Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Roald Dahl at 100

Yesterday marked 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl. Today he is best known as the author of highly successful children's books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and many others. He is almost as well known as the author of macabre short stories, many of which have become well known in their own right. "The Smoker" (AKA "Man from the South"), "William and Mary", "The Landlady", and many others would be adapted for such anthology TV shows as Suspicion and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.The TV shows Way Out, Uit de wereld van Roald Dahl, and Tales of the Unexpected drew largely upon his work. Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales to Norwegian immigrants on September 13 1916.

Neither Roald Dahl's childhood nor his young adulthood indicated he would ever become a successful writer. In fact, at Repton School one of his teachers actually wrote in young Roald's school report, "I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended." As a young man his first actual job was with Shell Petroleum, working first in Mombasa, Kenya and then in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika. In August 1939, with war on the horizon, he joined the King's African Rifles. In November 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force.

Roald Dahl's career as a fighter ace would end when he began getting headaches that were so severe he would black out. He was sent home to the United Kingdom where it was hoped that he would recover so that he could become a flight instructor. As it turned out, Lt. Dahl met Major Harold Balfour, then Under-Secretary of State for Air. Major Balfour was impressed by the young man and appointed him as assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. It was during this period that Roald Dahl met novelist  C. S. Forester (now best known for the Horatio Hornblower series), who was then working for the British Information Service. Mr. Forester encouraged Roald Dahl to write about his experiences as a fighter pilot. The end result was Roald Dahl's first piece of writing,  "A Piece of Cake". It was published in the August 1 1942 issue of The Saturday Evening Post under the title "Shot Down Over Libya".

Roald Dahl would follow "A Piece of Cake" with several more stories based on his experiences in the RAF,  published in such magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Ladies Home Journal, and Harper's. They would eventually be collected into the book Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying, which was published in January 1946.

It was during the same period that Roald Dahl wrote his  first children's book. Like "A Piece of Cake", this book also drew upon his experiences in the RAF. The book was about the gremlins that RAF pilots blamed for any difficulties they might have with their aircraft. He sent this to his superiors for approval. British media mogul Sidney Bernstein was then part of the Ministry of Information, and he forwarded The Gremlins to Walt Disney. Mr. Disney liked it enough that he wanted to turn it into an animated feature. Unfortunately, the planned film would be shelved. An abbreviated version of the book was published as a story in Cosmopolitan, and then in April 1943 Walt Disney and Random House published The Gremlins as a book. Profits from the book went to the RAF Benevolent Fund. Unfortunately The Gremlins would remain out of print for decades until Dark Horse Books published a new edition in 2006.

The year 1948 would prove to be an important one for Roald Dahl. It saw the publication of his first novel for adults, Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen. It is notable as possibly the first novel published in the United States following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to deal with nuclear war. Unfortunately, the novel sold poorly. It was in the September 1948 issue of Collier's Magazine that the first of Roald Dahl's macabre stories was published "Man from the South" (AKA "The Smoker") centred on a grisly bet involving a Zippo lighter. It would later be adapted as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected.

"Man from the South" would be followed by several more macabre stories by Roald Dahl, including "Poison", "Dip in the Pool", "Lamb to the Slaughter", "William and Mary", and yet others. Several would be adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Lamb to the Slaughter", "Dip in the Pool', "Poison", and "The Landlady". They would be collected into several anthologies, including Someone Like You (1953), Kiss Kiss (1960), Tales of the Unexpected (1980), and yet others.

In fact, there were enough of Dahl's macabre stories for a TV show to be based upon them. Roald Dahl served as the host of Way Out, an anthology series that adapted many of his short stories. The series debuted on March 31 1961 and, fittingly enough, aired directly before The Twilight Zone. Way Out received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. It also did well in larger cities such as New York. Unfortunately it performed poorly outside of urban areas and was cancelled after only 14 episodes. It last aired on July 14 1961.

It was also in 1961 that Roald Dahl's first children's book in eighteen years, James and the Giant Peach, was published. James and the Giant Peach was followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964, The Magic Finger in 1966, and Fantastic Mr Fox in 1970. By the end of the Sixties Mr. Dahl was well established as a writer of children's books. In fact, he was so well established that today some do not realise his first real claim to fame was as a writer of macabre stories. Over the years many of his books have been adapted as feature films, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005), The BFG (first in 1989 and again this year), The Witches (in 1990), James and the Giant Peach (in 1996), Matilda (also in 1996), and Fantastic Mr. Fox (in 2009).

 During the Sixties Roald Dahl would also turn to screenwriting. He adapted two of his friend Ian Fleming's works to film. He wrote the screenplays to You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). He also wrote the screenplay to The Night Digger (1971), a movie starting his wife Patricia Neal.

The Seventies would see two different TV shows that drew upon the work of Roald Dahl. Uit de wereld van Roald Dahl was a Dutch series that ran for five episodes in 1975. Tales of the Unexpected was a British series that debuted in 1979. It was produced by Anglia Television for ITV and syndicated in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Roald Dahl served as the host for the first several series of the show, and ultimately it ran for nine series and 112 episodes. Later in its run it also featured adaptions of works from other writers.

In the Eighties Roald Dahl began publishing poetry. His first collection of poems was Revolting Rhymes (1982), which parodied such fairy tales as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Little Red Riding Hood". Hi second collection of poems, Dirty Beasts (1983), had an animal theme. His third and final collection of poems was Rhyme Stew, whose content varied from parodies of nursery rhymes to original stories by Dahl himself.

Roald Dahl died on November 23 1990 at the age of 74 from myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood-related medical condition.The Roald Dahl Foundation (now Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity) was founded by his widow, Felicity Crosland, not long after his death.

While Roald Dahl was a very talented writer, in real life he was in many ways a very unpleasant person. He was known to say outrageous things just to provoke a reaction out of other people. He could at times be very unkind to his wife of 30 years, Patricia Neal, and their marriage ultimately ended because of an affair with Felicity Crosland. He was known to bully his editors and other people. Later in his life Roald Dahl made statements that were not only anti-Israel, but could easily be considered anti-Semitic. While he had several Jewish friends in his life, including philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin and Amelia Foster (director of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden), many of the statements he made could be considered anti-Semitic in the extreme.  Roald Dahl was an extremely talented writer, one who has had a lasting impact on popular culture, but the simple fact is that he was not always what one would consider a nice man.

While Roald Dahl may not have been the best human being in the world, there can be no doubt that he was a talented writer. Much of that greatness as a writer may have come from the fact that Dahl did not have the easiest life. He lost his father and his older sister when he was only three. He was abused and bullied at school. He nearly died while in the RAF. His daughter Olivia died of  measles encephalitis when she was only seven. His wife Patricia Neal had three brain aneurysms. One could not blame Roald Dahl if he was angry at the world, and it would seem that he channelled that anger into his books and his stories.

Indeed, darkness is the one thing that both Dahl's macabre stories for adults and his children's stories have in common. In the story "William and Mary", Mary gets her revenge on her husband William, now existing only as a disembodied brain, by doing all the things he didn't want her to when he still had a body. In "Lamb to the Slaughter" Mary kills her cheating husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then serves the evidence to the police who are investigating his death. Similar situations can be seen in Dahl's children's books. In Matilda the title character uses her telekinesis to rid the school of the bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory naughty children experience punishments of their own making and the kind, but downtrodden Charlie wins in the end. Much of the appeal of Dahl's stories to adults and his children's books to children is the sheer grotesquerie contained within them.

Of course, there is more than just darkness in Roald Dahl's stories and children's books. Perhaps because he had been bullied as a child, Roald Dahl always saw to it that the underdog, those who are oppressed by others, would win in the end. In "William and Mary", Mary proves triumphant over her overbearing husband. In "Lamb to the Slaughter", Mary actually murders her cheating husband and gets away with it.  In James and the Giant Peach James escapes his abusive aunts and goes on a magical journey. In The Twits the animals the Twits have mistreated ultimately get their revenge on the couple. Much of the appeal for both adults and children in Roald Dahl's work is the victory of the downtrodden over either the circumstances in which they live or those who have oppressed them. In many respects, Roald Dahl's children's books are modern day fairy tales, all of them built upon the basic duality of good and evil. In Dahl's stories good always wins in the end.

Roald Dahl's children's books alone have sold 200 million copies worldwide. At the moment films based on James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, and The Twits are in development.  Roald Dahl may have been a rather despicable person in real life, but he was one of the greatest storytellers of all time. One has to suspect people will still be reading his stories and children's book 100 years from now.

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