Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Charming but tedious
I’m sure a lot of people grew up with this story and absolutely love it, but having just encountered it for the first time, as an adult reading it to my own kids, I was underwhelmed. The title of Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel The BFG is an acronym for Big Friendly Giant. The heroine of the story, a young girl named Sophie, spies the giant on the prowl in her neighborhood one evening when she is up past her bedtime. The existence of giants is supposed to be a secret, so the BFG snatches Sophie up and takes her back to his cave, where she’s required to stay forever so she can’t tell anyone that he’s real.

Luckily he’s a gentle and friendly giant, unlike others in the book. There are nine other giants who make their secret rounds at night, but instead of blowing dreams into children’s bedrooms they snatch kids up and eat them. If your children are too old to be scared by this premise (as mine are), then they’re probably old enough to be bored by it. The rather gory allusions to bone crunching and blood bottling get rather monotonous when they are dragged out ad nauseam over the course of a too-lengthy novel. The story is simple enough that Dr. Seuss could have made it work in 48 easy pages, but Dahl stretches it out over three or four hours of reading. And this is one of his shorter books? For most of its length, the novel is just long descriptive passages about the giants and their lifestyles, with an emphasis on the threat from the child-eating carnivores. It isn’t until the last few chapters when Sophie and friend decide to do something about it, but even then the resolution feels overly protracted.

Where the novel succeeds is in Dahl’s playful use of language and touches of humor throughout. The BFG speaks in a dialect that combines barbaric crudeness with childlike cuteness. His lingo is peppered with a bevy of nonsense words like whizzpopping, crodsquinkled, and frobscottle, and Dahl incorporates clever puns into the prose, particularly when he’s describing the flavors of “human beans.” Linguistically, the story occasionally had my elementary school boys and I laughing, but narratively, we were mostly bored by the plot and kept wishing Dahl would get on with it already.

If there’s a moral to the story, Dahl doesn’t hammer it home. The BFG proves that scary people/things can be nice—Don’t judge a book by its cover, that sort of thing. Sophie shows that kids can be heroes too. Mostly, however, it’s just a fight-the-monsters tale that takes forever to get around to fighting the monsters. The story does have a certain charm to it, so I can understand why many have fond memories of the book from their youth, but Dahl’s probably got better books up his sleeve than this. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach seem like better candidates for the kid-lit canon.
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