Surprisingly few of Roald Dahl’s books have been faithfully adapted for film. Matilda excepted, there’s something about his style and dark world view that doesn’t quite translate to celluloid: The Witches, The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (twice). All came with the best intentions, but all got the tone slightly wrong.
You can add to that list an honourable failure from 1996. Disney’s James and the Giant Peach, directed by Henry Selick (Coraline) has stop frame animation that looks amazing, but disastrously adds a whole load of forgettable, schmaltzy songs, unnecessary underwater pirates and endless guff about Noo Yoik, City of Dreams, or some such nonsense.
Thankfully though there are the book tie-ins, which retain the visual style of the movies but manage without the terrible musical numbers. There are two separate editions, a lush full colour picture book, with Dahl’s text replaced by the inferior story of the film, and a reprint of the chapter book with different black and white drawings. The artist for both is Lane ‘Stinky Cheese Man’ Smith (also the man behind my favourite children’s book blog Curious Pages).
Lane Smith is one of the great American illustrators of recent times, and I would dearly love to see a reprint that combined the best of both books. His work proves the point of this series of articles: No matter how beloved and wonderful the Blake / Dahl partnership was, it’s a crying shame that Penguin don’t give contemporary artists the chance to give us their take, show us some new perspectives.
James and the Giant Peach, published in 1961 was Dahl’s first children’s book. I’ll look at the 60s versions in depth some other time, but it’s worth dwelling on an interesting detail in Donald Sturrock’s Dahl biography, Storyteller about the author’s original thoughts on the illustrations. ‘His model for James was Winnie-the Pooh… Christopher Robin “is and always will be the perfect small boy. We should get that… A face with character is not so important as a face with charm. One must fall in love with him.”’
Strange then that as a child I found Dahl’s choice of illustrator, Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s images terrifying. And it wasn’t the man-size insect menagerie or even Aunt Sponge and Spiker that did it, it was James himself. Burkert chose to gave him blank, black eyes that looked as if they’d been gouged out; accurately reflecting the distress he’d suffered maybe, but hardly something I could fall in love with. Lane Smith on the other hand gives us a charming tousle haired little hero, equal amounts brave and scared, he couldn’t be closer to the Christopher Robin model.
What Smith does so brilliantly, asides from character, is seize the story’s fairy tale qualities, and fill them with Dahl sized amounts of dark wit. The picture book doesn’t dwell too much on James’s miserable life at Sponge and Spiker’s, but instead gives us a single image that sums it all up perfectly; the worried looking orphan stands in the shadow of their hillside house, the looming presence of his horrendous new guardians on either side, fleshy and bony hands resting proprietorially on his head.
One of my favourite moments in all of children’s literature is the scene when James discovers the fox sized hole in the side of the giant peach growing at the bottom of his aunts’ garden: ‘This isn’t just a hole, he thought excitedly. It’s a tunnel! The tunnel was damp and murky, and all round him there was the curious bittersweet smell of fresh peach. The floor was soggy under his knees, the walls were wet and sticky, and peach juice was dripping from the ceiling. James opened his mouth and caught some of it on his tongue. It tasted delicious.’
Eventually of course he arrives at the stone in the middle of the peach, a small door cut into its side. It’s a moment to rival Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe into Narnia. But where she had to contend with musty furs and mothballs, James gets to wade through sweet visceral gunk. Smith pictures it perfectly, the gloopy fruit dripping down in great globs.
Soon after the peach goes thundering down the hillside, crushing the hated aunts and everything else in its path – including a famous chocolate factory. ‘Almost at once a great river of warm melted chocolate came pouring out of the holes in the factory wall. A minute later this brown sticky mess was flowing through every street in the village, oozing under the doors of houses and into people’s shops and gardens. Children were wading in it up to their knees, and some were even trying to swim in it, and all of them were sucking it into their mouths in great greedy gulps and shrieking with joy’.
Dahl of course returned to this factory a little later in his career. Children’s book nerds will no doubt appreciate Smith’s little nod to this, adding a subtle little W O N K A sign down the side of its chimney.
Where the film got the New York stuff so wrong – turning the story into some sort of immigration fable – the books restore the balance. The arrival in the States comes as a surprise, and attracts the attention of the authorities who take a dim view of a giant peach skewering itself on top of the Empire State Building. But there can be few happier endings than the image of James’s peach stone home nestling in central park.
Coming Soon James and the Giant Peach – the sixties