Thursday, September 13, 2012

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

Celebrated: Worldwide

Today is the 96th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl, author of a score of wonderful books for children, dozens of sharp, creepy and darkly funny stories for adults, several memoirs and - to my surprise - two James Bond screenplays, although these were rewritten by other screenwriters.

Dahl is probably best remembered for the classic children's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has twice been adapted to the screen. Dahl disliked and disapproved of the first adaptation, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, so much that he never allowed another adaptation of the book in his lifetime, nor did he authorize a film version of the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. He believed the Gene Wilder film spent too much time on Willy Wonka and not enough time on Charlie, and that the film's ending contradicted the whole point of the book.

I agree with both of Dahl's objections. I detest that movie, which I know puts me in a small minority. But the biggest failing of that Gene Wilder movie is its abandonment of the very thing that makes Roald Dahl's books so wonderful, and will keep children reading them forever. Roald Dahl's books have an uncanny ability to show us the adult world from a child's point of view: irrational and fantastic, sometimes scary, sometimes full of magic and wonder. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was inspired by Dahl's own experience in a harsh English boarding school, where every so often the Cadbury company would send every boy a box of new products for sampling. The arrival of these boxes must have seemed like magic; the idea of a factory where people spent their lives working to invent new types of chocolate was a fantasy almost too good to be true.

My own first Roald Dahl book was Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, a gift from my grandfather McLaughlin that might have been my first "chapter book." Charlie and his family — mother, father, four frail grandparents — have been launched out of the Wonka factory with their host, and arrive at the U.S.-owned, as yet unoccupied Space Hotel. There they encounter the Vermicious Knids, a particularly nasty kind of alien, and — well, you can read the book for yourself, and you should.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which came out when I was six (or maybe seven), was the first book I ever recognized some version of myself in. Charlie is smart, resourceful and above all wants to do good, wants to be good. He loves his parents and his grandparents, he admires Mr. Wonka, and he wants to live up to all their expectations. He is afraid, but he does not let his fear get in the way of doing whatever needs to be done. We see these traits in all of Roald Dahl's heroes: James, Matilda, Danny, Sophie, the unnamed narrator of The Witches, even The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and, later, The Fantastic Mr. Fox until my mother literally took the books away from me, so I would read something else instead. I can still recite all the songs in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it's kind of a shame that no one ever asks me to do this.

So thank you, Mr. Dahl, for a lifetime of reading. I wonder if it's a coincidence that today is also International Chocolate Day.

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