A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kind-hearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.
For more than 40 years, Steven Spielberg has been sharing his stories with audiences across the world, introducing an array of extraordinary characters into the culture and sweeping generations into worlds that are at once wondrous, frightening, charming and palpably real. Roald Dahl’s seminal tale of the friendship between a young girl and a mysterious giant seemed perfectly aligned with the filmmaker’s own body of work, and while it may have seemed destined that Sophie and the BFG would one day find their way into Spielberg’s care, it would be decades following the book’s publication before the journey would actually begin.
Dahl’s “The BFG” was first published in 1982, the same year Spielberg’s own story about an unusual and transformative friendship, E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, captured the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike. The British author is one of the world’s most creative, mischievous and successful storytellers, someone who understands the inner lives of children and has a knack for creating characters that kids could relate to and storylines that kept them involved.
His ability to combine the fantastical with the frightening and place children as the heroes of his innovative stories, and adults as the villains, is unrivaled in the literary world. While Dahl’s stories recognize that life can be diﬃcult and sometimes scary, that there is good with the bad, he never patronizes his readers.
Producer Frank Marshall says, “Dahl’s stories are not just happy-go-lucky fantasies. There’s a lot of humor to them, but there’s also a little bit of a dark side. He walks on the edge. They’re a little scary, and I think that’s what appeals to people.”
Spielberg agrees, saying, “It was very brave of him to introduce that combination of darkness and light which was so much Walt Disney’s original signature in a lot of his earlier works, like ‘Dumbo,’ ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella.’ Being able to be scary and redemptive at the same time, and teach a lesson, an enduring lesson, to everyone—it was a wonderful thing for Dahl to have done, and it was one of the things that attracted me to want to direct this Dahl book.”
“The BFG” is the story of the two lonely souls who, in finding one another, create their own home in the world, which is a consistent thread in Spielberg’s rich body of work. “Steven has always gravitated towards stories about families, which is one of the reasons his films have resonated with so many people,” says executive producer Kathleen Kennedy.
Kennedy and Marshall were familiar with many of Dahl’s other books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda”—which have sold over 200 million copies worldwide— but neither had read “The BFG.” It wasn’t until a chance encounter on the set of MILK MONEY in 1993 that Kennedy read it for herself and realized that Spielberg, their longtime friend, colleague and collaborator, was just the person to appreciate the scope, playfulness and sheer invention of Dahl’s book.
Spielberg has been a fan of Dahl’s for years, and in fact had read the book to his own children when they were younger. “It’s a story about friendship, it’s a story about loyalty and protecting your friends and it’s a story that shows that even a little girl can help a big giant solve his biggest problems,” he says.
Dahl created stories to tell his children and grandchildren, but was always hesitant to write any of them down, something with which the director could relate. “When I told my kids stories that they were especially fond of, they would beg me to make a movie about it,” Spielberg says. “Fortunately Dahl did eventually agree to share his stories with the world, and we’re all the better because of it.”
“The BFG” is enormously popular around the world, and to date has been published in 41 languages. It was also Dahl’s own favoUrite of all his stories. While the author passed away in 1990 at the age of 74, the producers forged a relationship with his widow and had many conversations about how important the book was to Dahl and whether or not a movie was even realistic. “We talked a lot about whether it would be better as animation or live action, because at the time, none of the technology that we were talking about using even existed,” explains Kennedy.
But first, the producers needed a screenwriter to spin Dahl’s delightfully simple book into a full-length screenplay— someone with a special skill and instinct for children’s stories—and for that they turned to friend and colleague Melissa Mathison (The Black Stallion, The Indian in the Cupboard). “Melissa was the first and only writer we thought of,” says Kennedy. “Her gifts as a writer and her particular sensibility were essential to bringing Dahl’s visionary tale to life.”
When reading Dahl’s book, the screenwriter was drawn to the bond between Sophie and the BFG. “It is a very sweet relationship,” she said, “But they actually start oﬀ a little combative and are suspicious of one another and even have their own little power struggles. But from the moment they have a plan and move forward as partners, there’s just so much love between them. It’s a wonderful little love story.”
Of utmost importance to the filmmakers was remaining faithful to Dahl’s voice, keeping consistent with the author’s rhythm, language and interaction between his characters, all of which were uniquely his. “I tried to use Dahl’s dialogue verbatim as much as possible,” Mathison said. “We didn’t want to tamper with the tone.”
The script did present numerous challenges for the writer, however. “In a strange way, not much happens in the book because it really is about their relationship,” said Mathison. “There’s no dramatic drive to it. Their decision to try and get rid of the giants happens pretty easily and quickly, and there was an episodic quality to the chapters. It wasn’t as story-driven, so we needed to create a narrative.”
Just as the filmmakers anticipated, Mathison took a personal approach to the material, maintaining the relationship between the scrappy orphan and the word-jumbly giant as they took on their big adventure. “My imagination was invested in the two of them,” she said. “Everything needed to be centered on their relationship.”
“Melissa took Dahl’s book and did the most extraordinary but faithful translation, with a magic only Melissa possesses,” says Spielberg.
Once the script was completed, Mathison would remain involved with the film throughout principal photography. Spielberg occasionally needs to make changes to the script while filming and wants the writer’s voice there to bring the characters alive. “Melissa was there on the ‘E.T.’ set every day and every day on ‘The BFG,’” says Spielberg. “So I’ve been very fortunate to bookend our relationship with two stories that came from her heart.”
Mathison sadly lost her battle against cancer in November 2015.
Says Spielberg, “I have not had a chance to mourn Melissa, because she’s been so vibrant and real to me, in the cutting room, on the scoring stage, in the dubbing room—she’s just always been there with me, so because of that, it’s going to be hard when I have to let ‘The BFG’ go, because then I have to let Melissa go, too.