Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’: Surface gloss overcomes Roald Dahl’s dark vision

“The BFG” has become a box office flop, most likely due to Steven Spielberg’s sugar coating of Roald Dahl’s cynical magic and complex character interplay.

"The BFG" PR splash screen from the Walt Disney Pictures official film web site.

WASHINGTON, July 25, 2016 – Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” is getting mixed reviews in the hinterlands, which is hardly surprising. “The BFG” –an abbreviation for “Big Friendly Giant”—was originally a fictional creation by author Roald Dahl, a writer best known for his quirky but highly regarded children’s novels.

Over the years, Dahl’s books have been popular enough to be turned into films in their own right, most famously his “Charlie and Chocolate Factory” starring Willie Wonka, “The Witches” and “Matilda” to name just a few. Despite the much praised quality and originality of the books, however, the film adaptations earned a sometimes unpredictable mix when it came to critical and commercial success.

A large part of each film’s reception seems primarily due to how well the filmmakers get Dahl’s offbeat brand of storytelling and his general outlook on life. Which gets us back to Steven Spielberg and “The BFG.”

Steven Spielberg’s career as a director has been one of the most productive ventures in cinema history. Early in his career he was regarded as a workaholic at a time when his directing efforts were more sporadic – at least by his standards today – and when he was heavily involved in producing films. As technology evolved and improved, however, films in which he’s been involved have become more and more prevalent, to the point where audiences can expect nearly two of them a year.

Aside from the classic films people generally associate with him, however, ever more harried pace of involvement has resulted in what seems to be twice the number of films he used to create—with a number of those being audiences would just as soon forget.

With his current workload, it almost seems like Spielberg is trying to find projects just to keep himself busy. He still takes on original ideas for his films. But just as often, he’ll either adapt something or remake an older film, or, in some instances, both.

Where most directors of his caliber have definitive stylistic touchstones within their films – and Spielberg absolutely does as well – he branches out consistently to tell stories through film that are almost definitively not what we’d feel are “Spielberg films.” Sometimes this adventurous restlessness leads to interesting results – even if the film doesn’t fit into the Spielberg canon. But at other times, it results in what feels like a well intentioned if ill conceived finished product. “The BFG” falls into this latter category.

Understanding Dahl’s outlook on life is key to understanding his work because it informs what he was pushing himself to create. His children’s books are for the most part not uplifting, and the obstacles the protagonists face are just the depressing outcomes of life, especially during childhood.

There’s a certain realism that seeps into the frequently wild adventures in each book, reflecting at times Dahl’s life, which at times seemed to be a never ending stream of unfortunate events that consistently beat him down. The result was, for the most part, a very cynical, somewhat hateful human being. Even when reflecting this outlook, however, his characters always find themselves to be in a better place at the end of the story than where they started, if not physically, then emotionally.

Spielberg’s outlook on life, while acknowledging its darker moments, is decidedly more positive than Dahl’s. That makes his decision to take on a story created by Dahl is an odd fit for “The BFG” at best.

“The BFG” opens with Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) sneaking around in the English orphanage where she lives. Trying to avoid attention as she tries to read before falling asleep, she catches a glimpse of large figure just outside the orphanage window. Working against her best instincts, the large figure notices her gaze and ends up kidnapping her and taking her to Giant Land, where she is formally introduced to the BFG (Mark Rylance) and his world.

The BFG, it turns out, is the runt of his giant clan, eternally abused and mocked for his relatively high level of culture and his policy of not devouring humans. Sophie learns what the BFG does for the rest of the world: he catches dreams and delivers them to people in all forms. As Sophie warms up to the BFG, she concocts a plan to give this friendly giant some peace as well as getting rid of the threatening and oppressive giants.

The film’s details generally mirror those in Dahl’s original, but the tonal elements rarely intersect due to Dahl’s and Spielberg’s very different outlooks on life. Spielberg’s approach frequently ends up clashing with that of a storyteller like Dahl, whose style is inherently darker.

At his best, Spielberg is an excellent visual director, where he’s able to create the kind of wondrous imagery that has cemented his place in cinema history, endearing him to audiences around the world that long for hope and happiness.

At his core, Spielberg is nearly devoid of cynicism. His characters tend to be overtly trusting of the world around them and expect the best possible life outcomes. Think of films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” Yes, unpleasant things do happen to the characters in these films – arguably Spielberg’s most definitive – but these negative forces don’t deter Spielberg characters from their missions.

But while Spielberg is able to capture the wonderment in his characters’ eyes, these characters rarely stop to question anything. For the most part, this makes him great as a director of family films, especially those involving strong willed kids plow forward toward their destiny or desires despite obvious threats and consequences on the way. The quintessential Spielberg character constantly moves forward, not back.

That attitude is readily apparent in “The BFG.” But it doesn’t quite work.  Spielberg seems to skim the surface of Dahl’s complex characters, especially Sophie. While her past life ix explained, Spielberg gives us an impression that it doesn’t carry much weight with her. Like any good Spielberg character, she just keeps moving forward, something that seems quite at odds with the bookish and inquisitive Sophie we meet at the beginning of the film.

For his part, Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant was designed at least in part as a foil for Sophie. He’s lived his entire life cautiously thus far. uneasy with the world around him. Whether he’s interacting with his problematic fellow giants or catching the dreams of other people, he’s on alert and uneasy with the world around him. If he slips up, he senses his fumble would cause serious harm either for himself or to the psyche of another individual.

Unfortunately, Spielberg’s film doesn’t dwell on the psychological and attitudinal interplay between Sophie and the BFG, something that takes Dahl’s eponymous book far beneath the story’s surface. Instead, the film makes the BFG its primary narrative focus, forgetting about the crucial give and take in his the relationship with Sophie.

Within terms of the story, the BFG has been around since time began, and he’s had ample time to build up a wall to keep many of life’s unfortunate turn outside. But Sophie, despite the misfortune that’s befallen her early in life, finds it impossible to construct walls and defenses. She can’t seem to by anything but upbeat as she pushes the BFG forward in an effort to heal his psychological wounds. Her own unresolved issues are pushed aside, in away, until they’re dealt with later on what seems like a whim.

The dynamic balance at the heart of Dahl’s “ BFG”—which puts both the giant’s and Sophie’s pain is on equal footing, allowing them to help one another work through their respective issues—is given far less weight in Spielberg’s film. Dahl taps into a more realistic perspective on Sophie and the hurt she’s experienced, consistent with the running idea in most of his stories, namely that one is never too young to experience existential pain. The acute pain of Sophie’s life seems generally missing in Spielberg’s film treatment, robbing the film of the books full emotional impact.

This narrative weightlessness precisely mirrors Spielberg’s by now virtually patented visual touches. Visually, his incorporation of CGI and live action is fascinating but in an unreal way. Allowing the humans and the CGI giants in the film to appear so different from one another in texture and fluidity does make it seem as if they literally dwell in different worlds. But at the same time, it reinforces the notion that these characters also occupy different realities and are unable of inhabiting a mutual one. Spielberg doesn’t offer enough connective tissue to bring them together both narratively and visually.

In the end, “The BFG” feels as if Steven Spielberg is going through the workmanlike emotions of making a workmanlike film with all the necessary visual cues and artificial emotions to generate its target profitability. That isn’t to say that little effort was put into the film. But the final product never has the visceral feel of those dueling visions that bring Dahl’s original to vibrant but troubling life. In this film, the story’s author and director work opposite one another, not in tandem.

Spielberg’s “The BFG” looks glossy but leaves out the vital heart of Dahl’s story while at the same time failing to achieve the heartfelt optimism at the core of Spielberg’s best films.

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