Dear Roald Dahl: I am sorry that you are dead."
That letter arrived at the museum dedicated to the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox , and somewhere, perhaps, he is smiling an enormous crocodile's smile. Is there any writer, living or dead, who better appreciated the clear-eyed pragmatism of children - who understood, and exploited, the darkness that lies at the centre of their lives? It's amazing that adults continue to publish his books, read them to their kids, take those kids to see the movies made from those books. Alone among children's authors, Dahl recognized what all children know in their hearts, even if the suspicion only surfaces when they're sliding off to sleep: Adults are fundamentally self-interested fumblers who make up the rules as they go along.
He once wrote this: "Children are surrounded by adult giants from the age of nought to 10, who are always ordering them around, and they actually don't like them, subconsciously. They're the enemy." That quote can be found in the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, a ridiculously quaint village 40 minutes north of London, where the writer lived with his family from 1954 until his death, at 74, in 1990. Great Missenden is the kind of place where the Red Lion pub stands directly across from the White Lion pub, and a note posted on the village billboard says, "Specs lost. Please call …"
Directed by Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox features the voices of George Clooney and Meryl Streep.
There's been a great stream of children through the museum this month, thanks largely to the arrival of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox in movie theatres, a critically acclaimed adaptation that seems set to duplicate the success of Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , released four years ago. The kids are brought by their parents, who remember shrieking with laughter while reading those and dozens of other Dahl books - although they may have forgotten that Willy Wonka was a neurotic confectioner who understood nothing about children; and Foxy a charming, thieving bum, derelict in his fatherly duties. Two more adults, in other words, who did little to deserve the love of the kids around them.
Dahl, described even by his supporters as complicated, subversive and difficult, was well-situated to understand children (he had five) and pain, both physical and emotional: He lost his sister and father when he was three, and his beloved daughter Olivia to measles 42 years later. His son, Theo, was hit by a car at four months, and suffered brain damage, and his first wife, actress Patricia Neal, endured a series of debilitating strokes. The author suffered back pain his entire life after he crashed his RAF plane in North Africa during the Second World War. At his museum, you can see the decrepit wing-backed chair he wrote in for decades, a hole cut in the back to ease his pain. He kept his feet propped on a bag of logs, and a writing desk on his lap.
He worked in a shed at the bottom of his garden, a hulking figure writing with special American pencils (which he shamelessly bullied his U.S. publisher into shipping to England). It's a potent image, and when you see pictures of Dahl in his sixties, mad grey wisps sprouting from his baldish dome, he could have been the model for long-time collaborator Quentin Blake's drawings of the Big Friendly Giant, a.k.a. BFG.
Dahl's reputation as a curmudgeon was carefully reinforced with contentious public statements. Most famously, an ill-considered book review in 1983 on the subject of Israel's invasion of Lebanon led to charges that he was an anti-Semite. But those who study him say he was misunderstood. "When I was growing up, there was this myth that he didn't like children," says Amelia Foster, director of the Roald Dahl Museum. "But in fact, he loved children. It was adults he didn't like as much."
More film projects are in the works, Foster says, but the estate is very careful about what it agrees to; it took 10 years to get Fantastic Mr. Fox to the screen. She often gets asked why Dahl's children's books have remained so successful, while his gothic adult stories have fallen out of favour. "He doesn't patronize children," she says. "He was the first to break the mould and say, 'We don't have to have moralistic things going on, we can tell a good story and have really bad, gory things happen. And children love that."
Even tiny kids can smell a sermon a mile away. But if you tell them that the Notsobig Crocodile in The Enormous Crocodile abstains from eating children not because it's wrong or repulsive, but because children are "nasty and bitter," they'll scream with laughter and recognition. Small and powerless? That's not us. We're nasty and bitter.
Knowing that the only thing children love to laugh at more than other children is adults, Dahl populated his books with a grotesquery of bad 'uns: the money-grubbing horrors in Matilda ; the disgusting Twits, so locked in loathing of each other that they made normal bickering parents seem sweet by comparison; and perhaps his greatest creation, the demonic granny in George's Marvellous Medicine , with her "small puckered-up mouth like a dog's bottom."
George's granny seems to have roots in the real-life figure of Mrs. Pratchett, the "skinny old hag," who ran the sweet shop in the Welsh village where Dahl went to school. As he recounts in his memoir, Boy , he so loathed Mrs. Pratchett ("Either you forks out or you gets out!") that one day he dropped a dead mouse into her jar of gobstoppers. He was caught, and badly whipped by his headmaster. Meanwhile, a friend's father told him that licorice was made from crushed rats, and eating it gave you "ratitis." It's easy to see where the mistrust of adults seeped in.
The doors of the museum are made of giant, fake chocolate bars - a nod to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , but also to Dahl's love of sweets. At school, Roald and the other boys were used as chocolate testers by Cadbury, which sent them boxes of candy bars to taste. Years later, working for Shell in East Africa, Dahl saw a lion carry off a woman and then drop her, unharmed. How could a man with such a bizarre background not become a storyteller? Where the anarchy came from is another question.
Somebody still loves that anarchy - the film adaptations continue to roll, and almost three million of Dahl's books were sold in 2008 alone. It must be those of us who dreamed of being Charlie but grew up, despite our best intentions, to find that we're all Twits in the end.