‘The BFG’ and An Imagined World of Feverish Innocence.
Originally posted on 27th January 2016
D’ Abano, in the early 1800s, held a number of unconventional philosophical beliefs. He acquired such views from the many books he read, which, towards the end of his life, had dampened his pathetic love for cinema. He believed that all of theatre was ultimately doomed to realism and what couldn’t be realized onstage or onscreen was best left to the imagination. In the last year of his life he posed a series of questions to theatre aficionados: What are the proximities between the borders of realism and the mundane? Is it possible for a text to be both idealist and realistic?
“The BFG” — a Steven Spielberg directed adaption of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s novel of the same name — inadvertently attempts to answer these questions across the centuries. Everything that D’ Abano feared and lived for is smuggled within the confines of the sharp, crisp and dramatic textures of both Dahl’s mute text and Spielberg’s vigorous oeuvre. I am no stranger to Dahl’s work, his vibrant, nuanced and pointed prose for children (and, sensationally, adults) enchanted a generation of literature readers whose preferences favored in-the-moment panoramic actions spiraled into a bouquet uncanny connections that frothed fortuitous consequences. Much of Dahl’s prose takes on this momentum and to be involved in turning his text into a living, breathing thing is an exhilarating journey. I took part in a middle school dramatization of “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.” And even then I was thrilled at how Dahl’s stories took on an inner logic of their own and became shared rituals between reader and author, with plots that I not only adored for its uncanny vernacular (The BFG likes to drink “frobscottle”) but also, its mundane depiction of the supernatural. Dahl’s narrative pacing is a rhetorically accelerative one, prancing between the banal and the enchanted whilst delivering heavy set lessons.
Bringing prose as nuanced as Dahl’s to the fore of the cinema is an extremely difficult task, but what better candidate to be nominated to undertake such a mission, than Spielberg, whose trembling cinematic eye has brought us blockbusters like “Jaws” (1975), “Schindler’s List” (1993), and “Saving Private Ryan” (1993). It is no surprise that Spielberg — one of the most important film personalities on the planet — has openly admitted to Dahl influencing and shaping his own roaming and adventurous mind. With shared eccentricities, they both favor something of an anti-minimalist movement, with a soft spot for the world beyond and a revving eloquence that places less value on virtue and organized morality. To animate the companions of our youth on today’s cinema stage is a revealing experience, it is an intermingle of expectations, a party of characters and personalities. Spielberg is saddled with this burden: To bring to life, our differently imagined worlds balanced between possibility and surveillance, Dahl as the scribe, Spielberg as the messenger.
The art of reading is a silent transaction — mute words on cheap paper — that activates an internal backdrop of eventfulness, latched together not only by a roving sense of expectancy, but immediacy. When the book becomes the movie, the reader becomes the viewer, the pages become film, eye becomes camera. The director divorces the reader from her quiescence, begs her to trust in his logic of fantasy, and relies on motion to sustain dependability, or rather to ensure loyalty. In essence, it is an attempt to spark to life, what has remained, for so long, calm and unruffled.
The storyline of Spielberg’s motion picture is much like Dahl’s novel, it begins with a grand vista of urban London, swiftly panning and centering on a settlement of sleeping orphans with the exception of Sophie who is played with graceful stealth and narrative clarity by Ruby Barnhill. It is “the witching hour, when the bogeyman comes out to play, when people go missing” and as if dutiful to some sort of theatrical clairvoyance, the BFG (Mark Rylance) snatches Sophie from bed and takes her with him back to Giant Country where the two become acquainted. Sophie learns that BFG — as she chooses to call him — is not at all the stereotypical man eating giant. He’s a shy and gentle person with a big kind heart. She learns about his home, diet, profession, his hobbies and his rude neighbors, nine man eating giants, who, as BFG explains to Sophie, would eat her up if they knew that he housed her.
Together, they have several fascinating escapades together, with the ultimate objective of getting rid of his noisy neighbors, once and for all. One of such adventures, comes when BFG takes Sophie on his night job of “dream catching.” They journey past meadows and fields before arriving a shaded glade, where dappled balls of light roam the sky. It is a beautiful sight, one that D’Abano would have been proud of, it’s a perfectly placed calibration, in which fantasy lights up the real. Such moments of dramatic thunder only emerge within the intersection of simplicity and romanticism, as thoroughly antithetical movements, and as definable yards of both knowing and being. Dahl certainly isn’t the first person to provide an answer to D’Abano’s question in literature, but Spielberg is certainly one of the first (and the few) to capture on screen, the joy and intensity, of D’Abano’s ideal world of miracles, championed, in part, by a delicate (soft cheery musical notes accompany action) and ferocious approach to script.
Dahl has always permitted us to imagine, to see the absurdities in the ordinary textures that swirl around us as a means of triggering dreams sharper than life itself, to present adventure and curiosity not as pastimes, but as essential elements of living. His writing, both for adults and children — or adults yearning to re-enact the intoxication of youth — is a wrapped gift to his readership that sparks and channels our sense of wonder, teaches us to be mystified by the world, empowers us to erect our own, no matter how whimsical. “The BFG” is an instruction to look beyond the banal. What is so impressive is that it also binds us to life, by contemplating modest benign degrees of conflict cocooned within all the freedom to explore and weaved tightly into the narrative fabric. Sophie teaches BFG the importance of confrontation, and she guides him through his fears with all the strength and courage tucked away in her small beating heart. They face precarious circumstances, on more than one occasion coming into close proximity with potentially life ending encounters. The reason both virtuosos (Dahl and Spielberg) assume similar narrative pace, is an agreement in the vital theme of their oeuvres: that for all the thrill and all the permit to unlock the latent magic in the existential, the world is not merely a playground — we endure consequences, we bleed if we hurt. Dahl is beloved to have infused within his stories and positioned in such situations, benevolent, sensible, resilient, and likeable personalities that we can revel in as both misfits and companions that we can engender when we feel overwhelmed or alone.
Through a lifetime of reading Roald Dahl, oddities have been adjusted to be expectancies, rather than surprises sprung on us. When we meet any of Dahl’s characters — or even strangers — we must assume an inner world of complexity and mystery, these friends have prompted our own eccentricities to roam free and to unhinge our sealed tendencies. Dahl has allowed them to burst forth by generating an encouraging mental landscape, so that we might think of dreams as not just flitting bursts of light, but as tangible things.