What happens when three great storytellers — Roald Dahl, Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg — come together?
By Nicole-Marie Ng; Photos: Courtesy of Disney
First published in 1982, Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” has been enchanting young readers for generations. The book is one of Dahl’s personal favourites and was a bedtime story he created in honour of his late daughter, Olivia, who died of measles encephalitis at the age of seven in 1962.
It tells the story of a young orphan girl named Sophie, who meets a Big Friendly Giant (BFG). He introduces her to the magical world of Giant Country, and she realises that even though the BFG is 7m tall, he’s only half the size of the other human-eating giants who threaten her world.
Can little Sophie convince everyone that giants exist and save the day?
The power of children
Instead of sticking to the usual literary narrative of children needing protection and care, Dahl’s protagonists are often about kids who triumph in impossible situations.
“I think it was kind of genius of Roald Dahl to be able to empower the children,” says legendary film director Steven Spielberg. “It was very, very brave of him to introduce that combination of darkness and light, something which is found in so many of Disney’s earlier works like Dumbo, Fantasia and Snow White.”
“Being able to be a little bit scary, but also redemptive and teach an enduring lesson to everyone at the same time, was a wonderful thing for Dahl to have done. It was one of the things that attracted me to direct this [film].”
The BFG is also exactly the kind of story Spielberg excels at telling on screen. One of his best works to date is E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), a science-fiction and adventure film featuring a group of children who discover the presence of an alien.
With Spielberg at the helm of this film, popular opinion is that BFG will be as much of a success.
Getting an earful
The protagonist, or BFG, is played by three-time Tony Award, two-time Olivier Award and Oscar winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies).
Though the film is live action, Rylance’s BFG was digitally created via motion-capture technology. The actor spent weeks in a suit covered in sensors, capturing every facial expression and body movement.
The challenge came in expressing the giant’s oversized ears. Spielberg shares that nothing in the movie is based on Quentin Blake’s original illustrations except the giant’s big ears which are central to the BFG’s dopey and lovable character, but getting them to move effectively was difficult even for the Oscar and triple-Tony award winner.
Despite these challenges, Spielberg considers Rylance one of the best actors he’s ever worked with. “He’s a very gentle soul,” Spielberg says, “I’ve never seen anybody perform like him. He and Daniel Day-Lewis are in a very similar rarefied category.”
He continued, “I think Mark is a figment of nature’s imagination — which means he can change and become anybody, just with a gust of new air through his body, a new inspiration, a character. He just transforms into anything or anyone.”
Meet newcomer Ruby Barnhill
While casting inexperienced child actors can almost certainly cause a movie to flop, Spielberg said that 12-year-old English actress, Ruby Barnhill, who stars as Sophie, blew him away from her first audition.
“She was so honest,” Spielberg says of Barnhill. “I felt like it wasn’t Dahl writing, [but] Ruby making up the words. That’s how realistic she [was].”
In the movie, she stands up to the frightful giants as well as indignant adults, unwilling to listen to the advice of other children. Sophie may occasionally come across as annoying in her naivety but she’s still lovable nonetheless, making her an interesting and complex, multi-dimensional character.
THE BFG [PG]
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
STARRING: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
GENRE: Adventure, Family, Fantasy
RUN LENGTH: 117 min
RELEASE: 18 Aug 2016
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of Weekender, Issue 159, August 19 – September 1, 2016, with the headline ‘The Big Friendly Giant’.