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Six films that would have Roald Dahl turning in his grave

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Nathan Abrams revisits those ‘Jewish’ adaptations of the famous author’s works.

Roald Dahl has been much in the news this week following the revelation of his family’s apology for his antisemitic comments.

‘There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’, Dahl said in a 1983 interview with The New Statesman.

His views had hardened by 1990. He told The Independent: ‘I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.’ He also asserted that Israeli military activity in Lebanon ‘was very much hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned . . . there aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere.’

When he died, that same year, Abraham Foxman, then the national director of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, called him a ‘blatant and admitted anti-Semite’ in a letter to The New York Times, pointing out that in a 1983 book review the author had referred to ‘those powerful American Jewish bankers’ and claimed that the U.S. government was ‘utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions over there.’

Considering these views, below are six adaptations with heavy Jewish involvement.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

This adaptation was directed by Mel Stuart (born Stuart Solomon). It starred Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. David Seltzer did uncredited work on the screenplay. Jack Albertson played the role of Grandpa Joe. Before Wilder was officially cast for the role, producers considered such Jewish actors as Joel Grey and Ron Moody. Peter Sellers was said to have even begged Dahl for the role. Sammy Davis Jr. and Anthony Newley wanted to play Bill, the candy store owner.

Matilda (1996) and James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Rhea Perlman starred as Zinnia Wormwood. Jon Lovitz and Paul Reubens also appear in the film. Miriam Margolyes auditioned for the role of Agatha Trunchbull and went on to play Aunt Sponge (another Dahl villainess) in James and the Giant Peach which was also released in 1996. Richard Dreyfuss played Mr. Centipede.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

What was once one of the Jewiest Hollywood studios, and the first to open fight Hitler, Warner Bros., provided the Dahl Estate with total artistic control to develop the book into a film. Two Jewish directors were passed over prior to the involvement of Tim Burton — Gary Ross and Rob Minkoff. Adam Sandler was considered by the studio to play Willy Wonka.

Burton immediately brought regular Jewish collaborator, composer Danny Elfman on board. The final film featured his then partner Helena Bonham-Carter, who is Jewish, as well as a clear reference to Jewish director Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The BFG (2016)

This is perhaps the most Jewish of the lot. Not only was it directed by Steven Spielberg, but he also poured a great deal of himself into it. A recent article argues how his adaptation of The BFG fits nicely into a growing corpus of children’s Holocaust films as the Holocaust continues to haunt Spielberg’s creative works ever since making Schindler’s List.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2016, Spielberg said statements attributed to Dahl were ‘a paradox’, and that his books ‘do the opposite, embracing the differences between races and cultures and sizes and language’. He added, ‘I just admire “The BFG” and I admire his values in that, and it’s hard even for me to even believe that somebody who could write something like that could say the terrible things that had been reported.’

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (?)

In March 2020, it was announced that Taika Waititi will write, direct and executive produce two animated series for Netflix, one based on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and another focused on the novel’s Oompa Loompa characters. Even though Waititi is Jewish, Dahl might approve of this choice because he previously played Adolf Hitler in his film JoJo Rabbit.

Taika Waititi speaking at the 2017 San Diego Comic Con International, for “Thor: Ragnarok”, at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.
Photo: Gage Skidmore

I haven’t included the most recent adaptation of The Witches here because, according to this article, ‘How The Witches reflects Roald Dahl’s antisemitism’, given his views on Jews, he would have approved of it.

Art by Sheree Fadil

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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