“The Wonderful World of Dahl”

This review was written by Sean Kelly and printed in the May 19, 1996 edition of The New York Times.

“The Wonderful World of Dahl”

DISNEY’S JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH. By Karey Kirkpatrick. Illustrated by Lane Smith. Unpaged. New York: Disney Press. $16.95. (Ages 5 and up)

ROALD DAHL’S “James and the Giant Peach,” a novel for children written in 1961, has become the latest Titanic Techno-Treat for Tiny Tots. To coincide with the Disney movie’s release, Disney Press has published a sort of novelization – adapted by Karey Kirkpatrick from the screenplay he co-wrote, with many startling full-color illustrations by Lane Smith, who designed the characters for the film – as well as a celebratory souvenir “Book and Movie Scrapbook,” with photos and text by Dahl’s daughter Lucy.

Similarly inspired, Alfred A. Knopf has reissued the original “classic” book in “a beautiful gift edition” with “not a word…dropped or altered.” Throughout, black-and-white movie tie-in illustrations by Mr. Smith have replaced the familiar (painterly, tasteful – and quite incongruous) pictures by Nancy Ekholm Burkert; nevertheless, it seems unlikely that any young reader will want to struggle through 126 pages of some windy old English geezer’s mandarin verbiage when a much shorter version, with all the emphatic parts printed in Big Bold Letters, is available.

In their foreword to “Disney’s James & the Giant Peach,” Mr. Smith and Mr. Kirkpatrick observe that “when books are adapted for film many changes occur and a new version of the story often emerges.” Ain’t that the truth. Now, it would be silly to suggest that this film adaptation has done a tragic disservice to a great book. Reactionary politics, vigorous vulgarity, equal parts of sadism and sentimentality – those Disney hallmarks so disastrous to previously Disney-fied British “classics” like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Sword in the Stone” – are entirely appropriate here, as they would be to everything ever written by Dahl. Indeed, his very first published work, “The Gremlins” – a 1943 wartime propaganda fantasy for Cosmopolitan magazine – was illustrated by Disney studio artists, and he himself was happy to contrive the debased movie version of his own “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which became “Willy Wonka.” Still, it is instructive to examine the “changes” that have occurred in this adaptation.

Dahl’s early work is cool, stylized stuff: formal, not to say formulaic. But all his children’s books (of which “James and the Giant Peach” was the first) meander, skitter and sprawl. “James” is a picaresque adventure that doesn’t appear to know where it’s going – it feels improvised, free-form – from time to time even ascending (or collapsing) into verse. And it is entirely episodic: first something horrible happens, then something funny happens, and then something horrible; each of its nearly 40 chapters is self-contained, just long enough for a bedtime story – which was, according to Lucy Dahl, the tale’s genesis.

This sort of thing will simply not do in today’s Hollywood, where “structure” is all the rage, and every film school undergrad can parrot cant about arc of character, second-act pinches and third-act reversals. Near the book’s end, James and his windblown peach land, by complete happenstance, in New York City. But early in the movie book we must be told (“inciting incident!”) that it was James’s parents’ “lifelong dream” to travel to New York. And the book’s once risibly motiveless comic villains, the Cloud-Men, must now, for pop-psych screenplay purposes, assume the shape of the wicked rhinos who orphaned James. Similarly, James’s odious aunts, Sponge and Spiker, flattened by the giant peach as the punch line to Chapter 15 of the book, are obliged, in the movie (and movie book), to reappear abruptly in the antepenultimate scene, thus providing “climactic jeopardy.”

It might be argued that these alterations actually improve Dahl’s story, which wasn’t so hot in the plot department to begin with. But it is to another of the Disney-Hollywood-producers’ ploys – injecting into or tacking on to their every product a smarmy “pro-social value” or “life lesson” – that one might (and in this case, does) take exception. Such charm as any Dahl adult short story or children’s book possesses arises entirely from the tale’s utter amorality. The author is coldly cruel to his creations, who are coldly cruel to one another. All grown-ups and most children are greedy and vile, and when justice is done them, or a happy ending happens to them, it is invariably the result of an ironic accident. Dahl’s enslaved little James has only one desire – to escape his desperate loneliness – and it is only by the purest chance (spilled magic seeds, a change in the wind) that he does.

For Disney, for Hollywood, for the ghost of the Hays Office, this has never been good enough. Every “family” movie must express, or at least pretend to express, some inspiring nondenominational moral. (Thus, the movie of “The Wizard of Oz,” in which home is dreary and drab and elsewhere is brilliant fun, curiously concludes with the sentiment, “There’s no place like home!”) In “James,” as in most recent films for children, the young are admonished to find the “courage” to follow their “dream.”

The protagonist of a comic novel may merely endure, but a movie hero must triumph. So the movie James, who “never stopped dreaming” of sailing to New York, “the city where dreams come true,” cannot simply wind up there. He must first exorcise the voices in his head that call him a “stupid foolish dreamer” in order to merit a final “deafening cheer” and “people of all ages…pouring in” to hear his tale.

This suggests to me that the word “dream” (which occurs seven times in Mr. Kirkpatrick’s 20 text pages of the movie tie-in book but not once in Dahl) does not, as employed in Hollywood, signify Freud’s stream of imagery expressing an unconscious wish, or Jung’s “small hidden door into the…sanctum of the soul,” much less prophetic vision or childlike fantasy. It translates as relentless ambition, in particular the kind of relentless ambition required to get a big-budget film produced.

Unfortunately, many such dream works frequently serve to discourage children’s own dreaming, by providing them with (that is, selling to them) only a “dream” of the film maker’s. Not to mention the home video, the action figures and the tie-in “Movie Scrapbook.”