There’s an inherent and inevitable risk in adapting a beloved book for the big screen. Even more so, when the book was part of the soundtrack to your childhood. For the pre-Harry Potter generation (like a certain reviewer. Cough), Roald Dahl’s stories made the imagination soar. One of Dahl’s favourites is The BFG, an acronym for the Big Friendly Giant. It’s not an easy task to bring such a story to life, but director Steven Spielberg is no stranger to such a gigantic challenge, as he proved with E.T. Extra-Terrestrial, Avatar, and Jurassic Park. Still, it was with trepidation that I took up my seat in the movie critics’ cinema for the media preview last week.
The heroine of this story is Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a lonely 10-year old London orphan who suffers from insomnia. One night, during the “witching hour”, she spots an enormous shadow through the window. What to do if the boogeyman is chasing you? Hide under a blanket of course. But an enormous hand finds her plucks her from her bed, and before she knows it a giant is leaping across the land, carrying her with him.
Back at his cave, the giant begins to prepare a meal. Is Sophie going to be the main course? Nope. It turns out this giant, unlike his much bigger, carnivorous brothers, is a vegetarian, whose major food group is a smelly vegetable called “Snozzcumber”. Despite his initial grumpy demeanor, Sophie dubs him BFG – Big, Friendly Giant (played by a CGI-ed Mark Rylance). BFG – with his gentle soul and creative back-to-front words (human beings are ‘beans’; delicious is ‘delumptious’; butterflies are ‘buttery-flies’) – becomes Sophie’s protector and friend.
The giant collects dreams from a phantasmagoric lake, and then uses a type of trumpet to blow them into heads of those who need a bit of happiness. This is the kind of story young and old can fall in love with. I so desperately wanted this film to fix my eyes to the screen and transport me somewhere else.
So why didn’t it? At first it was hard to put my finger on it. There wasn’t something markedly wrong with the film. It was sweet and happy. What is lacks the charm and magic of the book. It’s a family film that doesn’t quite measure up to the wonder of other book-to-screen adaptations like Jungle Book. BFG isn’t as dark as some of Dahl’s other stories, like The Witches and Matilda, so it would naturally be lighter. But while it has the heartwarming feeling Spielberg captured so beautifully in E.T., BFG lacks fun – a whimsical sense of adventure and excitement.
The scene that best captures the thrill of the story, is one where the BFG presents the Queen of England with a bottle of his favourite drink, ‘frobscottle’ – a green fizzy liquid in which the bubbles go downwards, with hilarious consequences. An explosion of flatulence sees the Queen, her attendants and even her Corgis ride the air up and down like some kind of water organ. It’s a shame this tone isn’t carried throughout the film.
Rylance is sweet and huggable, and Barnhill inquisitive and confident, so the fault hardly lies with them.The BFG does have a beautiful, kind nature and in this sense, and Rylance delivers a solid performance.
Many argue that it’s unfair to expect a film to be completely true to a book. Accepted. But it’s not impossible to translate the feeling the book evokes on to the screen. Filmmakers did it so well with the Harry Potter series so they should be able to replicate this. And with the BFG, Steven Spielberg fails to create the depth needed for the audience to form a strong bond with the characters and take their journey with them.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance
Rating: 3½ out of 5
SA release date: 01 July 2016