Mention Roald Dahl’s countless children’s books (let alone the movies they inspired) to any generation of readers and their faces practically melt with joy. His boundless imagination in The BFG, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda is rightly revered as some of the most madcap in children’s literature. The other side of that coin is that some of his lesser works, and the odd writing jobs that he assumed, are buried underneath the fame of his most celebrated works. Here are five works you may have never realized Dahl had a hand in at all!
Published in 1943, “The Gremlins” was one of Dahl’s first stories he had written after starting his new career a year before, and arguably his first one for children. ‘Gremlins’ were the goonish creatures responsible for mechanical failures on an aircraft, according to Royal Air Force superstition, and the short story tracks a pilot with the wherewithal to tame the monsters. Dahl’s story found its way to a producer under Walt Disney, who imagined it as a movie. While that initial film was never completed, Dahl’s version of the miliary folklore became the partial basis for Stephen Spielberg’s 1984 Gremlins film.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
In 1957, Dahl sold the rights of six of his stories to pantheonic director Alfred Hitchcock’s anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It is partly from this exposure where we recognize his most famous short story, “Lamb to the Slaughter“, which was directed by Hitchcock himself. That episode, which depicts beat cops investigating a housewife over her husband’s recent murder, was nominated for an Emmy the following year. Several of the other episodes featuring Dahl’s work, including “Man from the South”, have been named as some of the best of the influential series.
Now, before you write off your childhood as thoroughly ruined, consider that as a writer, sometimes you have to follow the money. Not every short will end up in Harper’s or The New Yorker (which Dahl’s did, also). Dahl published at least seven stories of sexual indescretion with the magazine between 1959 and 1988, the most notorious being 1965’s “The Visitor”, which introduces us to Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, so-called “the greatest bounder, bon vivant and fornicator of all time”. In an almost Palahnuikian fashion, Oswald journals about his conquests and their dark twist-endings. Playboy loved Dahl’s work so much that they commissioned him to expand Oswald’s gadabout world. The success of these shorts allowed Dahl to pursue a parallel career as an adult fiction writer, one that many a James and the Giant Peach fan often discover, scarringly, too soon.
The James Bond film You Only Live Twice
You won’t be surprised to hear that Dahl dabbled in screenwriting, particularly when it came to his own book adaptations. But in 1967, when Dahl was asked to try his hand at adapting his short story You Only Live Twice into the fifth James Bond film, Dahl had no experience with screenplays beyond one unproduced script. Fleming and Dahl were both war veterans and old friends from their shared days as intelligence agents (read: spies), so Dahl was given free rein with the script. Like the good friend he was, Dahl trashed most of Fleming’s work – in both senses, not using it for source material and calling it “Ian Fleming’s worst book, with no plot in it which would even make a movie“. That audacious move turned out to be the right one, as Dahl’s Bond was a box office smash for the time and is still seen as the archetypal Bond film.
A guide to railway safety
Ha-ha! Thought you were a Dahl-caholic? This ‘do’s and don’ts’ booklet is about as obscure as it gets for a writer whose works are so publicly tracked. Published posthumously in 1991, Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety was written for the British Railways Board and coupled with drawings by Dahl’s forever-illustrator Quentin Blake. While that might sound like a cheap attempt to add a flourish to an otherwise banal warning manual, Dahl peppers in anecdotes from his own childhood (much like his memoir Boy) and acknowledges he has “a VERY DIFFICULT job here. Young people are fed up with being told by grown-ups WHAT TO DO and WHAT NOT TO DO. They get that all through their young lives”. Even after death, and in instructing people on safety, Dahl brought a levity and wisdom to everything he set to paper.
Featured image courtesy of Quentin Blake/House of Illustration.