Books read in our childhood often remain the favourites despite so many odds. Love for those yellowish, dog-eared pages or the occasional illegible scribble at the corners are never to be overcome.
Two weeks away from Roald Dahl’s 102nd birthday anniversary, we look back to see if reading and reading about Dahl rekindle our love for his writing. Ritwika Roy shares her story.
“Have you been reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?” questioned a friend sometime between Classes 6 – 8 in response to the synonyms of “crazy” I had just rattled off; she was referring to the absurdly delightful and bonkers list of adjectives spewed by the adults while the party fly down the chocolate river.
‘He’s gone off his rocker!’ shouted one of the fathers, aghast, and the other parents joined in the chorus of frightened shouting. ‘He’s crazy!’ they shouted.
‘No, he is not!’ said Grandpa Joe.
At that point, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a book I read regularly, and perhaps obsessively, and between Charlie and Matilda, my vocabulary expanded exponentially. Those two were the only books by Roald Dahl that I ended up reading till well into adulthood, and enraptured by the pace and descriptions, inventions and language, and “pure imagination” of Dahl’s fiction, I wouldn’t recall till much later that I first encountered Dahl in Class 5 or 6 during Speech and Drama class, when we heard “Cinderella” from his Revolting Rhymes. Therefore, I read Dahl later, not knowing that my first reaction to his works had been repulsion.
Fed on the Brothers’ Grimm version of the fairy tales, my juvenile mind found this revisioning of Cinderella by a poet whose name escaped me in the back of the class, vulgar and ‘revolting’. In the next couple of years, I heard of Dahl, watched Matilda (1996), read Charlie and Matilda and watched a very disappointing Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). And for the longest time that was all I had personally read of Dahl’s. I had heard of The BFG and Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator and had seen my classmates read them, but I neither managed to borrow or add them to my limited collection of books, most of which were canonical classics abridged. When I re-read Charlie recently, I realized that my relationship with the children’s fiction of Dahl, or indeed most of what traditionally forms the children’s literary canon, is not entirely dissimilar to that shared by Charlie and chocolate. Charlie’s winning of the factory at the end is obviously the result of the virtues Charlie possesses, but more than that, it is a matter of wish fulfillment. Charlie’s intense longing, desire, and love for chocolate, compounded by the humility and simplicity of his poverty culminates in the attainment of his wish; it is wish fulfilment with a positive manifestation.
According to Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, writing children’s fiction led to a kind of wish fulfillment for Dahl too, as it gave him the kind of reach and popularity he always yearned for, if not the appreciation. This is an inexact assessment, however, because Dahl, in his actions and statements, belligerently contradicted himself continually. So, while he basked in the responses from his intended audience – the children – he also smarted under the negative scrutiny and criticism of the adult readers who determine what ought to be consumed by children. His defense was that:
“…children alone were decent judges of whether a book written for them was any good or not. In 1962, he had written to a child critic of James and the Giant Peach to tell him that, “up to now, a whole lot of grown-ups have written reviews, but none of them have really known what they were talking about because a grown-up talking about a children’s book is like a man talking about a woman’s hat.”
Dahl’s perspective is not unjustified. Fiction produced for children by adults – and overwhelmingly written in the third person – does carry a strong element of patronage and the assumption that children need to be taught because they are ignorant. Dahl, on the other hand, storyteller to his own children and nieces and nephews, makes the effort to see the world from a child’s point of view, going so far as to use the first person in The Witches. With the Child protagonist as his lens, the grown-ups who oppose become the natural enemy and must frequently be overcome in the stories.
Dahl’s natural enemy, therefore, were the editors and librarians and film producers presuming to know subjects and his stories better than him, and therefore, it is hardly astonishing that Dahl was not fond of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Sturrock notes that Dahl called it “crummy”. He opposed the music, Gene Wilder’s casting, and rewrites to the script and as someone who watched the film as a child and hated it, Dahl was right. In my silly opinion, it tried too hard to be like Mary Poppins (1964) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and Gene Wilder was not madcap enough. Burton’s 2005 adaptation came much closer to capturing the spirit of Dahl’s text and would have succeeded if he hadn’t included Willy Wonka’s father. The unsubtle allusion to Dahl’s own relationship with his father who died prematurely, making the chocolate factory not just a matter of wish fulfillment for Wonka but also his creator, would probably have enraged Dahl. I’ll go out on a limb and say that the only adaptations of his work that he would have enjoyed would be Matilda (1996) and The BFG (2016), and I’m not just saying that because they are two of my absolute favourites and I dare say, at moments better than the books. I watched them before I read them, picturing Mara Wilson’s Matilda in my head and waiting anxiously for the scene where Matilda goes to Ms. Truchbull’s house to scare her and was beyond disappointed when I didn’t find it in the book. The same went for The BFG, which was defined by Mark Rylance and the visualization of Dahl’s story. Reading the BFG’s innocent butchery of language was wildly amusing, even as an adult, but hearing Mark Rylance express it added greater poignancy. This poignancy, which Dahl often, sometimes subconsciously, added in his writing, is so botched in the 1990 adaptation of The Witches, that I chose not to watch it. At the heart of the text is an almost transcendental love the first-person narrator and his grandmother share; great and pure and innocently childlike enough that he’d rather stay a mouse than a boy lest he outlives her. Making him become a boy again, therefore, was the producers being as patronizing towards Dahl as adults are towards children.
It is of little wonder then, that despite the apparently unintended misogyny, racism or colonialism, Dahl’s fiction remains popular and beloved. Children and I’m counting myself in that group, discover in the stories a perfectly ordinary and relatable child who finds a kindred spirit in a grown-up and has the extraordinary ability to triumph over the adult who wishes to squash them. Dahl’s stories are the ultimate outlets of wish fulfilment for his target reader, who is, at that present moment, looking for both a win and an understanding grown-up ear. Moreover, the politics of Dahl’s fiction is often masked by the endlessly fantastical prose and situations and inventions – for example, the ingredients for the Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse Maker, or Vermicious Knids, or Dream Country. As a child, I am safe from the giants; as an adult, the imperialistic actions of the British Government are disturbing.
Dahl was as much a luxury in my childhood as chocolate was to Charlie. It took me several years before Willy Wonka’s statement began to raise red flags,
“I don’t want a grown-up at all. A grown-up won’t listen to me; he won’t learn. He will try to do things his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child.”
Here, Dahl is being as patronizing as he accuses adults of being. His biography depicts that in frightening detail – his egotism, irascibility, arrogance, self-entitlement – and in doing so, shatters the illusion of the grown-up child that he builds via his fiction. The Dahl I read and the Dahl I read about were almost two different people, and perhaps, that is where lay his real skill – his ability to be so unaware of his self that he successfully created an illusion of himself, to feed himself and the world.
It took Sturrock’s recounting of Dahl’s last days and his fight with cancer for him to truly exist for me, beyond the surreal, ‘once upon a time’ figure, that he otherwise was. It hit too close to home. I read that day after I lost my own father to cancer and for the moment, Dahl, with the extraordinary physical and mental strength recalled by his children, and the kind I witnessed in my father, came alive for me. In the spirit of my own father.
Title art by Ushnish Bagchi
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