Roald Dahl: Gone but not forgotten

07 August 2016 - 02:00 By Robbie Collin


The author of children's classics fought with Hollywood and found 007 to be mean, writes Robbie Collin What annoyed Roald Dahl about Sean Connery was that he never bought a round. During 1966 Dahl was in Japan for the filming of You Only Live Twice, the new James Bond movie he had adapted - very loosely - from Ian Fleming's novel. At the end of the day the cast and crew would relax in the sweltering summer with a cold beer. Connery joined the drinking but, as Dahl quickly noticed, left paying to others."He was the only man making a million in the film and he never stood anyone a round," Dahl observed. "He is not an attractive personality."When it came to unattractive personalities, Dahl was an expert. The then 50-year-old author had just published Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which four obnoxious children are variously squeezed, inflated, shrunk and attacked by squirrels during a visit to Willy Wonka's confectionery plant.The book was adapted into two successful films - and over the half-century since, Dahl's work has remained popular with filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, whose film of Dahl's The BFG was released this year.story_article_left1But the chain of events that yanked Dahl from his "writing hut" in the garden to the set of the biggest film franchise on Earth - and back again, just as sharply - is a heartsore rags-to-riches tale.It starts in Honolulu, 1964. The writer's first wife, the Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal, was filming Otto Preminger's war epic In Harm's Wayand Dahl and their children, Tessa, Theo and Ophelia, had joined her.The family had become tight-knit through tragedy: the couple's eldest daughter, Olivia, had died two years earlier from measles encephalitis at the age of seven, and Theo was still recovering from an accident in 1960 when his pram had been hit by a taxi.Also in town was the director Robert Altman, who approached Dahl to write a film with him. Altman was then an unknown toiling in television - M.A.S.H. was still six years away - but he and Dahl hit it off. They cooked up an idea for a comedy about World War 1 fighter pilots.Experience had taught Dahl to be suspicious. In 1942, he had been summoned from the RAF to Hollywood by Walt Disney to adapt a series of his short stories. The project was abandoned after a year (although Dahl, single at the time, dated a string of actresses and socialites, including Ginger Rogers).Despite this professional failure, Dahl found he enjoyed writing scripts and the money. The movie with Altmann, although never made, earned him around $100,000. The sharpness of his screenwriting had piqued the interest of the James Bond producers "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. They asked him to take on the latest 007 film, which was proving tricky to adapt.During World War 2, Dahl and Fleming had been part of a British spy ring based in New York and were firm friends. But Dahl was not a fan of his friend's latest Bond adventure, and Broccoli and Saltzman seemed to agree.They let him adapt it on three conditions: that Bond would still be identifiable as Bond, that Japan remained the setting and that the film's "three-girl rule" - that the spy must sleep with three women during his escapade - remained inviolate.story_article_right2His fee would be $165,500. Dahl wrote the first draft in eight weeks and happily informed his US agent that it was "the biggest load of bullsh*t I've ever put my hand to".Though he was fed story ideas by Broccoli, the film, with its giant magnets, rocket-firing cigarettes and hollowed-out volcano, is pure Dahl.No expense was spared: Dahl's redrafts were taken from his home to London in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. When he joined the production in Japan, he travelled by helicopter more often than Bond.Connery's acting didn't leave him awestruck. "We went out of our way to give him quips that were incredibly clever, but they only had to be spoken with a straight poker face," he said. "There was damn little acting for him to do. He walked through it, you know. Literally."But he was delighted with the result, largely because the director, Lewis Gilbert, left him to his own devices.The same couldn't be said for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the following year, another Broccoli production of a Fleming novel that required a Dahlian rethink. Dahl's plot is so different from Fleming's that readers who discover the latter via the film are often disappointed: the fragrant Truly Scrumptious and the entire barony of Vulgaria were dreamt up by Dahl from scratch. And while the musical confectionery was Fleming's idea, it took Dahl's brain to come up with the name Toot Sweets.story_article_left3For director, Dahl fancied Gilbert. Instead, Broccoli chose the more hands-on Ken Hughes. Hughes wrestled the script away from Dahl and rewrote almost all of it. Dahl was paid $125,000, but was furious. He fell out with Broccoli and was disinvited from the film's premiere."Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was ghastly," he said. "Once you get a rotten director, or an egocentric director, you're dead. But they pay a lot, so you take the money and run."What love Dahl ever had for the film business was fading fast, but with his wife recuperating after a stroke, he needed to work. A few more scripts were hatched, then abandoned.The last straw, and grandest payday, came when he was enlisted to turn Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into a musical. Dahl was given $300,000 to rework his book into a script, but the project's high profile brought unexpected complications.The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People had taken exception to Dahl's description of the Oompa-Loompas in the original book as "African pygmies", and pressured Paramount to change their racial origins in the film.Dahl acquiesced, hence the famous green hair and orange faces of Willy Wonka's helpers. The controversy made him change the book itself, giving the Oompa-Loompas golden-brown hair, white skin, and the mother country of Loompaland, rather than "the darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before".Other changes were harder to bear. The director Mel Stuart brought in the screenwriter David Seltzer to rework parts of Dahl's story: the idea of Wonka's rival Slugworth bribing the children to steal an everlasting gobstopper was his, and one that Dahl hated.Seltzer was also responsible for the lyrics of the film's two biggest musical numbers, Pure Imagination and The Candy Man, the second of which Dahl loathed so furiously that he was still lobbying the studio to have it cut after the film's release.story_article_right4His casting suggestions also fell on deaf ears: while he wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers as Wonka, the studio cast Gene Wilder. Dahl was so enraged that he refused to sanction another adaptation of the book - or its 1972 sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.Fortunately by this point, Dahl's wife had begun to recover. Neal had returned to acting in 1968 in The Subject Was Roses, for which she was nominated for another Oscar, but her health and the resulting insurance costs had made her a liability.Dahl became determined to write her the comeback screenplay the industry wouldn't give her, and bought the rights to Nest in a Falling Tree, a novel by Joy Cowley. The subsequent film bombed in the US.Until his death in 1990, Dahl was continually approached to write more films, but he never did. After his return to writing children's books in 1970, with Fantastic Mr Fox, it was clear he could get by on work he enjoyed."It's such a beastly job that no one would ever write film scripts except for money, or unless you wanted to defend your own property," he said in 1983."And even then you can't, because they get hold of it and do what they like."- © Daily Telegraph, London

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.



Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.

X