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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Learning From Roald Dahl’s Immortal Stories

I remember spending a great deal of time in my elementary school library.  Yet I only remember reading three books there.  The first was Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.  The second and third were Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, both by Roald Dahl.  I also remember how delighted I was to find the sequel, as I had really enjoyed the first book, and looked forward to accompanying Charlie on his further adventures. 

Of course, one tends to forget about children’s books as one grows older, and watching "Star Wars" in the cinema transformed my literary tastes.  Interest in favorites targeted at younger readers, such as Jerry West’s series The Happy Hollisters, Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction, and Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet novels, largely dried up.  (Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels proved one of the few exceptions).

When I got the James Bond movies on DVD, Roald Dahl’s name rose in connection with Albert R. Broccoli (as well as Harry Saltzman, who co-produced the first few Bond films).  Dahl wrote screenplays based on two Ian Fleming novels: You Only Live Twice, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  While I cannot claim to be a great fan of the latter, the former has traditionally been my favorite Bond film that starred Sean Connery, and Dahl’s screenplay is drastically different from the original novel.  (According to Wikipedia, the character of the Child Catcher, whom Dahl invented for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” was recently voted the scariest villain of all time).

While I enjoyed the Old School style of animation in Wes Anderson’s film, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the story proved a little more quirky and unconventional than I usually prefer.  As I’ve not read it yet, I don’t know how much of that was due to Dahl’s original novel versus Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s screenplay.  I later got the movie on Blu-ray though, and found that my affection for it increased with each viewing. 

My increasing use of lapboards reminded me of the Extras for “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.”  So I loaded the Blu-ray, and confirmed that Roald Dahl also eschewed a large desk and a well-organized office for a lapboard in a dingy, backyard shed.  He sat in a wingback chair inherited from his mother, and rested his feet on a chest.  Then he covered his legs with a blanket, put corrugated paper down on his knees, and placed a large board atop that.

I found Dahl’s growth as an author equally intriguing.  He first wrote essays, then graduated to short fiction for adults, and after that, to children’s stories.  While this seems like the opposite of a normal progression, writers who have published at both levels seem to agree that children’s fiction requires greater skill, inventiveness, and attention to detail. 

My first published pieces have been these blog posts: essays on how fiction has affected me.  I’ve often wondered as to their value to my life and others.  My chief goal remains to finish and sell Science Fiction or Fantasy novels.  Posting these essays hasn’t cut into writing my fiction in terms of my average daily word count, but it has precluded any possibility of creating the character studies, world building, and outlines I used to rely on.  Yet I’ve found that my confidence in my rough drafts has increased, and been astonished by how I’ve been able to create on-the-fly and tie the various threads together as the stories speed toward their climaxes and conclusions.  Now I learn that, quite unknowingly, I’ve been aping Roald Dahl’s physical manner of writing, and that, to a lesser extent, my efforts have mirrored his progression as a writer.   I have to wonder what I might learn, and how I might benefit, from a deeper study of his life and work.

A few years ago, I read Starship Troopers again.  Heinlein’s characters, world building, and plot captured my imagination as fully as they did back in elementary school.  I think it’s time I revisited those two novels about Charlie.  But first, I intend to read The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  The Blu-ray Extras reveal how much making that film proved a labor of love for Wes Anderson. It seems a good place to start reacquainting myself with Roald Dahl and his immortal stories.

Dragon Dave

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