How Roald Dahl's stories for children eclipsed his fiction for adults.
"I could feel him smiling," said Felicity Dahl, widow of the great Roald, of her experience of viewing Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox."I was thinking, he'd love this." Well, she would know, I suppose. But what am I to do then with my conviction that her late husband would have loathed this? That Wes Anderson, with his glockenspiels and drolleries and minutely faceted interiors, has travestied the raucous spirit of Dahl? And that the ideal Fantastic Mr. Fox movie would be a work of slapdash animation, soundtrack by Mötorhead, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait? I'll just have to sit on it, I suppose.
Rarely can the movements of the muse be charted with any precision, but it appears that around 1959 the tutelary presence that handled Roald Dahl Inc. decided, with very little warning and no consultation, upon a major shift in direction. Ideas for the short stories with which he had made his name in the pages of TheNew Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly dried up, and Dahl found himself temporarily at a loss. It was not a position to which he was accustomed. Long-bodied, dented, worldly, impatient, Dahl came from enterprising Norwegian stock and had been educated in the heart of the British establishment. He was a former WWII flying ace (he fought with the Royal Air Force in Greece and North Africa), a former spy (as an attaché to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., he had funneled political tidbits back to London), and the husband of screen goddess Patricia Neal. No literary career is easy, but his had gone pretty smoothly, relatively speaking: His first short-story collection, 1953's Someone Like You, had garnered him comparisons with Saki, Somerset Maugham, and O. Henry, and his second, Kiss Kiss, was selling nicely.
But a limit seemed to have been reached. Those grisly, sting-in-the-tail plotlets of his, each with the economy of a black joke—they weren't coming anymore, as he admitted to his publisher, Alfred Knopf. The one about the woman who beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then defrosts the murder weapon and serves it to the investigating police officers ("Lamb to the Slaughter") or the sickly baby dosed by her beekeeping father with the healthful secretions of the hive until she acquires "a powdering of silky yellowy-brown hairs" on her stomach ("Royal Jelly") ... now, for some reason, Dahl was writing page after page about a small boy, a group of talking insects, and an enormous airborne peach.
Knopf didn't blink, and James and the Giant Peach was published in 1961. The opening—"Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had had a happy life"—could have come from one of the short stories, but within a few lines little James' parents had been dispatched (day out in London, escaped rhinoceros) with a cruelty that was part folktale gruffness, part-Nabokovian élan. He had magically fused his New Yorker voice with one that seemed to issue from the blackest Norwegian forest: brisk, practical, unsparing, mildly atavistic, and quite at home in the bizarre. This was Dahl 2.0. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came next, and then, in 1970, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Life, meanwhile, had missed few opportunities to pulverize Roald Dahl. In 1961 his 4-month-old son Theo was critically injured when his baby carriage was hit by a taxi. Olivia, Dahl's first daughter, caught the measles in 1962, slipped into a coma, and died. In 1965 Patricia Neal, pregnant, suffered a massive stroke: Much of Dahl's energy went into her subsequent years-long rehabilitation.
James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.