Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #113: Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

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What a coincidence that a read this after The BFG, a story one of its characters partly retells. I hate to say it, but that was the only part of it that I liked. The reason behind that is, whereas The BFG teaches children a vital lesson, Danny the Champion of the World sends them the wrong message. The basis of the story is that Danny’s father poaches game from the land of their rich neighbor, risking his life in the process. How does he defend this to his son? By telling him that this man deserves it because he only gets these animals in order to flaunt his wealth and to give him the satisfaction of the hunt without the actual, you know, hunt, since he makes them, well, sitting ducks, though there are no actual ducks to be found in the story that I can recall.

Dahl treats it like a re-imagining of Robin Hood, but Danny and his father aren’t nearly as valiant as Robin Hood. They can convince themselves otherwise, but they are thieves, and not the noble sort. Continue reading

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #112: The BFG by Roald Dahl

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Movie adaptations are rarely, if ever, as faithful as Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 animated take on this Roald Dahl classic, yet I’m more fond of the book. That boggles the mind a tad, doesn’t it? One garnered only a 6/10 on IMDb, while the other gets a 4/5, which becomes an 8/10 if doubled, over on Goodreads. I cannot recollect a single notable difference between the two, not even in the look of the characters, as the animated film hewed pretty close to Quentin Blake’s illustrations.

All I’ve got is that the movie lacks Dahl’s writerly flourish, seen in the narration. For me, this is what often separates book from film. Some stories are almost willed into being better than they have any right to be because the author has such a talent for telling it. Without the narration to go along with it, some stories just feel hollow. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I’ve known it to happen rather often.

In both, however, I have a rarely matched fondness for The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) himself and his flopsy-wopsy way of speaking. Fey to the people who want to “fix” that part of him. Fey, I say! I love me some flopsy-wopsy (as well as some timey-wimey and some wibbly-wobbly). He may sound a bit… touched, if you catch my drift, but he remains more readily understandable than some characters I’ve read about. You know the ones I mean, with the heavy dialects that weigh them, and by extension the books they’re in, down. His speech difficulties are more like a stutter in that they can be frustrating, yet also equally charming, depending obviously upon the reader.

Though I may also find him endearing in part because Hagrid has me predisposed to liking big friendly giants. The irony is almost too rich for me to handle, and I can’t help but identify with characters the likes of them. People have been known to assume, based upon my stature, that I should be feared, or at least have in me the ability to be fearsome. Habitually talking to myself in public probably doesn’t help that image. Anyway, I’m as much of a threat as The BFG or Hagrid. Continue reading

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #111: Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

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Guess I was right to assume, based upon the synopsis, that Dahl’s formative years were the obvious explanation for why it was children’s fiction he went into.Boy: Tales of Childhood could easily have been passed off as a work of fiction, with how much resemblance it bears to the work that childhood would help produce. A reader familiar with Dahl’s work could have a ball picking out what influenced what.

Sometimes he’s more upfront about it, like when he says, flat-out, that his time taste-testing chocolate for Cadbury’s was what birthed the idea for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Other times, it’s left unspoken and up to conjecture. For instance, I’d wager that his disastrous attempt at punishing the owner of the candy shop he frequented for her nastiness towards them gave him some ideas for Matilda, namely her ingenious punishments of the adults she feels deserve them.

Dahl feels almost too indebted to his own personal experiences as a youth, since I’ve seen him, in some cases, pull people straight from his life in his stories, only bothering to change their name and little else. Authors surely do this all the time, hence the disclaimers you see before every work of fiction, yet Dahl is so forthright about it. He writes Boy: Tales of Childhood as if to say: here’re the makings of every children’s story I’ll ever write.

Moreover, once I began to draw those comparisons, they weren’t as favorable as he might have hoped. Dahl has little room to spice things up, unless he wants to subscribe to the James Frey method of writing about “real events,” but these “tales of chlidhood” are absolutely ordinary compared to those found within Going Solo, as well as to the fictitious ones he would go on to write as a result.

Because, while many of Dahl’s stories can be traced back to his upbringing, as seen here, he’s clearly given them an author’s touch in said stories, thus making them not quite so… ordinary. You could arguably learn as much about his childhood through those stories as you could through this book, and have more fun doing it.

That doesn’t mean that Boy: Tales of Childhood isn’t worth a look for the sake of seeing what gave Dahl his launching board into children’s fiction. It’s never not worth reading an author regaling us with stories of how he was molded as both a person and as a writer. What I’m telling you, instead, is not to expect anything on par with the autobiographical section of Stephen King’s On Writing or, better yet, Dahl’s own Going Solo. Like nearly all of Dahl’s work, it’s never a waste of your time.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #107: Going Solo by Roald Dahl

How ever did Roald Dahl become a writer of (primarily) children’s fiction after having had experiences such as these in his adult life? It’s a wonder Dahl made it out alive, with the odds being ever not in his favor throughout his time as a pilot in World War II. Had I no prior knowledge of what else Dahl had written, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t have expected stories the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. An author’s work, and its overall tone, is not by rule indicative of his or her life, but Going Solo still makes me curious what in Dahl’s inspired his children’s stories, such a stark contrast to his life during wartime.

Stories such as the one about the husband and wife running nude about the boat’s outer deck could be seen as informing his whimsy, I guess. Just this reads more like the birthing of a Kurt Vonnegut type than a children’s author, which makes me excited to read what little he wrote for adults, largely sinceGoing Solo is so far my favorite of all his works, excluding Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, both of which I haven’t read since elementary school and, as a result, need to reread before I can put them in any sort of perspective. Dahl could’ve used the years of his life chronicled in Going Solo as story-fodder and made a full career out of that alone.

Although, reading the synopsis for Boy: Tales of Childhood, which this is actually the sequel to, perhaps that’s precisely what he did, given how much his children’s fiction seems influenced by his own childhood. I’ll see for myself whether or not that’s the case whenever I get to Kiss Kiss and My Uncle Oswald, both of which sit on my shelf along with Boy: Tales of ChildhoodThe BFGDanny the Champion of the World, and five other books from the library. I’ll see that, soon enough, as well as which I prefer, the children’s fiction he’s most known for, or the few books he wrote with adults in mind.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #103: James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

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Again, as with the last two, I saw the movie for James and the Giant Peach long before I ever read the book. After reading Matilda and The Witches, I thought I might as well continue through Roald Dahl’s bibliography and that this was the next logical choice. The movie had left me underwhelmed, despite being done in stop-motion, my preferred type of animation, but I had hope that it would be outclassed by the book upon which it was based.

Put simply, it was more or less on par with the movie, if a smidgen better. How strange, seeing as it feels like it was destined to become an animated movie at some point or another. There are set-pieces galore, songs, talking insects. If Henry Selick hadn’t done it, someone else would have, I’m sure of it. It just didn’t translate as well as I would’ve predicted.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like the book, nor that I don’t like the movie. Both are worthwhile diversions that feel familiar yet fresh at the same time. The dynamic between James and his companions inside the giant peach is like that of Max and the Wild Things in Where the Wild Things Are. Suddenly, he’s who everyone’s looking to, no longer an afterthought, and he, like Max, rises to the challenge.

His aunts are of the same cast as the adults in Dahl’s later stories. As with the Trunchbull in Matilda, their treatment of James is so outlandishly horrendous that nobody is sad to see them go. Most people, myself included, would go so far as to root for their downfall.

Yet what Dahl does with these familiar elements doesn’t feel derivative. Rather, he does a decent job of what Gaiman often tries to do himself, which is add enough of his own spin to make a familiar story seem new.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #98: The Witches by Roald Dahl

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Roald Dahl has always been part of my life, be it through his books or the movies based upon them. In my adulthood, though, it hit me that I’ve read fairly little of his work, my knowledge of him culled mostly from the films. To remedy this, I first read Matilda, which unsurprisingly fell short of attaining the unconditional love I have for the film adaptation. Up next, then, was the one book of his I never had any interest in seeing put to film, The Witches. Wanting to cross off the last notable adaptation of his work, as well as to end my run of bad luck with the movies I’ve been watching, I sought out the trailer to decide whether or not it was worth my time. However, beside the Dahl connection, it had no effect on me. To me, it looks as forgettable as, and similarly thematically to, Hocus Pocus. How forgettable might that be? Enough that I had to ask Google for assistance in recalling its name.

Except, I thought, it’s common knowledge that books are better than the movie in nearly all cases, and so it seemed best to start with the book like I did withCharlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the few books of Dahl’s I read during my formative years. This way, if I ever did succumb to the temptation to watch the movie, I’d have a ready-made argument against it, which is that the book was better. Although I’m no longer certain whether or not that’ll hold any weight with the book not exactly being memorable either. Dahl’s witches are cleverly realized, with bald heads, blue saliva, and talon-like hands, and the story of one kid’s attempt to put a stop to their plans of ridding the planet of children entirely is… cute. But The Witches feels like something Dahl wrote as preparatory material for the actual story. It’s more background than action, and Dahl ends it just when this war between our main character and the witch collective has begun.

Seeing a kid turned mouse risk life and limb – correction, tail to bring down one group of witches just whetted my appetite for more, especially since it was accomplished with such ease. He loses the tip of his tail, but otherwise everything goes more or less according to plan. Taking down the rest of the world’s witches would constitute a far greater, and by extension far more thrilling, challenge, yet Dahl denies us the privilege of reading about it, his story simply ending and with no sequel in sight. Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryends similarly but, while readers may not have found it satisfying, it at least got its eventual continuation. So I’ll remember The Witches, if I do happen to remember it, as a story without an end, like a cliffhangered pilot that was never picked up for a series because it showed promise, just not enough to see it through.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #92: Matilda by Roald Dahl

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Matilda, alongside Toy Story and The Flintstones, defined my childhood. One of these is not like the other. Of this, I’m fully aware. But I digress. Matilda was – always will be – one of a rare species, the movie I’ll watch through to completion whenever I happen across it on television. Other movies might be higher in my affections, yet for Matilda I have a very special, unconditional type of love, the kind that makes me put the remote aside for it when I may very well pass right over those other movies. You can call it nostalgia, or argue that it’s a feeling bred by familiarity. Personally, I have no desire to understand the rationale behind it.

Matilda is a movie I hope to raise my own children on, maybe that they’ll grow up to be like her or, at least, like Matilda herself, Mara Wilson, writer of thisenlightening article. Yes, Mara Wilson wrote for Cracked, and did a lovely job at that; adjust your image of her accordingly. Don’t allow her to change it for you, though; puberty wasn’t especially kind to her, yes, but she’s wrong to rate herself below Lindsey Lohan in the looks department. Perhaps she’s not quite as well-adjusted as she seems.

Anyway, having watched Matilda more times than I can remember, reading the book without constantly comparing and contrasting the two was beyond me. Likewise, the movie was never at risk of losing out. As much as I love Roald Dahl, this was always going to be a case of does the book live up to the movie instead of the other way around. The short answer to that burning question is no.

The long answer is that the movie seems more sure-footed than the book, its strokes less broad and clumsy. Compared to the movie, the characters in Dahl’s book are more exaggerations than human beings, which I think is especially apparent in the dialogue. While the movie borrows pieces of dialogue here and there from the book, most of it has been noticeably reworked or re-written entirely to allow for more natural speech, particularly from the children, and for the demonization of the adults (save Miss Honey) to be dialed back.

Miss Trunchbull, whose last name I’ve seen as everything from Trunchbottom to Trunchbowl over on Goodreads, amusingly enough, spends most of the book launching into practically the same excessively mean-spirited diatribe. Moreover, her physical harrassments of the students reach all new levels in the book. If you’ve seen the movie, do you recall the scene in which she throws a child out a window? In that case, Matilda was there to help rescue him. Not so in the book, as there’s nothing to stop him from plummeting right to the ground.

That’s the tale of the tape here, so to speak. Seemingly minor differences that actually change the spirit entirely. This is no clearer than in the treatment of her powers; in the movie, her having them, and how she uses them, is central to the plot, whereas in the book they’re more of an afterthought, a means to an end, not even coming into play until a little bit past the halfway mark.

In the movie, Matilda is an active force; in the book, she’s more passive, her actions more passive and defensive than aggressive and offensive. It’s for this reason that I plan on having my future children follow my example by watching the movie first, and reading the book second. I feel there’s more to admire in and aspire towards with the Matilda of the movie, as well as more warmth and three-dimensionality. That being said, lovers of the movie will still find a good deal to love about the book.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #5: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

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I know the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve seen the 1971 Gene Wilder version, presumably conceived by a Hollywood writer the night he found the last of his acid horde from the 60s, or the 2005 spectacle that starred Johnny Depp, because Tim Burton’s phone has been stuck on redial since 1990. But I had never read the book until now, and I have to say that neither of those films prepared me for the horror within those pages. Maybe horror is too strong a word, but let’s just say I raised an eyebrow more than once.

For the two people out there who might not have read the book or seen the movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the story of a poor kid named Charlie Bucket who lives with his parents and four grandparents in a house so small that the grandparents all have to share one bed, and they are so old that they haven’t gotten out if it in twenty years (Horror #1: Remember that guy in Se7en who was strapped in bed for only a year? Uh huh.). Local sociopath recluse and chocolate maker Willy Wonka holds a contest: the five children who find the golden tickets hidden in candy bar wrappers will be invited to visit his chocolate factory. Charlie and four obnoxious kids are the lucky winners, but on the day of the event, each of the four brats becomes a victim of his or her own bad habits as Wonka picks each one off with the help of his henchmen the Oompa-Loompas. Charlie, the only visitor who hasn’t self-destructed, is rewarded not only with a lifetime of chocolate, but a pink slip to the factory. And all because he was too poor to develop any really bad habits.

I’m being unfair. Charlie’s a good kid and deserved his reward after all he’d been through. And those kids were bad. . . just look at Augustus Gloop, a child so fat, he. . . well, hang on. From the illustrations in my book, Augustus would be considered “husky” by American standards in the 21st century. But he was definitely gluttonous, and he gobbled up the chocolate from the chocolate river in spite of Wonka’s warnings until he fell in and was sucked up the pipes, while the Oompa-Loompas stood by and sang. “However long this pig might live / We’re positive he’d never give /Even the smallest bit of fun / Or happiness to anyone.” Whoa, Oompa-Loompas! Pretty harsh, there.  He’s fat so he’ll never bring any happiness to anybody? I think some sensitivity training is in order in Wonkaland. Although I don’t think Mr. Wonka himself would be the one to give it, since he has the sensitivity of a jackhammer. At one point he looks at Charlie and says, “You look like a skeleton! . . . Hasn’t there been anything to eat in your house lately?” Good one. Mock a starving child while you sail down your river of chocolate. Let them eat cake, indeed!

I suppose the Ooompa-Loompas have cause to be bitter since their boss keeps them strung out like crack addicts. Just listen to Wonka’s description of them when he first came upon them in Loompaland, “They used to dream about cacao beans all night and talk about them all day. You had only to mention the word ‘cacao’ to an Ooompa-Loompa and he would start dribbling at the mouth.” So what did Wonka do? Offered to bring them back to his factory where they could gorge themselves on cacao beans; he even offered to pay them in cacao beans! Great, Wonka. Why not just pimp them out for a bag of M&M’s and a shot of creme de cacao? I think you have the Oompa-Loompas confused with Jennifer Connelly at the end of Requieum for a Dream. (Horror #2)

Violet Beauregarde is the next guest to meet with an accident, and she had it coming to be sure. She insisted on trying the chewing-gum meal even though Mr. Wonka told her repeatedly that the gum wasn’t ready. So she blew up like a blueberry and the Oompa-Loompas sang about how she should have listened to her elders and not taken something that didn’t belong to her. No, wait. Apparently they sang about how disgusting her gum-chewing habit was. So the blatant disobedience wasn’t so much a problem as the “repulsive little bum / Who’s always chewing chewing gum.” Okay, whatever. But why does Wonka even make chewing gum if he thinks it’s so disgusting? Man, I wish somebody had asked him that. . .like Mike Teavee did as they were leaving the chewing gum room! Great! I’m sure Mr. Wonka has a good answer and doesn’t just accuse Mike of mumbling and keep walking away.

After a brief sidebar about fizzy lifting drinks, drinks so light that they rise you up in the air and you have to burp to get down (gum-chewing is cause for eternal scorn, but burping is perfectly lovely), Veruca Salt is lost. Veruca was a spoiled brat and her parents were equally insufferable, so if a bunch of squirrels want to toss them down a garbage chute, I think we’re all okay with that. And finally, we say goodbye to Mike Teavee, who watched a lot of TV. Boy, if Roald Dahl were alive today I shudder to think what fate might befall the boy who wouldn’t put down his smart phone.

The candy maker himself is such a collection of mental symptoms that you could open the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders at random and find something that applies to him.

So why am I giving this book four stars? Because it’s refreshing—and I mean this in all seriousness—to read a children’s book as bold and unsanitized as this. Written in 1964, Dahl was unfettered by our twenty-first century sensitivities. You couldn’t call an overweight child names today without getting parents up in arms, and if a child were shrunk by a giant antenna, the Wonka Corporation and its CEO would find themselves at the end of pretty lawsuit not to mention reckless endangerment charges. So yeah, this book is nuts, but I suspect they just don’t write them like this anymore, and that makes it worthwhile.