I first introduced my kid to the books of Roald Dahl the way I myself had discovered them: while she was on the third day of a day care-strength stomach bug — the kind where you can’t eat crackers without horking them up and where reading doesn’t make you spew but cartoons will. So we read Matilda, The Twits, George’s Marvelous Medicine, James and the Giant Peach and The BFG in rapid succession. The last, to my delight and utter surprise, was her favorite.
That’s why I was a little bit let down over the way that while, in some places, the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s dark-but-not-too-dark book about loneliness and friendship is faithful to a fault, in other places it diverges in a way that just doesn’t feel completely awesome.
The book was macabre enough to not be too cutesy, and the fact that Sophie goes on to live in a little cottage in Giant Country after a string of adventures drove home the dual lesson that I wanted her to have about growing up sans-parents — that you can have a very happy life if for some reason you don’t have any parents provided you make your own family; and that your family can really be anyone, even a friendly giant with extra-usual ears who is often left instead of right.
In five years, my daughter has read and reread The BFG enough times to make a word nerd like me proud, and when I got the chance to go see the film a few days early, I jumped at it. Then, I wrestled it to the ground, tackled it, buckled my excitedly hyperventilating kid into the car and got to the theater an hour early. And I liked the movie, I did. She loved it, too.
But in the end, there were a few things that just felt, well, left about it, you know?
1. Super precocious Sophie
In the book, Sophie is a bit of an old soul, but ultimately, she’s a kid. She’s happy enough to have an adult around who isn’t Mrs. Clonkers, even if he (the Big Friendly Giant) does gobblefunk about with words a little. In the movie, she’s, well, kind of a jerk.
Not that we can blame her, since she’s forced to act like a jaded know-it-all for the first half hour of the movie just so that someone’s talking. Later she has to throw a pee-pants tantrum in order to get to Dream Country (something the BFG convinces her to do in the book) because the movie is really invested in setting the BFG up as the BETG, or Big Emotionally Tortured Giant.
My kid didn’t seem to mind the new iteration of Sophie so much. Weirdly, she was bothered most by the fact that movie Sophie had shorter hair than book Sophie and that she changed out of her nightie. So, it’s the little details, I guess.
2. The BFG’s incurable case of the sads
The BFG is a little emo in the movie, to put it lightly. In the book, when he ventures out and the other giants throw him around like a football in a bullying scene that’s tempered by the absurdity of giants throwing around a smaller giant, it’s the unfortunate happenstance of living with bullies. Sophie basically agrees that they’re dicks and empathizes with him.
In the movie, Sophie sort of scolds him for putting up with the bullying and he gets this awful look of resigned shame, which is in keeping with his Big Friendly Goth persona, which later culminates with him dropping Sophie back off at her orphanage (!) because…
3. Spoiler: A little dead boy
Apparently, he once had another kid that he snatched hanging around — which is hinted at when Sophie puts on the dead kid’s jacket and the BFG doles out a little silent treatment — who ultimately met his grisly end at the hands of the other giants. How do we know this? This (paraphrased) convo:
Sophie: Was he scared?
BFG: *Quietly* At the end.
Sophie: Well, I’m not.
Anyway, the BFG tells this story and then abandons little Soph to the mercy of Mrs. Clonkers in a very Edward Cullen “it’s not safe to be around me” move that is later undone when she tricks him into taking her back by cannon-balling off of a balcony, knowing he’ll catch her.
Frankly, I’m pretty sure this was all just to have a scene of Sophie hiding out in the dead boy’s room (while Gizzardgulper et. al. literally smash the BFG’s dreams) so they could sneak in some Quentin Blake drawings, which is fair enough.
I asked my kid to weigh in on what she thought of this one, and she said she had no words. That’s a new one for her, trust me.
4. Mean, stupid giants that should be stupid, mean giants
Speaking of the nine bad giants, they’re mostly just jerks with a little touch of the stupe, which might make them a little scarier for the younger set. I mean, they’re also supposed to be horrifying in the books, but they’re also huge morons who can be tricked into eating snozzcumbers or turning themselves in to the brigade. The fact that they like to eat people is all Sophie really needs to know to agree to help the BFG eliminate them, and you don’t feel bad for them when they end up in the pit.
By contrast, the thing that makes them deplorable in the movie is that they want to eat Sophie, and they’re so wretched that they can’t even be mocked, really. Instead of giving them a bad dream as payback for being dumb jerkholes early on, they don’t get their trogglehumper nightmare until later, when the BFG uses it to induce crushing regret for their cannibalism in the giants so that they can be subdued enough to be moved to a remote island.
My child is a little too old to get freaked out by CG giants, but she did lament the fact that they never really got their appropriate comeuppance in the movie. She said they still seemed scary, but at the end of the book they were just ridiculous.
5. Sophie has to go away
Finally, in the last quarter of the movie, things start to feel bigger and friendlier (there’s a Frobscottle scene with the Queen of England that all of the kids really loved) and less like it takes itself so seriously, an effect which is ruined when we learn that Sophie and the BFG never see each other anymore.
The book is pure wish fulfillment: The BGF gets a palace and accolades and gifts from world leaders for his bravery; Sophie can still live the parent-free life in a cottage near her BFF, and together they hammer out the manuscript that’s supposed to be the novel itself.
In the movie, the BFG ends up living a solitary existence as the last of his kind in Giant Country while Sophie is adopted by a nice lady and comments in a very melancholy tone that she can see the BFG’s crappy little cottage in her dreams.
And that’s it. In two hours, the most satisfaction you’ll really get is an extended fart scene with Corgis. By far, this fact bummed my kid out the most because she always liked the happy ending that Sophie and the BFG made for themselves. She said the adoption ending felt fake.
Typically, I really don’t mind when movies diverge from their ink-and-paper origins. They’re two different mediums, so naturally, things will look and feel different or be abbreviated or not, and I don’t usually have a lot of patience for whiners that insist everything ought to be shot-for-shot.
And really, I liked the movie OK. Go for the really cool sequence in Dream Country if nothing else. It was seriously magical, and even my kid, who was born into a post-crappy-green-screen era was uncharacteristically impressed. It was sweet, and it was pretty, and the cast did really well with what they had to work with.
But if The BFG is your favorite Roald Dahl book, it’s just not going to be your favorite of the movie adaptations. Which is surprising, since it can definitely be done. Gene Wilder was an excellent Willy Wonka. The animated 1996 adaptation of James and the Giant Peach was perfectly macabre and Matilda, the same year, was perfectly chirpy.
This one tries to be both and ends up not really being either, and a lot of what makes the book so lovely just never translates to the big screen. And that makes me sadder than a courageous giant who is fresh out of Frobscottle.
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