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Home Court Advantage : Six Years After His Death, Roald Dahl's Kids' Books Are a Hot Movie Property

April 15, 1996|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GREAT MISSENDEN, England — Each year it happens in Hollywood: An author's works become hot property as the industry rushes to adapt them for film.

Two years ago, there was an unseemly scramble to make movies based on the novels of Edith Wharton ("The Age of Innocence," "Ethan Frome"). Since then, Jane Austen ("Sense and Sensibility," "Persuasion") has been in vogue. And recent months have seen no fewer than 10 film ventures based on Shakespeare plays.

But 1996 is the year of Roald Dahl, a more contemporary author, and most famous for his best-selling children's books. Major studios are releasing two films of Dahl books this year, a third has been green-lighted and a studio wants to adapt a fourth.

"Suddenly film people have started coming out of the woodwork," said Dahl's widow, Felicity. Studios must secure her approval before they proceed with adaptations. Indeed, since Dahl's death at age 74 in 1990, she has become guardian of his literary legacy.

She talked about this seated beside a wood-burning fire in a gracious single-story home off a country lane on the edge of this rural village 30 miles from London. It has a gypsy caravan on its grounds and a small pokey garden shed where Dahl wrote his classic children's books by hand on thick pads of legal paper. If the shed was too cold, he simply swathed himself in blankets and carried on writing.

Felicity Dahl, an elegant woman in her 50s with a calm manner and a dry wit, is not surprised to find Roald's work favored by filmmakers. "Children's entertainment has really taken off in the last few years," she said, "and the great thing about Dahl is his work appeals to both children and adults."

Two studios are hoping she is right. On Friday, Disney released "James and the Giant Peach," directed by Henry Selick, who was at the helm of the well-received animated film "Nightmare Before Christmas." This summer, Danny DeVito directs and stars in "Matilda" for TriStar. These stories have similar themes: Both are about children rescued by magic forces from unhappy lives in which loathsome adults oppress them.

Next from the Dahl canon is "The BFG." (It stands for "Big Friendly Giant.") "John Cleese has accepted an offer to play the title role, which we're thrilled about," Felicity Dahl said. "Nobody in the world could play that part as well as him." Kathleen Kennedy will produce the film, which is currently at Paramount.

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Warner Bros. wants to make another movie from Dahl's book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (already filmed as "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" in 1971 and getting a 25th anniversary re-release in August) "but we've said no for the moment," Felicity Dahl said. "There's too much Dahl going on."

For years in his native Britain, Dahl was little known except as the husband of his first wife, American actress Patricia Neal. When she suffered near-fatal strokes in 1965, losing her speech and memory, Dahl helped goad and cajole her to partial recovery, organizing rosters of volunteers to visit and keep her stimulated and engaged. (They divorced in 1983 after 30 years. Dahl married Felicity the same year.)

But his star gradually rose with a succession of immensely successful children's books: "James and the Giant Peach," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Danny the Champion of the World," "The BFG," "The Witches" and "Matilda" all confirmed him as an extraordinarily compelling storyteller with a unique ability to capture the imagination of children.

Dahl's books now sell in the millions worldwide. Proportionally, he is less popular in America, but in many countries he is by far the preeminent children's author. A recent survey of 8,000 British children ages 10 to 14 named him their favorite writer; an astonishing seven Dahl books were on the 10 favorite books among this group.

The irony in the hectic rush to film Dahl's work is that he disliked most adaptations of his work for the screen. He was a famously irascible, temperamental man whose dealings with studios, book publishers and even his family were stormy.

He often complained that filmmakers usurped the spirit and the narrative of his work. He was infuriated by Nicolas Roeg's 1990 adaptation of "The Witches," with an ending that was radically different and more upbeat than the book's. He called the film "utterly appalling," tried to have his name removed from the credits and told a reporter: "I want it known I wouldn't allow a child to see it, let alone encourage one to do so." (Allen Scott, screenwriter of "The Witches," noted that Dahl was well paid for the film rights and concluded: "Even children know that having your cake and eating it is not a maxim to be tampered with.")

Felicity Dahl has strong views on all of this. "They always want to change a book's story line," she said of movie studios. "What makes Hollywood think children want the endings changed for a film, when they accept it in a book?"

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