The beloved author of children’s classics, who would be ninety-nine this year if he was still alive, got into writing in a roundabout way. A British Royal Air Force fighter pilot in WWII, the Welsh-born Dahl had a chance meeting with author C.S. Forester that changed his life. Forester encouraged him to write a story, perhaps detailing his experience being shot down over the Libyan Desert, assuring Dahl he could get it published in The Saturday Evening Post. Dahl wrote the piece and was paid a thousand dollars.
Twenty years later, he wrote his first children’s book, James and the Giant Peach. A long succession of children’s books followed in Dahl’s varied career, most notably Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was the first of his stories to be put into film and is the only one to be filmed twice—until next year’s release of The Big Friendly Giant.
To date, eight primary features top the list of Dahl’s many film credits. Most of the movies reflect the spirit of books marked by wild imagination and wicked humor. In addition to penning darker material, such as stories for TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he also wrote the screenplay for his friend Ian Fleming’s James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, having himself served not only as a pilot, but, like Fleming, also as an actual spy.
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) – The classic stars Gene Wilder as the eccentric confectioner. Studio deviations from the story, including changing the title, left Dahl disappointed.
2. The BFG (1989) – Decent animated movie about a big friendly giant who takes a kid from an orphanage off to Giant Country.
3. Danny, the Champion of the World (1989) – Jeremy Irons as a mechanic who won’t give in to a developer trying to buy him out, and Samuel Irons as Danny, the mechanic’s young son.
4. The Witches (1990) – This excellent adaptation of one of Dahl’s best books features Angelica Huston as the leader of witches at a conference accidentally witnessed by a little boy.
5. James and the Giant Peach (1996) – A feast of stop-motion animation featuring an orphan, beleaguered by rotten ants, who has an amazing adventure traveling by giant peach and makes friends with the giant critters inside.
6. Matilda (1996) – A girl with telekinetic powers has ridiculous parents and a principal whose “idea for a perfect school is one in which there are no children at all.” Kind of a Carrie for kids.
7. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – Johnny Depp stars as Willy Wonka in this faithful and terrific adaptation from director Tim Burton.
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – Superlative stop-motion animation featuring George Clooney as the voice of Mr. Fox, who breaks his promise to his wife (voice of Meryl Streep) by raiding the farms of neighboring humans, then has to help his fellow critters survive the farmers’ wrath.