Like so many slightly odd, library-obsessed kids, some of my earliest youthful fantasies (and nightmares) were a product of Roald Dahl’s mind. His stories are as terrifying as they are beautiful, and as aspirational as they are painfully, realistically tragic—despite Matilda’s woeful parentage situation and deplorable elementary school, I wanted to live in her shoes nonetheless. The author’s stories don’t falsely promise an egalitarian planet— they understand how silenced and misunderstood young children can feel. But Dahl’s work also weaves storylines where the rot of the grown-up world is no match for the unassailable imagination of an unsinkable kid.
Dahl’s ubiquity among bookish, whimsical youth also presents a real challenge for film adaptations, with no perfectly formulaic answer. Animation highlights Dahl’s absurdity well, but so do the expressive mannerisms of performers like Anjelica Huston, Gene Wilder, and Danny DeVito. Master directors like Wes Anderson, Robert Zemeckis, and even Quentin Tarantino have tried their hand at putting Dahl’s text to screen, to varied effect (read: not all of them have made this list of best adaptations). No matter your general aesthetic, there’s just no one way to do it.
That’s not to mention the subjectivity of taste, which rings particularly true given the affecting, well-drawn nature of Dahl’s diverse characters. From witches to chocolate connoisseurs to well-meaning upstairs neighbors, his characters always had a sparkle that, when captured well on film, translates into magic. When you connect with Dahl characters, whether as a young child or an adult, they stay with you; the same is true for a skillful film adaptation of Dahl’s world. Ahead of the Netflix premiere of Matilda: The Musical on December 9, here are the 10 best film renditions of Dahl’s stories (in this writer’s humble opinion).