The Best Movie Ever | Roald Dahl

Flying ace, secret agent and children’s storyteller Roald Dahl has a very special place in our collective hearts. The author of such classics as Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryMatilda and The BFG (to name only a few) has connected with kids from multiple generations, and his darker stories for adults continue to resonate as well.

Also: ‘The BFG’ Review | We Are The Dreamers Of Dreams

But although Roald Dahl’s works have been adapted to the screen many times over the years, picking the very best can be a tricky proposition. That’s why we asked our experts – Crave’s William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold, and Collider’s Brian Formo – to consider all the options and each pick one, and just one, Roald Dahl adaptation to stand out as the very best.

This time, two of our contributors managed to agree on a single animated comedy, while the outlier opted in favor of a tried-and-true family classic. Find out who picked which Roald Dahl movie, and why, and come back next week for an all-new, highly debatable installment of The Best Movie Ever!


William Bibbiani’s Pick: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Paramount Pictures

Roald Dahl rather famously disliked Mel Stuart’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which was renamed, because the Vietnam War introduced a rather unfortunate new connotation for the word “Charlie”). I still worship at Roald Dahl’s feet, but even so, have to disagree with him on this one. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory captures the spirit of Roald Dahl in a beautiful, sometimes terrifying way. (For the record, Stephen King doesn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining and I disagree with that too.)

It’s the story of a boy named Charlie (Peter Ostrum), who lives a sweet life in abject poverty, dreaming of little boy dreams, like delicious sweets. When a chocolate entrepreneur named Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) announces a contest to take a tour of his mysterious and magical factory, Charlie defies the odds and wins himself a ticket, along with a gaggle of other, mostly terrible children whose faults are revealed and punished by the sometimes affable, sometimes ghoulish candyman.

If you read Roald Dahl’s writing, you may discover that he doesn’t much care for adults and he doesn’t much care for most children either. Nasty people do nasty things throughout most of his stories. But he does delight in meting out fantastical comeuppance. He revels in the wonders of the world, but he suggests that some people are just too mean to be worthy of them. It’s a mentality that works well in the fantasy genre, where allegories like Willy Wonka transform wish-fulfillment stories into cautionary fables, often on a dime.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory lives in that ethereal space between dreams and nightmares, between genuineness and satire. It changes some aspects of the book, and mostly for the better (Charlie basically disappears for most of the novel anyway, and here he actually has something to do). And Gene Wilder gives one of the most distinctive and spritely performances in motion picture history. So yes, Dahl may not agree, but I think this is the best adaptation of his work. (Honorable mentions: The Witches and Fantastic Mr. Fox and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG.)


Witney Seibold’s Pick: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

20th Century Fox

Roald Dahl, back in 1971, was so offended by Hollywood’s take on his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that he swore no studio would make a film of his work while he was still alive. He had dabbled in Hollywood screenwriting before (he You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and even authored some obscure-in-America British thrillers. When he died in 1990, all bets were off. Since 1990, there have been six major Hollywood Dahl adaptations, not to mention numerous shorts and British TV specials. It’s tempting to posit that Dahl would have hated all the films based on his books, as few seem to capture the tone and the spirit of his work entirely accurately. Having seen The BFG, I can say that it is perhaps the most accurate yet. 

But in terms of cinema, I would have to declare the Wes Anderson’s 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox is perhaps the best of the Roald Dahl-based films, not because of how it treated Dahl’s work, but because of what it did for Anderson. Wes Anderson has always been the most driven of aesthetes, often placing his characters in carefully color-coded, impeccably-framed dioramas of self-constructed artistic perfection. Every single character in every Wes Anderson film exists within their own carefully assembled world of dress, art, and interior design. Just like Anderson himself, all his characters live for aesthetics. 

Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed Anderson to shed the shabbiness of his earlier films by replacing his actors with fuzzy animated animals figures. He could now make his frame as spare and as symmetrical as he wanted, and the film feels whole and pure and 100% Anderson for the first time. Sure, the film possesses none of Dahl’s particular brand of British wryness, but it’s replaced by Anderson’s hipster American wryness, which allows the film to function on a different level. One wouldn’t think Dahl and Anderson would marry well, but Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed both artists to coexist. 


Brian Formo’s Pick: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

20th Century Fox

First things first, I’ve never actually read Roald Dahl nor had Dahl read to me. So my choice is less the film that best represents his prose and more about the film I think became the best movie from a story he’d written. Even without reading Dahl, through the films based on his work, I am aware that he has a unique voice within the wide world of children’s books. His stories put the imagination and fears of the children first. The emphasis is not on their antagonist.

I don’t know if kids like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but in viewing movies like James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, it’s certainly would make sense that Wes Anderson would have loved reading Dahl as a kid. Throughout Anderson’s filmography there is an emphasis on the books that his young characters read to build their imagination of a world other than their own. Anderson also includes adventure-filled books that his adults recall from their youth, which they strive to rekindle in their adulthood. In both Dahl’s adaptations and Anderson’s films there is a certain type of private schooling that informs the children that the world is a big place, that there are big things to pursue and that the history of the adventurous spirit is all around them.

Anderson applied his family dynamics of a play-by-his-own-rules patriarch—and his offspring who only wants to impress his father but cannot seem to do so—to Dahl’s fox family.  The animation is beautifully autumnal. The score is rollicking. The local farmers who are trying to rid their land of the Fox clan are corporately evil. But it’s the young fox who becomes jealous of his confident cousin by how quickly he’s able to win his father’s affection—by being good at sports and emotionally stable—that hits Dahl’s childhood fear on the nose: feeling like you need to impress your pops in order to keep his love is a scary proposition.


Previously on The Best Movie Ever:

Top Photos:  Paramount Pictures / 20th Century Fox