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.
This month I’m dealing with Dahl’s earliest book for children: The Gremlins (1943), adorably attributed to ‘Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl.’
If you are anything like me, you associate Gremlins with Gizmo, and the phrase “don’t feed them after midnight.” But Dahl’s Gremlins are… different. Dahl’s Gremlins—which he claimed to the end of his days were his creation, and therefore the original Gremlins—are a second sentient race on our earth, who destroy airplanes with hand drills and other simple machines because they’re small, adorable eco-warriors.
Sounds cute, right? It is, for the most part. Dahl’s other version of this story, which appeared in his first novel, Sometime Never, will be my topic for next month. Just… keep all this in mind.
Anyways. The plot of The Gremlins is this: a square-jawed RAF pilot named Gus is flying his Hurricane against some German fighter pilots (Dahl, for the record, loved flying Hurricanes) over the English countryside when he notices a small, horned little man with suction boots using a hand drill to bore holes in his plane. He goes down when the creature bores holes in his engine. He reports this to the mechanics, denying the holes came from bullets, and calling the beast who perpetrated the crime a “Gremlin.”
The entire squadron laughs Gus off until the Gremlins (and Fifinellas, the female of the species) start appearing all over the place. They find out the Gremlins have been destroying planes because they’re annoyed at the destruction of British forests for the sake of warfare. The humans promise them the deepest woodland of England (apparently rank and file RAF pilots are granted the power to negotiate with unknown, malicious species) if the Gremlins will help them in their fight against the Germans. They come to an agreement.
I wish I had more positive things to say about this book after complaining so much about Rhyme Stew and Dirty Beasts last month, but like… The Gremlins wasn’t really my jam. The illustrations of this edition—done by a Disney artist assigned to the production—are adorable, true. And the final story arc, where our square-jawed hero Gus is declared unable to fly after a bad crash is poignantly similar to Dahl’s own experiences in the RAF. The narrator observes, “To be a pilot, being alive but earthbound is worse than not being alive at all.” As Dahl is very obviously our narrator, one can’t help but think this line, written so soon after he was invalided home, has some personal resonance.
And yet… and yet. There is just so much random, so much huh? The caste system among the Gremlins, for example, is bizarre when it isn’t dizzying (“athletic Gremlins” run fast, “widgets” are baby Gremlins, the aforementioned Fifinellas, etc. etc.). Their world (and the plot itself) felt underdeveloped and slapdash—the Gremlins come from a “greasy swamp” full of trolls in primordial times, but have always worn rubber suction boots (?). And the conclusion—where the Gremlins rally together to help our hero Gus pass his medical exam, even though he’s definitely unfit for duty, has a dubious moral to say the least. And not the kind of dubious moral like in Matilda, like you want.
Now—all that being said, I would absolutely recommend this book—at least the Dark Horse edition, because the introduction by Leonard Maltin is totally fascinating.
As I don’t want to spoil the whole thing in case there are those reading who are thrilled by the unfolding of historical accounts, here’s just a taste of what he discusses. Apparently, one of the impediments to the film was that of ownership. While Dahl claimed to have invented the idea of “Gremlins,” a race of little creatures who could be blamed for the mysterious things that go wrong during a pilot’s flight, and insisted for his entire life that they were his creation, the evidence said otherwise. As may have Dahl—an early report from the Disney sales manager who met with Dahl apparently reported “The Gremlin characters are not creatures of his imagination as they are ‘well known’ by the entire RAF and as far as I can determine no individual can claim credit.” Strange stuff.
The Disney brothers did all they could—including trying to copyright the name by insisting the proceeds would not be given to Dahl but to the RAF Benevolent Fund—but it proved too difficult to obtain sole ownership. Other studios picked up the idea after Disney put out a seven page spread in Cosmopolitan (!) called “Introducing the Gremlins.” The project would be abandoned, but not before Disney sunk an insane amount of money into the Gremlins film—fifty thousand dollars, in 1943. At least it seems like there were no hard feelings between Dahl and Disney over the failed production.
The Gremlins film would never come to be, and you can read the whole story in The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production. Even those who aren’t seeking some sort of Roald Dahl completionist credit might like it—fans of animation history and military history will likely enjoy it. And it’s very possible kids will enjoy the story more than I did, not sort of head-tilting all the way through it, in between the delightful full-color and pencil illustrations.
Next month: MORE GREMLINS. Seriously! But in the context of a depressing, atomic-age fable. Whee!