Monday, April 28, 2014

To Whom Do We Owe the Honor Mister Dahl? by Matthew MacNish


There was a tragedy in my house the other day. An absolute miscarriage of justice which left me short of breath, emotionally and legally concerned, and utterly disappointed in my progeny.

Let me back up.

Start from the beginning.

My younger daughter, who is twelve, is in her middle school production of the stage adaptation of the film adaptation of the wonderful Roald Dahl Middle Grade novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has tragically been mis-titled Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (or sometimes just Willy Wonka) since time immemorial.

Anyway, opening night was last Friday, and I went on Saturday afternoon to see the production, and it was a lot of fun, but that's not what I'm posting about here.

What I'm posting about is an argument I got into with my child and her older sister after the final dress rehearsal on Thursday.

We were discussing the legacy of the greatness of a story like the one that takes place in the eponymous Chocolate Factory, and they tried to make this ridiculous argument that the legacy of such a thing is owed mostly to whoever adapted the novel for the silver screen, and then after that, owed secondly to whoever adapted the screenplay to a stage play.

I was obviously appalled.

I don't mean to imply that adaptations of such a wonderful and culturally important story are not important, necessary, and deserving of praise and historical import, but I was aghast at my children's insistence, especially after I tried to bring it up, that in a legacy like that of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, less appreciation is owed to the original creator, the man who dreamed the whole thing up, Roald Dahl himself, hands down the greatest children's author who ever lived, in my own humble opinion, than it is to whoever adapted it, and admittedly probably cemented it in the psyche of the American Mind.

I don't mean to discount the role those people played (FWIW, Dahl himself wrote the screenplay for the 1971 film, which was directed by Mel Stuart, and John August wrote the 2005 screenplay, while Tim Burton directed. For the stage musical, assuming we can trust Wikipedia, it seems it was written by David Greig, with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), and like I said, I have no intention of denying the contribution those people made to the legend of this book, but I must say, I was surprised, offended, and a little ticked off when my kid's tried to say that Disney, of all entities, had more to do with the popularity of the tale of the Chocolate Factory than Dahl himself.

I mean, really?

How could the story even exist if Dahl had not dreamed it up? People can adapt great works until the cows come home, but unless a genius like Dahl imagines them in the first place, no one will have anything to adapt.

What say you?

NOTE: In other news: Apparently Steven Spielberg will be directing an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG for Dreamworks.

39 comments:

  1. Ooo, you should've made a poll to vote in! And I agree with you 100%. There'd be no films or musicals without Roald Dahl's brilliant storytelling. Hollywood and Broadway need to better acknowledge the original authors of whom they're adapting. It's appalling when a great book or story is adapted for the screen or stage and people have no idea it's a book first, which happens too often.

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

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  2. I say: right on, bro! I do, however, agree that those who take a work and manipulate it for the greater do hold some credit. But those who've done so have taken a work that has already soared on its own merits and furthered its appeal/success/affect. It's unthinkable to withhold amazing praise from the original source.

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    1. Well you have a point that without these adaptations, the work would probably not be quite as well known, but yeah, without the original, it wouldn't exist at all!

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  4. All credit goes to the author first and foremost as the creator of the work - otherwise Disney et al wouldn't have squat to work with.

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    1. Exactly! Kids these days. What are they thinking?

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  5. Dahl, of course, gets all (bows repeatedly mumbling "I am not worthy") credit. But could your kids be confusing legacy with popularity? Disney, and others, have made some stories very popular, very visible. But do they deserve the credit for creating the original stories? No! That would be like giving Disney credit for creating Winnie-the-Pooh. Sacrilege!

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    1. I don't know what they think. I have a sneaking suspicion they were messing with me.

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  6. I have a confession to make: I've never read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think I became aware of the book when I was in my "I'm too old for kids books" phase, and never got around to reading it when I realized you're never too old for kid's books.

    Without the movie, I probably never would have heard of the book. I'm all for credit where credit is due, but I think the movie (the Gene Wilder version and not that horrific new version which instantly makes me think of the disaster that was New Coke) has become its own thing, separate from the book. The movie would certainly not exist without the book, but without out the movie, I wonder if any of us would still be talking about the book at all.

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    1. You may have a point there. I'm a huge fan of Roald Dahl's books, but this one is not my favorite. I've probably only read it once.

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  7. Matt, this post has possibly the best opening paragraph of any blog in blog history! I stand with you in my own "emotional and legal concern."

    The unfortunate fact, to which Shaun H. also alludes, is that so much of a book's success now resides firmly in the realm of whether it is featured on film or television. (Aside: I am mystified, as a Game of Thrones maniac, at all those who, on Facebook, express shock and outrage at certain wedding fiascoes, as viewed on screen. They obviously haven't cracked open the books. Now, some of them may decide to plug the holes in their knowledge and go to the original text--but a great many won't. Well, at least I can have interesting conversations about how the books differ from what is on the screen, right?)

    Finally, kudos on your kid being on stage. As a proud stage Papa, I salute all kids (and their nervous parents) who tread the boards!

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    1. Thanks, Mike!

      I also cannot understand those people who love one version of a story, but not another. I for one, if I enjoy a thing, want to enjoy it in as many mediums as possible. Seems perfectly normal to me, but perhaps I am just strange?

      But yeah, the point about success is good, if sad, one.

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  8. Clearly, most of the credit should go to the publisher, since without them the book would never have seen the light of day. Followed by the movie production companies, since without them the film never would have seen the dark of theater. That's why they get a much bigger cut of the profits than either the author or screenwriter. *end sarcasm*

    I don't think it's fair to heap honor on any one person or entity. Anything put out via traditional publisher (and/or movie studio) is a group effort, starting with the original creator of course, but including many more who either influenced the final product or helped it reach the public. That being said, no matter which way you look at it, Dahl is still a genius.

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  9. I definitely think the author as the original creator of a story should get the acknowledgment for that. But I do think there is a completely different art to translating a story to stage or screen, so in general I have to agree with your kids. While a well-written book has a wide reach, TV and film can make it immensely popular (or a flop if done poorly). But I suppose in this instance, it seems Mr. Dahl was responsible for both the book and the first screen adaptation, so three cheers for him. :)

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  10. I'm on your boat here.
    An argument to share with your kids. I am good friends with a plawright who adapts PBs for the stage. She would never in a million years agree with your kids' stance and she's the one they think deserved the credit

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  11. I agree with you 100%. Maybe the movie made it popular but what the heck would be there without the story in the first place?!?!?!

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  12. I have to agree with you, if the writer hadn't imagined it, it wouldn't be known at all.

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  13. On the other hand works of genius can sit in obscurity forever without being found until a promoter (read: Disney; film adaptation, play) finds a broader venue that sheds light on the original and hopefully makes people search it out and read it. To me your girls are right. Their hypothesis does not mean the adaptations are better in any way (from my read) just more accessible (promoted and visible). It reminds me, unfortunately, of how important marketing is. Ugh. Writing without visibility (marketing defined as you need) sits in obscurity all the time, even with genius. Poor adaptation/promotion of a great read can kill the material just as great adaptation (an art in its own right) of mediocre source material can make it sing (sometimes). There is a symbiotic relationship at work even if it can't happen unless the source material is written. Thank god it starts from there.

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    1. You actually make a really good point, Joe. Dang it!

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  14. I wholeheartedly agree! There can't be an adaptation of nothing. And yes, Roald Dahl was a genius of the first order. Reading his books made me want to write for children. Great post, Matthew!

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  15. This is a seriously interesting discussion. I'm coming into it as someone who has written and worked with a number of adaptations myself. Adaptations depend upon the source material, but if the adapting screenwriter, playwright, etc. is doing their job, they're bringing something new to the material as well--something that comes from them, and something that allows the story to survive in the new medium.

    Who deserves what part of the credit and the legacy depends a lot on the particular example.

    We're a few weeks removed from the launch of the film Captain America: The Winter Solder. Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the 1940s. But the whole bit about him being frozen in a block of ice and revived in the present day--the present day, at the time, being around 1964--comes from Stan Lee and, again, Jack Kirby. Yet the films' interpretation of the character of Bucky Barnes, and the entire concept of the Winter Soldier, come from comics written within the last ten years by Ed Brubaker.

    So who gets the legacy? Who gets the credit? Who has the right to be considered a creator?

    In the case of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I do think it has to be Roald Dahl, as the popularity of the novel is the genesis for all that follows. There is not a ton we associate with the concept that did not originate with Dahl, save, for the stage show, the songs, and for the first film the Oompa Loompa songs.

    There are plenty of films adapted from books that were not all that popular in their original form, and there are plenty of instances where the adaptation owns a significant chunk of the legacy. For example, it could easily be argued that Victor Fleming (director) and Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf (screenwriters) are more important to the legacy of The Wizard of Oz than author L. Frank Baum, as the film is significantly different from the book and by far the most widely known version.

    But in this case, it's difficult to argue that the legacy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory belongs to anyone but Dahl.

    Harrison Demchick
    Ambitious Enterprises

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    1. You make an excellent point about more collaborative forms like Captain America, Harrison. I suppose it does differ quite a bit from one franchise to the next.

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  16. There are a lot of good and credible comments here...all with valid points. So I will just add that when your kids get older, they will come to know that in this kind of discussion, nothing is absolute.

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    1. That may be the wisest comment yet. Thanks, Liza!

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  17. Wow, first of all, I am flabbergasted....dumbfounded...possibly even appalled.Those comments are tantamount to children's literature heresy..but they are young, and we shall forgive them. Secondly, there are so many great insights and comments here that I am not quite sure what I could add. This has been such a good thread to read, with all of the comments and thoughts. Fourthly, that's right, I just skipped thirdly, because it seemed the right thing to do at the time. But I can't help but feel that we are really talking about two different entities. It's kind of like what Harrison talks about with Cap and the interpretation. There are so many instances where books and film or play are significantly different, while maintaining the core of the original creative signature. So it's not necessarily a debate based on an equally identifiable creative project. However, Matthew, considering that I wrote my critical thesis for VCFA on Roald Dahl and his use of the quirky, macabre, and grotesque, you can certainly count on me to serve the prosecution on this case in the case of Matthew MacNish vs. His Daughters. ;)

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  18. It's Roald Dahl's work, of course. I've read the book (twice), but I haven't seen the movie nor any stage performance of it. To me this is only a brilliant book >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  19. 100% agree with you! Shock horror! Your daughters would get a heavy piece of my mind if i were there. Lol! Politely and sweetly of course. :-)

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    1. It's entirely possible they were just disagreeing with me on principle. They are known to do that, the little (big) raggamuffins.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!