This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke is one of the last stories Dahl wrote, and was published posthumously along with The Minpins and a few other odds and ends. It’s a slender volume - shorter than even The Twits. The plot revolves around a “charming and God-fearing” vicar, Reverend Lee, who is affected by a rare form of dyslexia which causes problems for him when he becomes the (title!) vicar of Nibbleswicke. The thing is, Lee’s dyslexia takes the form of his saying backwards the “most significant” word in his sentences. But in typically Dahl-ish fashion, it’s not always the most significant word; it is often any word that, when spelled backwards, is amusing or rude. So he tells his parishioners not to “krap” on the church lawn. The scandal! Also he tells some lady not to gulp the communion wine, but to “pis” it gently. Hilarity ensues until he figures out how to manage his dyslexia, whereupon order is restored.
Not much here to interrogate, or explore… it’s pretty straightforward. To me, what makes The Vicar of Nibbleswicke interesting is that Dahl wrote it specifically to benefit the Dyslexia Institute. According to the introduction by Quentin Blake, Dahl offered them all worldwide rights for the period of copyright, very generous indeed. And the Dyslexia Institute is actually a setting within The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, which I’m sure is cool for any dyslexic kids at the Institute reading it.
So, because this month’s reading assignment was so brief - I didn’t bother looking at the length of The Vicar of Nibbleswicke before making it my only March pick, silly me - I’ll take some time to review a few of the Dahl-written scripts and adaptations I’ve been idly watching as part of this project.
"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968)
Somehow I’d never watched "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang". I’d seen it come on TV as a kid, but immediately switched channels due to a weird lifelong, perhaps inborn hatred of vintage family films featuring adorable moppets with bad haircuts and washed-out, oddly yellow and brown color schemes (See: Pete’s Dragon, The Yearling, Old Yeller, etc). Thus, even after finding out Dahl wrote the script, I still didn’t want to watch this film. But, it was on Netflix, and I’d read on Wikipedia that it featured Dick van Dyke dancing - I’d watch that man dancing as he murdered adorable, endangered animals - so I decided to give it a whirl.
So yeah…"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is actually way weirder than one might expect, if one was not aware Dahl was involved with the project. But given its pedigree, the type of weirdness featured in the film is pretty standard. Featuring not only the eponymous flying/swimming/mildly sentient car purchased by inventor “Caractacus Potts” (get it?) for his half-wild children, it contains many brow-furrowing elements including a dance sequence celebrating the invention of a candy whistle that eventually makes Mr. Potts a rich man, a kooky old grandfather who, for at least half the film I believed was present in the movie to get dressed up in strange outfits to go visit the outhouse (later it’s revealed he’s just a weirdo and/or has some form of movie dementia, and is merely going to hang out in his strange outfits in an outhouse-like building), and Benny Hill as a toymaker.
Adapted from an Ian Fleming story (he and Dahl were homies, apparently), Dahl added in quite a bit of extra material to the film adaptation, including a romance with the daughter of the sweets manufacturer Mr. Scrumptious, named Truly (Truly Scrumptious - get it?) as well as an extended and extensive dream sequence involving a fictional European country called Vulgaria. (Get it? It’s vul… never mind.) Anyways, Vulgaria is, of course, ruled by pompous, amusingly-accented foreigners who employ a deeply terrifying individual called the Child Catcher to keep their kingdom child-free, because… I forget. Maybe the Baroness is terrified of children? Something. So yeah, quintessential Dahl. Puns, awful couples who hate each other in dangerous, often amusing ways, and evil maniacs who menace children.
This is why I’m surprised to report that "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was pretty okay! It works because it begins at a high level of insanity, and bravely keeps upping the ante. I mean, sure, there’s plenty of boring/annoying stuff (dull songs which are then reprised even more dully; vintage gender politics including that trope where a woman manages to be highly competent until she gets within sniffing distance of A Man; those aforementioned moppets). But all is forgotten when Dick Van Dyke begins to dance. Also: real talk? The Child Catcher is hella scary! The prosthetic nose is bad enough, but the fact that he goes around in a weird black suit with a net and a hook, sniffing things… what the hell? Best part was him singing some song, lying about having sweets and ice cream for hungry kids, and then unapologetically trapping them in a medieval-looking prison cart. I can’t say I’d watch it again, unless I was for some reason babysitting a kid of terrifyable age, but I’m glad I took the time to check it out.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “Lamb to the Slaughter,” “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat,” “The Landlady”
Thus far, I’ve watched three of the six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on Dahl’s stories. Only one teleplay was written by Dahl himself - “Lamb to the Slaughter.” “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” was written by Halsted Welles, who wrote one to five episodes of about a zillion shows including Kung Fu, Bonanza, and The Mask. Apparently he also wrote the original screenplay for 3:10 to Yuma. Robert Bloch, of Psycho fame, wrote the teleplay for “The Landlady.”
The story “Lamb to the Slaughter” will always have a special place in my heart - it was one of the first of Dahl’s adult stories I read, and I was extremely impressed by its simplicity and cleverness. Unfortunately, the teleplay Dahl wrote wasn’t quite as good. As the original story is short, sweet, and relatively internal, I’m guessing he had to expand the material to fit the allotted time… but the way he did it wasn’t particularly satisfying. As most Dahl readers know, “Lamb to the Slaughter” is the tale of a policeman’s wife who receives the unexpected news that her husband intends to leave her. So she hits him on the head with a frozen leg of lamb, crushing his skull, and then serves the cooked roast to the detectives who come to investigate. Basically, to expand the story, Dahl sticks in a zealous, suspicious detective and a bunch of police procedural stuff that doesn’t really up the tension and so feels like unnecessary filler. It also gives the story the unfortunate quality of feeling rewritten - as if Dahl, thinking back on it, assumed the detectives surely would have realized this or that strangeness to the crime (“he had no other injuries!” “he was hit on the back of the head, meaning he’d turned his back on the murderer - he must have known him!”). Eh.
“Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” is actually the story that made me realize that my Roald Dahl Omnibus wasn’t a complete collection. At any rate, the teleplay was a far better adaptation. The actors are more engaged with their roles, and the plot is far juicier. Mrs. Bixby is a dentist’s wife who every month takes a weekend to visit her ailing aunt, despite her husband’s dislike of her absence. But the aunt is actually her lover of many years, a wealthy colonel whose embraces break up the monotony of daily life. Unfortunately for Mrs. Bixby, the Colonel has moved on, but as a consolation prize he gives her the most wondrous fur coat. Knowing she must account for it in some way - the fictional aunt is poor - she concocts a scheme that results in surprising and unintended consequences. The teleplay doesn’t deviate too much from the original.
“The Landlady” was definitely my favorite of this trio. The original story is about human taxidermy, and is therefore ridiculous and awesome. The adaptation sticks to that, though with shades of Bloch’s writing I don’t recall from the original. The best part, however? It features a young Dean Stockwell looking like some smoking-hot, totally yummy preincarnation of Jeffrey Combs’ in Re-Animator. Whatever, I’m not ashamed. Don’t you dare judge me! I love me some Dean Stockwell. Anyways, watching this with a friend, I found out that not everyone associates Mr. Stockwell with Dune. Apparently he was in Quantum Leap, a show I never watched and therefore knew nothing about. This project has been extremely educational!
Next month: Either some short stories, or some poetry, whatever comes in first!
Molly Tanzer is the author of the British Fantasy and Wonderland Book award-nominated A Pretty Mouth as well as Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations. She lives in Boulder, CO where she mostly writes about fops arguing with each other. She tweets @molly_the_tanz, and blogs - infrequently - at http://mollytanzer.com.