, a very big kidlit-to-film adaptation came galloping into theaters: Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited take on Roald Dahl’s classic, The BFG. And thanks to a loyal script and Spielberg’s willingness to leave the signature darkness of Dahl’s stories pretty much intact, the big-screen version of The BFG is, by all accounts, a whizz-popping good time.
But while Spielberg’s take on Dahl’s giant story is being very well-received, fans of the author’s work were understandably nervous going in—because previous adaptations of Dahl’s books have been decidedly hit or miss. Below, we’ve ranked them all, from the ones that left much to be desired to the nearly perfect cinematic triumphs.
As a book, The Witches was magnificently creepy. As a film? Alas, nope. Despite Angelica Huston’s best efforts, the witches in the screen version came across as bumbling idiots rather than dreadful, formidable foes; the slapstick humor was overdone; and the whole thing capped off with a made-for-Hollywood ending that totally denied the bittersweet flavor of the book. But one thing does make The Witches potentially worth a rewatch: Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey makes a surprise appearance, in a brief role as a hotel chef with a mouse down his trousers.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Tim Burton’s second outing as a Dahl adapter was, alas, the less successful of his efforts. Although the weird and wonderful visuals were…well, weird and wonderful, and the production hewed pretty closely to the original book, Johnny Depp’s unsettling take on Wonka was a sour note amidst all that delicious chocolate.
You’ve got to love this movie for its A-plus casting—of the Trunchbull, particularly—and wildly entertaining take on the book’s forced cake-eating scene, both of which nearly made up for a script that didn’t quite capture the unique and oddly intellectual flavor of the original Matilda. Bonus points for Mara Wilson, who was not only a very capable Matilda, but grew up to be a lot like the character in some truly delightful ways.
James and the Giant Peach
Tim Burton was a producer on this film, and his signature claymation was the perfect vehicle for a retelling of Dahl’s twisted fantasy about a boy who goes inside the aforementioned giant peach and befriends the giant bugs who live inside it. Add in a score (complete with original songs) by Randy Newman, and you’ve got some solid entertainment, even if it’s only reasonably faithful to the book.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Based on concept alone, Fantastic Mr. Fox is not just the best of the Dahl adaptations, but possibly one of the greatest movies ever made in the entire history of film. Oscar winners George Clooney and Meryl Streep as the heads of the titular Fox family; Bill Murray as a badger lawyer; a script cowritten by Noah Baumbach; and none other than Wes Anderson spearheading the effort? Be still our beating hipster hearts! But despite its charms—and it had a lot of charms—the film fell victim to the same fate of so many others on this list, falling shy of capturing the unique darkness at the heart of Roald Dahl’s original book. It was, however, still quite good.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Forty years of doing Dahl onscreen, and you still can’t beat the original: The 1971 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Despite not adhering particularly closely to the source material—and being loathed by the author himself—this movie has everything that matters in a Roald Dahl adaptation, from the wildly imaginative visuals to the unrestrainedly harsh life lessons. But its reasons for placing at the top of this list can be summed up in two words: Gene Wilder. His performance perfectly captured the mercurial-bordering-on-malicious nature of the titular character in a way that remains unparalleled—and the image of him standing like Charon the ferryman, reciting slam poetry at the bow of that boat careening through a psychedelic tunnel, continues to both thrill and terrify us in equal measure.