All in a Dahl’s work

This September sees the centenary of the birth of one of the UK’s best-loved children’s authors – Roald Dahl. And since September marks our inaugural submission date, we thought what better theme to kick off all the sins? To help get you thinking, Lisa takes a look at the way in which her childhood memories of reading Dahl have become inextricably linked with illustration and film.

I don’t remember learning to read. It is as if I went to bed one evening a non-reading grub only to wake up transmuted into a fully-fledged bookworm. So much so, that I don’t really have any early memories that don’t involve a book: Winne the Pooh, Nancy Drew, The Worst Witch, Enid Blyton, you name it, I hoovered it up.

Nestled at the heart of these memories, though, lies one author in particular: Roald Dahl. While Blyton’s Famous Five were quaffing ginger beer and Owl was busy telling Pooh why he was so terribly clever, Dahl’s children were having adventures and dodging perils far beyond my comprehension. His was a world where peaches could fly, rivers of chocolate ran through factories, little girls made chalk move with their mind and adults might very well eat you. I loved every bit of it.

But, while Dahl’s gloriumptious words filled my brain, it was Quentin Blake’s illustrations that brought them to life: Matilda sitting on her pile of books; George Kranky stirring the contents of an enormous cauldron; Wonka in his tails and top hat. Indeed, Dahl and Blake are so interlinked in my reading memory that it is almost impossible to imagine a world in which one existed without the other.

And yet, such a world did once exist. Some of Dahl’s best-loved books, including James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny the Champion of the World, were originally published with illustrations by other artists. It was not until 1976 – the year I was born (coincidence? I think not), and a full fifteen years after James was first published – that Dahl and Blake worked together.

Dahl had moved publisher and was working on his first picture book, The Enormous Crocodile, when Tom Maschler, editorial director at Jonathan Cape, set up a meeting between his new author and well-known illustrator Quentin Blake. Although Maschler would eventually describe the collaboration as ‘a piece of matchmaking of which I am especially proud’, both Dahl and Blake were wary of working together. Speaking to The Guardian in 2007, Blake said, ‘Initially, I was very nervous of him because he was so powerful.’ Seven years later, this time speaking to the Daily Express, Blake said Dahl, too, had reservations because ‘if someone draws in a rather idiosyncratic way you assume they are not going to do what you want.’

Unlike many of Dahl’s other relationships, and despite Blake acknowledging that the author could be ‘curmudgeonly’, their collaboration was to become a long and prosperous one, transforming the collective reading memory of generations of children.

Referring to The Enormous Crocodile in Ghislaine Kenyon’s book Quentin Blake: In the Theatre of the Imagination, Blake put this down to a like-mindedness in approach to storytelling.  ‘It was very interesting as a task to do,’ he explains, ‘because it’s a kind of caricature, and that’s where Roald and I met very much. In a sense, what he wrote was like what I drew in the degree of exaggeration and comedy in it. But it was a bit fiercer.’

Which is, perhaps, why the collaboration worked so well. Adults in Dahl’s world are dangerous. You can never be sure if you’re in the presence of a witch, since they hide their bald heads, claw hands and toeless feet under wigs, gloves and pretty shoes. And, even when a ‘good’ adult is on the scene (Matilda’s Miss Honey or Charlie Bucket’s Grandpa) Dahl infuses them with a childlike vulnerability that suggests they, too, might be taken away or overwhelmed by bigger, scarier adults. Quite literally in Miss Honey’s case, when it is revealed that Miss Trunchbull is her aunt.

While Blake’s illustrations certainly share that darkness – his Enormous Crocodile is pretty formidable and his Witches perfectly ugly – there is also a quick, nimble quality in his now-familiar technique that means he frames the stories in a way that allows children to explore the shadows without getting lost. Matilda’s parents might be sadists but you can easily imagine her escaping their clutches, thanks to Blake’s drawings.

Kenyon suggests that this framing is very much at play in Revolting Rhymes and Rhyme Stew, Dahl’s take on well-known fairy tales. She describes them as ‘Dahl’s attempts to restore the dark side to what he considered were sanitized versions of well-known fairy-tales (often from the Grimm brothers) familiar to most children. The text of both these books, but especially the second one, are, if anything, grimmer than some of the Grimm originals – for example in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, Dahl goes as far as describing the smell of the witch burning in the oven.’

Blake’s illustrations act as a counterbalance. He uses, says Kenyon, ‘a framing device for the plates, separating the image from the text, and the pen contours are more precise than they often are in his work, somehow making the drawing seem less graphically real.’

And, while Blake’s vision of Dahl’s world was very much his own to develop as he saw fit, Dahl certainly had his influence. Nowhere more so than on The BFG. Working on the drawings in 1982, Blake carefully followed his author’s original description of the giant’s long boots, only to receive a parcel containing one large, dirty sandal and a note that said ‘THIS is what the BFG should be wearing.’

More followed. The book was already on its way to the printers when Blake got a call from the publishers. Dahl wanted some changes. So, Blake went to Dahl’s home in Great Missenden and they set to work recreating the giant and adding in more illustrations.

In this instance, one artist’s influence on another’s work had a profound effect – a BFG without his sandals doesn’t sound like a BFG to me – with both pieces of art boosted as a consequence. However, artistic influence and collaboration doesn’t always end so happily, as Dahl, himself, discovered.

The author is credited with writing the original screenplay for the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. However, he would later disown it, after the script was partially rewritten by David Seltzer, due to Dahl’s failure to meet deadlines. Dahl was disappointed by the way in which the emphasis was switched from Charlie to Wonka, although, as it turns out, this had little to do with narrative and everything to do with the fact that the film’s producer David Wolper was in talks with the Quaker Oats Company to find a film that could introduce a new candy bar called…Wonka Bar.

The children’s author was also said to be annoyed by Seltzer’s deviations from the original plot, including bumping up one-time sweetshop rival Arthur Slugworth to full-on corporate villain, and inserting a scene in which Charlie and Grandpa ‘steal’ some of Wonka’s fizzy lifting drink. Gene Wilder nerds will remember that it is this act that leads Wonka to later tell Charlie he has not won the lifetime supply of chocolate.

It may have irritated Dahl, but curiously, it is this scene that I remember most. It terrified me as a child – Wonka’s sudden rage and even more sudden dissipation represented everything that I found scary about grown-ups – you couldn’t always be sure which one you were going to get. That hat-wearing half bust on his desk just finished the job.

Dahl himself is just as guilty as Seltzer of appropriating and reimagining someone else’s work, though. In 1968, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hit cinema screens, unleashing another iconic childhood demon: the Child Catcher. The musical – written by Dahl and the film’s director Ken Hughes – was loosely based on the 1964 novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: the Magical Car, written by Ian Fleming (yes, the same Ian Fleming who wrote the Bond novels).

I say loosely because the Child Catcher never appeared in the original book. He is thought to be entirely Dahl’s invention. So successful an invention, in fact, that he still appears on top ten lists of scariest kids’ film villains. It wasn’t the first Fleming novel Dahl rewrote, either. In 1966, he worked on the screenplay for You Only Live Twice – the first Bond movie to move significantly away from its source material.

Art is almost always a response to something else, a way for the artist to explore how they feel about a subject. Sometimes that subject is another person’s art – either in direct collaboration or as reinvention or transformation of the original.

Our reaction as readers, viewers and listeners is just as personal as the original act of art – I have yet to meet anyone else who is quite as scared of Wonka as I am – but it is also complicated by the natural layering that occurs through the process of reinvention. The question is whose Wonka am I really remembering? In fact, he is a heady brew of Dahl’s original words, Blake’s illustrations, Seltzer’s diversions and Wilder’s acting. In each case, the reinvention is more than a retelling. The response both adds to the original art and becomes its own, independent object, standing alone, yet in discourse with what came before and after. I love all of my Wonkas individually, but as a collective they create something magical.

Great art both invites and inspires interaction, reinvention and retelling. We’re really excited to see how your submissions to all the sins play with this.

Words: Lisa Davison
Images: Shutterstock



5 Comments Add yours

  1. tyrrellknot says:

    ‘Great art both invites and inspires interaction, reinvention and retelling. ‘ Absolutely!

    An informative, entertaining and inspiring piece.

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