Monday, July 4, 2016

A Look at Roald Dahl's Box Office Curse

Scene from The BFG
While everyone is busy today celebrating Independence Day, it looks like director Steven Spielberg may have a bit of worry on his hands. His latest film The BFG opened this past weekend, and the results were far from the stellar numbers that you'd expect from the man behind Jaws and Jurassic Park. With an estimated $18 million opening weekend for a film budgeted at approximately $140 million, it's going to need major business overseas to even recoup its initial cost. However, what if I were to say that this is pretty common for movies adapted from Roald Dahl books? Yes, to date there has only been one runaway hit of the seven big screen adaptations, and it's one of the less revered titles on the list. The following is a look at those films and the curse of Dahl.

What makes a film a failure, or more often referred to as a "box office bomb"? While one could add critical consensus as a factor, I am going to only focus on the objective way that a film would be considered a failure. Basically, a film is considered a success when it makes back its budget at least two or three times over. This is more true for studios than independent films. For example, director Martin Scorsese's Hugo received a 94% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. Its budget was estimated between $150-170 million. The worldwide gross was $187 million. Despite making back its budget, its inability to make a legitimate profit makes it a box office bomb. 

With this in mind, I wish to apply this theory to the many fantastic works of Roald Dahl, who may be one of the most inventive and exciting children's authors in recent history. I for one love watching what new directors contribute to his work and the fact that everyone from Spielberg to Tim Burton to Henry Sellick to Wes Anderson have taken their turn adapting the work is a compliment in my book. So when looking at this list, keep in mind that box office bombs doesn't necessarily mean a film is bad. It just means that Dahl has a pretty bizarre track record compared to almost every other author of his ilk. I will be exploring in order of total box office, not quality.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $475 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Success or Failure?: Success

It is easy to make fun of director Tim Burton for his reliance on remaking his childhood favorites with a sheen gloss of faux-goth set pieces, but his films tend to make money (just look at the far more inferior Alice in Wonderland's billion dollar gross). However, his update on the Dahl classic, of which he called the 70's version to be "sappy," has its share of problems. Johnny Depp's performance may be awkward and everyone is a tad too mean. Still, the first decade of the new millennium was nice to Burton's creative style, and the fact that he is the sole proprietor as of this publication of a successful Dahl adaptation is a mark that cannot be taken away, even if it's irrefutably one of the worst and suffers from way too many plot additions.

Budget: $40 million
Worldwide Gross: $46.4 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Success or Failure?: Failure

To its credit, director Wes Anderson has only become synonymous with any facet of box office success in the films after Fantastic Mr. Fox. However, none are as great as this stop motion film that features George Clooney as a fox, and features a gang of animals going on a wild adventure to stop the industry from destroying their home. It's a bit darker than most Dahl adaptations, but it's also among the better entries on this list, even earning a Best Animated Film Oscar nomination. However, there's a disparaging difference between first place and second on this list, and it's a disappointment because of how much better everything from here on down tends to be.

Matilda (1996)

Budget: $36 million
Worldwide Gross: $33.4 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Success or Failure?: Failure

It is bizarre that what is generally regarded as one of the most faithful and acclaimed of Dahl's works didn't do so well. Its adjusted box office inflation is slightly more impressive with $65 million. Still, the Mara Wilson-lead family film directed by co-star Danny DeVito is a whimsical exercise in the power of reading. While it remains more obscure to the zeitgeist than some of these other titles, it's still strange that it was the most successful take until Burton came along - and even then it wasn't a huge success. Considering that while The BFG may never recoup its losses in the next few weeks, it may beat Matilda for third best on this list by next weekend. Though it is reassuring to think that the worse a film does, the more likely it is to resonate for decades to come.

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Budget: $38 million
Worldwide Gross: $28 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Success or Failure?: Failure

The year 1996 was sure a pretty big year for Dahl fans. On top of Matilda, the year brought us James and the Giant Peach from Henry Sellick: the maestro behind such stop motion masterpieces as Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas. In his take, he is one of the few to cleverly blend live action and animation, producing one of the more unnerving and unique portrayals of Dahl's work to date. Add in a few Randy Newman-penned numbers and you get one of the most unabashedly creative and fun films associated with the writer. Sadly, it also falls onto the side of one of the bigger bombs on this list, The BFG notwithstanding. If nothing else, it shows the potential of what children's films can be, and it does so with a technique so macabre that you become annoyed at how much credit Burton gets for being the only one who does it.

The BFG (2016)

Budget: $140 million
Worldwide Gross: $22 million (Subject to change)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71%
Success or Failure?: Failure (Subject to change)

The latest Dahl adaptation was looking to be a surefire hit as of a few weeks ago. After all, the name Spielberg is synonymous with quality summer entertainment. Maybe it was Finding Dory that stole its thunder, or that the idea of fantasy films are fading. It could also be the less than stellar reviews (it is one of the lower scores from Rotten Tomatoes) turned audiences away. While the film still stands a chance to move pretty far up this list, its assured low placement on opening weekend isn't a good sign, as it should've made more than Matilda's entire run. Still, it's a bummer that its legacy may be reduced to the fact that it's one of the only Spielberg films to be a box office bomb.

*Review coming soon.

The Witches (1990)

Budget: N/A
Worldwide Gross: $10 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Success or Failure: N/A

What should be noticed is that the idea of regular Dahl adaptations is something fairly new. The Witches was the second ever to be adapted for the big screen, and may in part be due to the writer's death the same year. If nothing else, releases came more frequently after this, and The Witches featured a nice blend of director Nicolas Roeg's surreal imagery and the puppetry of Jim Henson. It's one of the less recognized films on this list, likely due to its scary images and not nearly as whimsical story. Still, it was the film that begun the regular releases of the writer's work, which should give it a tad more credit.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Budget: $3 million
Worldwide Gross: $4 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Success or Failure: Failure

It's so peculiar that in the realm of Dahl, the fabled Willy Wonka character bookends the successes and failures. While a 25th anniversary rerelease featured $21 million in revenue, the original release was a pretty bad failure that almost shut down adaptations by the author entirely. It may be the most iconic, but it only managed to form a following years later when it was shown on TV (and may in part owe its success to drug culture). The only other note is that Dahl, who co-wrote the script before being rejected, denounced this adaptation and sought to keep the studio from making the sequel "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator" into a movie. Apparently, it didn't stop others from dreaming big.

You Only Live Twice (1968)

Budget: $10.3 million
Worldwide Gross: $111.6 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%
Success or Failure: Success

While Dahl nowadays may best be remembered as the author of great children's literature, he was himself a screenwriter of some sort beforehand. In this case, he was responsible for adapting a James Bond film that may seem a little outside of his wheelhouse. However, it still feels novel that an author so intent on others getting his plots right to adapt Ian Fleming's work to the big screen. Still, it may be the biggest budget-to-gross success ever associated with Dahl, and one of the few that's likely to last thanks to an overwhelming cultural appreciation of Bond, a thing that may take forever to go away.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Budget: $10 million
Worldwide Gross: $7.5 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 65%
Success or Failure?: Failure

Whether or not intentional, this may as well be ground zero for the Dahl Curse. It's easy to think that the film was a success due to the popular iconography and the Oscar-nominated title song. It's even yet another adaptation of Fleming's literature. However, it's a film that pushed the whimsical factor to its full extent and produced one of the strangest family movies of all time. The only real issue is taking Dahl's opinions seriously on his own adaptations, which aren't nearly as kooky or nonsensical as this one. 

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