Fantastic Mr. Dahl.

It’s surprising that it’s taken Hollywood this long to adapt Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox into a movie, although Hollywood seems to have waited for Dahl’s death in 1990 to turn several of his books–Matilda, James And The Giant Peach, The Witches–into movies, and that’s not including the even more recent remake of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is also unusual among Dahl’s works in that its principal characters are talking animals. Technically there are talking animals in James And The Giant Peach too, but there’s a supernatural explanation for that. The animals in Mr. Fox are even more anthropomorphic, having language and their own society which mirrors the human society above them–although without nearly so much meanness. Its hero–Mr. Fox–is also an adult, another unusual quality in a Dahl book. And yet when I went back and reread it I realized how, talking animals aside, it’s not that different thematically from most of his other books. The most interesting thing is how often his characters are outsiders–usually excluded from the privileges of the upper classes. While he’s never openly critical of the class system, Dahl does seem to enjoy poking fun at the upper class. Charlie’s family is almost at the lowest possible end of the economic scale, as are James’s aunts–but they take their frustrations out on James. While Matilda’s father is a successful car salesman, he’s stupid and conniving and ultimately undone by his own greed. Matilda also faces Miss Trunchbull, who’s definitely upper class. All of the children in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory–with the exception of Charlie–come from wealthy families. And then there’s Danny Champion Of The World, in which Danny and his father live in a gypsy van and are threatened by the wealthy Mr. Hazell. Like Dahl’s other heroes Mr. Fox is kept out of “society”, here represented by the three evil farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Mr. Fox has to get by on his wits, and the harder Boggis, Bunce, and Bean push the easier it becomes for Mr. Fox to slip in and take advantage of them. Not that it’s always that hard. None of the farmers are smart, and Dahl has this typically gross explanation for why Bean is deaf:

Bean never took a bath. He never even washed. As a result his earholes were clogged with all kinds of muck and wax and bits of chewing-gum and dead flies and stuff like that.

I’ve wondered whether Dahl’s tendency to prod the upper classes has anything to do with his upbringing. He was born to Norwegian parents who emigrated to Britain, and most summers they returned to Norway. While he doesn’t say he felt like an outsider as a child, or even as an adult, his autobiography is called Going Solo. Both his father and older sister died when he was just four, which must have come as an enormous shock and no matter how much his mother and other adults tried to compensate, it must have left him feeling very alone and uncertain.

It may actually be more complicated than needling the upper classes. Dahl has a distinct dislike of bullies. In both his book Boy and his story Lucky Break he describes the awful system in English boarding schools where he and other boys would be servants to the older boys, and how he’d get beaten with a cane for burning an older boy’s toast. Interestingly he doesn’t say whether he was just as brutal when he became an older student.

What Dahl’s books provide young readers, though, is moral ambiguity. Ideally children’s books are supposed to teach kids right from wrong–or so we’d like to believe. Dahl, though, isn’t always interested in punishing the bad and rewarding the good because most of his characters aren’t all good or all bad. His description of wealthy men in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar seems to capture his view of the world. Henry Sugar is wealthy enough that he doesn’t have to work, and Dahl says,

Men like Henry Sugar are to be found drifting like seaweed all over the world…They are not particularly bad men. But they are not good men either. They are of no real importance. They are simply a part of the decoration.

Henry Sugar eventually redeems himself, creating a whole series of well-funded orphanages, but he does it by robbing casinos.

Matilda has a devious side, playing some brilliant pranks on her parents, including gluing her father’s hat to his head. James and his friends rejoice when his two aunts are crushed by the giant peach. And then there’s Danny, whose father is a petty thief. The fact that the whole village, with the exception of Mr. Hazell, participates in the crime doesn’t make it any better. Even Charlie Bucket–sweet, innocent, downtrodden Charlie Bucket–only succeeds because he does something he shouldn’t. When he finds some money he should take it straight home but he instead gambles part of it, a purely selfish act.

And then there’s Mr. Fox. Like Danny’s father he starts out a petty thief, but, thanks to the efforts by “Messrs. Boggis, Bunce, and Bean” to destroy him he becomes even more successful than any of them could imagine.

Without realizing it, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean become Mr. Fox’s servants. By trying to kill him they end up giving him access to everything they own, and he never has to work again. Is this right or wrong? Dahl never treats the world so simplistically, and I think that’s why his books continue to be so successful. Young readers understand that the world’s not a simple place.

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