Steven Spielberg’s newest movie The BFG is a perfect fairy tale—for everyone.
About four or five years ago, I mentioned to my children that computer animation is advanced enough that someone should bring to the screen one of our family’s favorite books, Roald Dahl’s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant). Having heard last year that Steven Spielberg took up the challenge, I’ve been waiting since then for the release of the movie version.
Now it has happened, and it is well worth seeing—by everyone.
Roald Dahl’s book (originally published in 1982) is a giant head and shoulders above most of today’s fare aimed at children or teens, most of which are either (1) mindless, politically-corrected, preachy twaddle, (2) heavy-handed teen “realism,” i.e., stained by vulgar language, and punctuated by sexual experimentation, divorce, and suicide, or (3) occult-dabbling that’s meant to occupy the place in literature formerly ruled by fairy tales. In short, not good children’s stories, because they are not good stories at all.
By contrast, Dahl was actually a supremely talented story-teller, one that all ages could enjoy. The BFG, one of his best, is a story about a little orphan girl snatched up and spirited away by a giant who, although he turns out to be both Big and Friendly, lives among the far larger, nasty sort of giants, the ordinary kind who eat children (especially orphans). While Sophie, the girl, gets to know and love the BFG while living in his cave, the evil giants—Fleshlumpeater, Childchewer, Manhugger, Bonecruncher, Meatdripper, Gizzardgulper, Maidmasher, Bloodbottler—want her for dinner. The BFG is a dream-catcher, the evil giants are the stuff of nightmares.
The basic ingredients of good fairy tales, a sign of which is that an adult can read it, and be entirely entertained. I should know. We read The BFG to our kids several times, they each read it countless times again, and our appreciation of his yarn-spinnery and wit grew each time.
I will reveal no more of the plot of The BFG for those who have not had the exceeding pleasure of reading Dahl’s book (except that, of course, it involves the Queen of England). Happily, Spielberg very faithfully followed the book, including the BFG’s melodious malapropisms.
That brings us to another, deeper point. Unlike many contemporary movies aimed at kids and teens—where special effects drive the plot, and indeed, without the high-tech wizardry, the storyline would be just that, a very thin and limp line—Spielberg has wisely kept the computer animation technology entirely in the service of the story. You don’t even notice it, which is the highest praise I can give his efforts. You simply feel, for two hours, as if you are in the imaginary world created by Dahl.
I say “wisely” for two very important reasons. Considered in the largest sense, Spielberg is giving us all a subtle but important lesson in what technology should really be for us “human beans” (as the BFG calls us). We live in an age where we are largely in the service of our technology, mastered by what we have made. Rather than the machine serving us, the masters, we are at the beck and call of our computers, smartphones, and other gadgetry. They define us; they form our stories, they orchestrate our everyday lives. Without them, our plots would be embarrassingly thin. If you doubt that, turn off your computer and shut down your phone for a couple of days, then you’ll see who is driving the plot of your daily life.
The same thing is true of so many movies now: remove the computer generated special effects and there’s almost nothing left, but the thinnest thread of a threadbare plot.
By contrast, The BFG is a richly-woven fairy tale, and as a movie, demonstrates what it means to have technology entirely in the service of human imagination, where the greatest fairy tales have arisen. To understand the importance of Spielberg’s achievement, we need to dig a bit deeper into what a real fairy story is, and for this, we must consult another master story teller, J. R. R. Tolkien, the creator of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien wrote one of the best, most insightful essays I’ve ever read, “On Fairy Stories.” In a successful fairy story, Tolkien explains, the writer creates a Secondary World, quite distinct from the Primary World we live in. By this act of story-telling, human beings become “sub-creators,” world-makers, a fulfillment of our being made in the image of God, the primary creator. The quality of the story determines the richness of the sub-creation in our imagination. Substitute overweening techno-special effects for a good story, and one creates only an impoverished imagination.
The point of good sub-creation, however, is not to displace God’s Primary World, but after visiting the Secondary World of the fairy story in our imagination, to rediscover the Primary World again with new eyes and a purified, more grateful heart—to rediscover the beauty and wonder of a world full of wildly colored creatures floating and flitting through the air; a world covered with a dome that is sometimes blue, sometimes red, and sometimes filled with white, billowing mountains; a world where there is the real danger of untamable fire spearing down to the earth from a trembling, black sky, and the joy of tamable fire around which one can sit and think and speak in friendship; a world where you come from not-being anywhere or anything, to being born into a family that loves you.
And that is where Sophie, the little orphan girl, ends up after her adventure with the BFG.
My apologies! I have revealed too much of the plot. But our gratitude must go out to Dahl and Spielberg for giving us Secondary World that makes us more enchanted by the truly magical one we actually live in.