The BFG:Book, Movie, and The Art of Adaptation

I went to dinner and a movie with a friend from high school today, and ended up seeing The BFG. Now, I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s novel in a long time, but I remember the book fondly, because through my childhood I read the book every month or so. I was excited to see what the movie held, and while I wasn’t disappointed, I do have some thoughts on the film.

First, I will say what everyone starts with. The film is visually stunning, and if there is only one reason to see it, it’s this. A vast majority of the film is told in CGI, and while it could have been filmed and spliced in the way some episodes of The Twilight Zone were, it makes sense to do this by computer. The world definitely comes to life, and it’s incredibly absorbing, which is what you want out of a film like this. The Big Friendly Giant is an amazing character that is captured really well by the computer, and this character could have been screwed up really badly. Unfortunately, the CGI played a bit of a detriment to the child actor playing Sophie, Ruby Barnhill. While she does fine in the film, her performance wasn’t exactly the highlight.

And as someone who has read the book many times, the movie is incredibly faithful to the book. The pacing, plot, and dialogue are lifted word for word from the page. While this may make purists happy, this is exactly where the problem lies. The adaptation of The BFG written by Roald Dahl in 1982 was a very small story that tells the tale of a little girl who is kidnapped by a giant and learns of a world she could never have dreamed of. The major “plot” of the film is crammed into the last 20 pages at most. It’s a book that is rich is world building but not in story, which is fine. Children (and adults, to an extent) can eat that up. This doesn’t work terribly well when translated really faithfully from the book, because the audience gets bored waiting for the plot to happen. We don’t even find out Sophie’s name until 30 minutes in, which points to her importance to the plot.

Sophie is not Matilda from the novel by the character’s name, or Charlie from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. In a novel focused on magic or magical realism, the book needs a relateable protagonist who can be the eyes and ears for the audience in this weird world. Unfortunately, Sophie doesn’t hit the mark in the same way these other three did. Sophie doesn’t have any discernible personality. She is an orphan, yes…and that’s all we really know about her. We don’t care if she lives or dies really, because we don’t know her. We know the BFG. We know Matilda is a smart, crafty little girl who uses her wit and intelligence to bring down her school principal. Charlie is a kind child who got a lucky break, and chooses to show goodness through the film. Sophie’s lack of backstory in the book does harm to the film overall, because there is nothing there to build on.

The directors behind other Dahl adaptations took liberties with the stories. They changed and added things to build the characters, create suspense, and enhance the plot. Matilda’s story added a backstory to Ms. Honey/The Trunchbull and added a chase scene, building suspense. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was pretty faithful, but also had a really big, interesting cast that could diversify what was happening on screen. A large portion of the book and film for The BFG is Sophie and the Giant talking. The director of The BFG, Steven Spielberg, could have played with the concepts in this book and told a meaty story. He could have given Sophie a background, or interests, or anything. He could have added a scene about her parents, or about her interacting with the other kids in the orphanage, something to portray her loneliness, rather than have her tell the audience that she is lonely. The plot and hijinks with the Queen of England could have been lengthened, so that it added a bit more to the film. I have read a few articles that indicate that Dahl’s family had a hand in the writing of this film, and that they were pleased with how faithful the book was to the movie but the director’s faithfulness to the book ended up being this movies biggest detriment, and it really needed a bit of changing to translate better to film.

I do want to say that I enjoyed this film, despite all of its faults. And while it is not doing well in the box office, that’s okay. It’s worth watching if you loved the book as a child. This movie is a faithful love letter to the book, but people coming to this film without knowledge of the book probably won’t get much out of it.

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