Since virtually no one’s talking about it, I’ll break the news: Today would have been Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday. A man of multivariate talents, he’s best known as the scribe of Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Witches (though less known were his dalliances with screenwriting, fiction aimed at adults, and the occasional cookbook). Dahl wrote 16 children’s books before his death at age 74 in 1990.
It could be tempting to flatten the complexities of Dahl’s work, reducing it to pleasantries we can relay to our kids without terrifying them. But Dahl’s stories could be dark, moody, and probing. Film directors didn't always get this, but they did with Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach (1996), a film that kept Dahl’s sensibility intact. I first saw the film in theaters at age four, where I found myself staring slack-jawed at the screen.
Perhaps you remember the basic story: Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, originally published in 1961, is set in the English countryside in the 1940s. James, an adolescent boy prone to daydreaming, lives with his two doting parents until they both meet an all-too-common end, fatally consumed by a rhinoceros that falls from the sky.
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Orphaned, James comes under the care of his aunts, two women with borderline satanic personalities. There’s a small, unassuming peach tree in his backyard, and it becomes a site of refuge from his abusive home life. One of its peaches balloons into an inhabitable world: He steps inside and meets a cast of eccentric, vividly personified insects. The peach tumbles into the Atlantic Ocean and floats its way to New York City.
This is some heady, freaky stuff for a kid’s movie, but that’s the artist Dahl was. Though the film excised some of the darker narrative strains of Dahl’s original story—in his version, the aunts are run over by the peach, while in the film they’re scuttled off to jail—it gave shape to his macabre outlook on the world more fully than other adaptations of his work. And its aesthetic is all over the place, at once charming and horrifying: The film begins as live action, veers into the uncanny valley with stop motion, and ends as a hybrid of the two.
Dahl was fiercely territorial about letting filmmakers adapt his work. During his life, he never gave his blessing to an adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, which is why it only made its way to celluloid six years after his death. Perhaps this was for the best. In an interview eight years ago, Liccy Dahl, his widow, said she suspected he would’ve loved it.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.