I loved stories by Roald Dahl growing up - books and movie adaptations alike. I was friends with James and his bug friends. I longed for Matilda’s magic powers. I giggled over Esio Trot and found delight time and again with Charlie inside Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory. There is a marvelous combination of ordinary and magic in Dahl’s stories. Beyond the tricks, Oompa Loompas, levitation, and enchanted peaches lies the most fundamental part of the human struggle: the desire for love, friendship, and family. Especially from a child’s-eye-view.
Screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. and The Indian in the Cupboard) began work on the film in 2014. She and director Steven Spielberg collaborated for many years, beginning with the beloved E.T. Their working relationship was intimate and unique, allowing Mathison to develop some of the most memorable, nuanced aspects of E.T. such as the creature’s ability to feel Elliot's feelings.
“I think she understood the natural habitat of childhood,” Spielberg shares with Entertainment Weekly. “Melissa was all about discovery.”
During principal photography of The BFG, Mathison was on set every day watching scenes. She occasionally called Spielberg over to suggest changes to her dialog, and often he passed the notes immediately on to the actors. This is an almost unheard-of level of collaboration between writers and directors in Hollywood, but their connection was clearly special. Both Mathison and Spielberg love Roald Dahl, love making magic happen on screen, and know the importance of a child’s story.
One of the things Spielberg knows how to do best is make a movie about boys. He crafted ET, TinTin, A.I. and Saving Private Ryan. He directed Empire of the Sun and Indiana Jones. But now, for the first time in more than thirty years, and with the help of Mathison, his protagonist is a girl. A little orphan girl named Sophie, to be precise.
The BFG takes place in a version of London where Giants roam the street in the dead of night, stealing children and puffing dreams into sleeping heads. Ruby Barnhill plays the cuter-than-should-be-legal Sophie, who needs reading glasses, has insomnia, and is completely, British-ly miffed at being kidnapped by a giant (played by Mark Rylance).
Their adventure takes them to Giant Country (a dangerous place, even if Sophie’s Giant is of the Big, Friendly variety). Once they move past their reservations about each other, Sophie and the BFG team up to help one another overcome their fears and help rid the land of the BFG’s cruel Giant neighbors who gleefully eat hapless humans without remorse.
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly felt so lovely and comforting about the film, to me. But gosh, I liked it so much. Perhaps it was the simple plot and classic Dahl juxtaposition of realism and the absurd. Maybe it was how lifelike the BGF is, and how every chuckle, frown, and even thought crossing Rylance’s face is reflected in the masterful CGI rendering of his character. Maybe it was the absolutely stunning visuals and cinematography, which made me feel completely immersed in a beautiful, dark new world.
But I have an inkling that it was the smaller things which warmed my heart so thoroughly.
It’s when BFG takes Sophie to Dream Country so she can see the way he captures dreams, and she finds her own dream, glowing golden and full of bright future and possibility.
It’s the scene when they have breakfast with the Queen of England (possibly the most purely delightful part of the whole film) and as they dig into the pancakes, tea, and fruit, you realize that neither Sophie nor BFG has ever eaten a decent meal in their lives until this very moment.
I found something wondrous in the big and small working together. I love light and magic and dreams, and most of all, the hearts of small people. And I found some of that in this little movie, unfettered by the glitz and headache that so often accompanies movies made for children.
The BFG was the first script Melissa Mathison had written in nearly two decades, and it was her last. Sadly, she passed away of cancer before the film even premiered at age 65, not long after being diagnosed. She didn’t write the film as a final goodbye though; she didn’t know she was sick when they began work in 2014. I like to think it must have been the allure of Giant Country, the beauty of Dahl’s adventures, that drew her back into filmmaking in time to tell one final story.
And oh, there is much to discover! Just like I discovered worlds in the pages of Roald Dahl when I was a child, there are treasures to be unearthed in the loving and poignant last cinematic words of Mathison’s adaptation.