For any child entering the world of literature, Roald Dahl is a name with which they will at least be familiar. One of the best-selling children’s authors of all time, the British writer has been a bookshelf mainstay for several generations. Even though the man himself was undoubtedly problematic, and certain language in his texts has since been deemed offensive (and altered), Dahl’s tales continue to captivate kids and adults alike with their memorable characters, whimsical storylines, dark twists and visceral humour.

Unsurprisingly, Dahl’s stories have been the stuff of dreams not only for kids over the years, but also for many Hollywood studios. His work even seems to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with the recent Netflix release of Wes Anderson’s short films adapting a series of Dahl’s short stories, plus the new Wonka film starring Timothée Chalamet set for a December debut. Here, we look back at the most beloved characters from Dahl’s stories ever to appear on the silver screen. 

Willy Wonka

Arguably the character most closely associated with Roald Dahl, this reclusive, eccentric owner of a chocolate factory has been beguiling audiences for decades on the page and the big screen. He was so popular, in fact, that when the novel he features in, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was made into a film in 1971, the movie’s title was changed to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory “to put emphasis on the eccentric central character of Willy Wonka”, according to studio publicity materials. Gene Wilder became an icon thanks to his strange and soulful portrayal of Wonka, setting the standard for all who came after him. Incredibly, the only person who didn’t like Wilder’s performance was Dahl himself, who considered the actor too “pretentious” and would have preferred British comedians Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers in the role.

In 2005, A-list superstar Johnny Depp took on the role, albeit in a very different way. Whereas Wilder was an eccentric showman, Depp’s version was more puzzling and unusual, befitting director Tim Burton’s wacky take on the story (this time titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). According to Depp, the unlikely inspiration behind his on-screen mannerisms was then-US president George W Bush, which is hard to imagine – though not as hard to imagine as Burton’s second choice for the role: action star Dwayne Johnson!

Fast forward 18 years, and Timothée Chalamet is playing the younger version of the man in the original story Wonka. The film will rewind to Wonka’s youth and reveal how he started out as a chocolate maker, reportedly featuring a much more tender version of the character without losing any of the quirkiness. All three Wonkas are unique and notable, thanks to their unusual costumes and classic one-liners. It’s likely that, like superheroes, your favourite Willy Wonka depends on who you grew up with!

Miss Trunchbull

Less magical was the fearsome Miss Trunchbull, the tyrannical headmistress of the school featured in Roald Dahl’s book Matilda. A former Olympic shot-putter, her severe attitude and utter hatred of children makes her the perfect baddie for this story about a little girl with hidden talents who learns to stand up for herself. 

Like Willy Wonka, there are two classic interpretations of the role, with your favourite being a matter of taste! For many, it was Pam Ferris in the 1996 American adaptation directed by Danny DeVito. Grotesque and aggressive, she was the perfect counterpart to Mara Wilson as sweet Matilda and Embeth Davidtz as the gentle teacher Miss Honey.

In 2022, Trunchbull got to sing as well as torment students! Oscar-winner Emma Thompson stepped into the role in that year’s film adaptation of the award-winning West End musical, which was also based on the book and included songs by comedian Tim Minchin. Moving the action back to Britain, where the novel is set, allowed Thompson to embrace the upper-class snobbishness of the character, while also belting out the numbers that would become familiar to millions of children. Lovers of the novel have noted how, despite the changes between the book and the two films, the wicked spirit of Trunchbull has been well preserved and stands as a highlight of both movies. 


One of Dahl’s most beloved characters was The BFG, the ‘Big Friendly Giant’. The book tells the story of the friendship between a young girl named Sophie and the BFG who, as his name suggests, is friendlier than the other giants who try to harm humans. With a jolly demeanour and an unusual dialect, he has been brought to the big screen twice (with a third film on the way). The first time was in a 1989 animated British movie where beloved comedy actor David Jason voiced the BFG. It captured the world of Dahl beautifully, with an animation style that echoed the art of Quentin Blake, the illustrator who created the artwork for Dahl’s books.

In 2016, advancements in Hollywood special effects meant the giant could come to live action. Legendary director Steven Spielberg adapted the book into a spectacular family film, with Oscar-winner Mark Rylance in the lead role alongside Downton Abbey star Penelope Wilton playing the late Queen Elizabeth II. Capturing the sheer size and spectacle of the character with the kind of magic we’ve come to expect from the visionary filmmaker, the story chooses the lighter elements of the story over the edgier aspects, but still captures why we have adored the tale for so long. 

Fantastic Mr Fox

A fine example of how Dahl made delightful family fun out of potentially grizzly subjects, Fantastic Mr Fox centred on the feud between a fox and the farmer from whom he was stealing chickens to feed his family. The quirky magic of the story was perfect for Wes Anderson, the unique visual filmmaker behind movies like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Made using stop-motion animation, the charming Mr Fox was voiced by Hollywood’s most debonair star, George Clooney, with an enviable support cast that includes Meryl Streep, Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson. Rather than record voices in a studio, Anderson had his cast perform together outside, to capture the authenticity of the characters’ situation.

While Anderson wasn’t making films until after Dahl’s death, it’s remarkable to see how two such distinct styles complement each other. There’s the same playful, anarchic nature to both the story and the direction that makes this initially odd coupling seem like a perfect pair. 

James And The Giant Peach

Dahl’s second-ever children’s book tells the moving story of an orphan who finds a new family in a group of talking insects, all of whom live inside a magical giant peach tree that he planted. The film bears an uncanny resemblance to 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in terms of animation style, mainly because it was made by the same person! Henry Selick, who directed the Christmas/Halloween classic (no, it wasn’t Tim Burton), also headed up this dark but wholesome adaptation with a host of Hollywood legends in the voice cast, including Susan Sarandon and Jaws actor Richard Dreyfuss. 

Dahl’s widow, Felicity Dahl, approved of the faithful adaptation of the work, which was nominated for an Academy Award for its score. Attempts have been made to produce a live-action film at some point, but if you ask us, the slightly offbeat world Selick brings to the screen is the perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the novel.  

The Witches

As an author, Dahl was often known to bring scary elements into his stories, and The Witches is perhaps the greatest example of this. The unsettling premise – a hotel unwittingly hosting a conference for witches, who hide their hideous forms under prosthetics and turn children into mice – is something that has thrilled readers ever since the book’s publication 40 years ago. 

Two films have since been made of the story, with two Oscar winners playing the terrifying Grand High Witch. The first is the 1990 Nicolas Roeg film starring Anjelica Huston in a nightmare-inducing turn, wearing makeup designed by Jim Henson – the last film the Muppets creator would work on before his death. Years later, it has become a cult movie that still sends chills down the spines of those who love it.

An updated version was made in 2020, with Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis making wholesale changes to the story. Now set in America, the film leaned into the darkness of the novel more so than the first movie, but missed many of the beloved aspects of the original story. Anne Hathaway, for her part, made a whole new generation of children scream as the Grand High Witch, whose transformation is this time achieved through CGI. Still, with comedian Chris Rock narrating, and with Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci featuring among the cast, it shows that Dahl’s stories can still attract Hollywood’s best and brightest.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and… James Bond?

We know what you’re thinking – Ian Fleming created James Bond! Well, that is true, but Roald Dahl got a chance to write the character for one of the 007 movies, 1967’s You Only Live Twice. After several rejected scripts, Dahl was brought in to write the film despite having no experience as a screenwriter, partly because he was close friends with Fleming (who had died three years earlier). The action film, a thrilling but dated mission to Southeast Asia, retained little of the book it was based on, meaning this is essentially a Roald Dahl story.

The success would lead to Dahl writing the script for another Ian Fleming book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which would become a family classic starring Dick Van Dyke as the owner of a magical flying car. The film is absolutely magical, and indeed retains a lot of the elements of fantasy and wit that have allowed Dahl’s stories to endure.

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