For a director renowned for the wonders he puts on screen, Steven Spielberg’s greatest talent lies in what he doesn’t show us. Whether it’s the shark in Jaws, the Mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the brachiosaur in Jurassic Park, Spielberg delights in teasing his audience – not showing, or at least making us wait for, the spectacular, the wondrous, the evil, or the terrifying. It’s why the so-called ‘Spielberg Face’ has become such a well-known visual trope, and why his films, regardless of subject matter and tone, find a mass audience time and time again. We love anticipating the amazing.
This sense of absence isn’t just expressed aesthetically; it’s a deep-rooted part of the director’s thematic concerns too. Spielberg characters are rarely complete wholes. They’re all bereft: looking for something, longing for something, needing something in order to be complete. Part of the joy of a Spielberg film is following them on that journey as they (and we) seek their missing part, a quest they often have to take alone or by conquering the resistance of those around them. The nerdy Jewish boy who grew up a bullied outsider in largely Gentile neighbourhoods has spent his adult life reliving and restructuring that sense of alienation.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, of course, expresses this sense of longing and loneliness in its purest form, and it’s fitting that Spielberg has re-teamed with that film’s writer, the late, great Melissa Mathison, for this take on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG, another two-hander about alienation and otherness. You wouldn’t think it from the effortless confidence shown here, but it’s been more than 30 years since the pair last worked together (and nearly 20 since Mathison’s last screenplay – for Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Dalai Lama biopic Kundun) and the passing years have helped create a film even more mellow and melancholic than their 1982 masterpiece.
As the sadly mixed reviews have noted, The BFG is not an eventful film. It’s a slow, patient picture that takes its time and enjoys the opportunity to breathe. Nor is it a particularly rambunctious film, in the way we’ve come to expect from a Dahl adaptation. The author’s warmth often radiated through a mischievous grin, especially in the likes of ‘The Twits’, ‘Matilda’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. ‘The BFG’ has always been a gentler offering, but even the darkness he did include (such as The BFG’s discussions with Sophie about the taste of human beings) is mostly blunted or removed entirely by Spielberg and Mathison. Critics are correct when they say the film misses this sense of threat – even the mean giants don’t seem particularly fearsome – but that’s not the story Spielberg is looking to tell.
“The secret whisperings of the world…”
Something seemed to shift in Spielberg’s approach during the making of Lincoln. The listlessness seen in parts of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn disappeared, and the next phase in his film-making career seemed to snap into focus. Long-gestating sci-fi blockbuster Robopocalypse slipped off the slate and was replaced by talk of dramas such as Bridge of Spies, Montezuma, and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (The BFG, of course, also joined those films). Spielberg has always been fascinated by character, dialogue, and the little grace notes that make those things come alive, but Lincolnpushed them to the forefront more than ever, and ushered in a new approach to tone and pacing.
Confident, stately, relaxed, Lincoln found its sister film in last year’s Bridge of Spies, which delighted in its slow-burn pace and the studied, deliberate turn of Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, and it again influences The BFG, in which the excellent Rylance exudes a similar silent nobility. This is very much a post-Lincoln Spielberg blockbuster, a film more concerned with words than explosions, eloquence than excitement. It’s arguably the first time Spielberg has seemed truly at ease at the helm of populist entertainment since 2002’s Minority Report (which he identified as “a gourmet popcorn movie”, suggesting he saw it, like The BFG, as no mere slice of summer escapism), and, though time will tell, that’s enabled him to craft a charming fantasy that can rival even E.T..
His ability to couch the fantastical effects and state of the art motion capture in a small story about a child gives Spielberg the confidence he’s perhaps lacked on similar films in recent years. With The BFG, he delights in turning Sophie into a typically Spielbergian child hero. She’s sprightly, inventive, heroic, and noble – played by Ruby Barnhill with a delightful spark and quiet vulnerability that’s not been heralded enough. Outraged by The BFG’s treatment at the hands of the other giants, she tries to inspire him to fight back. She concocts plans, demands rather than asks, and takes well-earned delight in describing herself as “an untrustworthy child”. True to the rebellious heart of Dahl’s book and their own work in depicting the necessity of childhood battles against adult conformity, Spielberg and Mathison have crafted a world where such descriptions are to be worn as badges of honour.
In some ways, Sophie is a stronger hero than her closest analogue Elliott, but she’s similarly lost. Wandering through the halls of her silent orphanage at the height of the Witching Hour, she casts a lonely figure – lost and so utterly anonymous that she can sneak through by without being spotted. The BFG’s entry into this world isn’t just an exciting and wondrous event (though the way Spielberg captures the giant’s snatching of the girl in a long held take is simple, dazzling, and beautifully nightmarish); it’s an utterly transformative one. Like E.T.’s arrival in Elliott’s world, The BFG offers Sophie a lifeline, an opportunity for more than just magic and mystery, but for companionship and camaraderie as well. Sophie essentially finds her soul mate.
Spielberg takes great joy in reflecting this visually. Released from the shackles of serious drama, he plays with imagery with an abandon we’ve not seen for a number of years. A standout moment finds The BFG and Sophie hiding on the streets of London by disguising themselves as trees, while in another The BFG’s dream orbs mimic Sophie’s excited jumping by bouncing up and down in their jars. Sophie describes herself as an insomniac who can’t fall asleep long enough to dream, but as the film progresses, it’s as if her inner life and imagination are so firmly awakened by her friendship with The BFG that she comes to have more of a connection with the dreams he catches than he himself does.
Moments such as these abound and they’re often played out in silence, or with minimal dialogue. Cutting back the chat, Spielberg lets his camerawork, John Williams’ playful score, Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg’s organic, tangible production design, and Janusz Kaminski’s radiant cinematography do the talking. One particularly impressive sequence comes when The BFG guides Sophie through his home, the camera lapping up each wonderful detail with every bit of the quiet grace we saw in Lincoln, while another comes during the Buckingham Palace sequences, where both our heroes are – perhaps for the first time – given luxurious feasts to devour for breakfast. Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn cut between The BFG and Sophie’s delighted faces in a scene that’s both humourous and heartening.
It’s a final seal on their friendship, a visual lock of a bond built not on words, but commonality and compassion. It should be little surprise then that it’s expressed not through narrative thrust but the secret whisperings of cinema: sound and visuals.
“I catch dreams…”
Of course, Spielberg’s the serial storyteller, a man who as a child would summon scary stories based on the trees outside his window and cracks in his bedroom window. He couldn’t make a film that forgoes storytelling altogether, and indeed he hasn’t. While The BFG may take a relaxed approach to telling its story, it makes significant statements about the art of storytelling itself, and stands as one of Spielberg’s most eloquent films about the topic (he’s touched on it in parts of Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, while the whole of Catch Me If You Can focuses on fiction and fabrication). Dahl wrote ‘The BFG’ as a bedtime story for his grand-daughter Sophie (even writing her into it as the main character), and Spielberg expands that idea by turning The BFG into one of his most eloquent and engaging storytellers. (1)
A catcher, creator, and deliverer of dreams though he may be, Spielberg’s BFG cuts a sad and lonely figure. He exists in solitude, far away from humanity and is bullied by his brother giants. Yet he quietly yearns for ‘human beans’ and Spielberg again lets us know with subtle clues. His home is littered with artefacts from the human world – a broken plane wing, old telephone boxes, wrecked ships – and though he feels he can’t come into contact with humans for fear they’d chop him up and experiment, he clearly takes great delight in connecting with them through his pendulous ears, which allow him to hear “all the secret whisperings of the world”. He is both a part of and entirely separate from the world he admires, grasping towards it through the fragments of adventures past.
His role as a dreamweaver and storyteller gives him the opportunity to silently venture into the human world each night, experiencing new adventures and concocting new stories. Though Spielberg shows us fewer of The BFG’s dreams than Dahl did in the book, the one we do see captures the spirit of storytelling beautifully. We find a young boy whose father receives a telephone call from the President. But the President doesn’t want to speak to the man; he needs the boy, who’s the only person in the world who can help him out of his predicament. The dream is short, played out in shadow on the boy’s bedroom wall, and leaves the child with a small, satisfied smile on his face. Like the film as a whole and like Sophie’s moments of delight with her oversized friend, it’s a fleeting incident that will live on somewhere on the edge of memory and emotion.
This, the film suggests, is what stories deliver, but they can cut deep as well as soothe wounds. One Spielberg/Mathison addition to Dahl’s text is the story of a boy who The BFG snatched years before taking Sophie. The pair enjoyed their time together, but it ended tragically when the child was eaten by lead nasty giant The Flushlumpeater (Jermaine Clement on delightfully villainous form). Though not macabre in the way Dahl was, it’s a surprisingly dark addition, and one that paints The BFG’s entire character in a new light. His desire to catch dreams and tell stories comes off not just as a charming frippery, but an absolute necessity. He does it to both remember and forget the story of the boy, to both recover from it and redeem himself for it. If indeed he can be redeemed.
The issue of redemption looms large over The BFG, with Spielberg and Mathison turning the struggle for forgiveness into the source of the ultimate nightmare. Spielberg depicts Dahl’s ultimate bad dream (a Trogglehumper) as a fearsome red orb that buzzes through Dream Country like an angry hornet. But this dream contains not monsters or demons, but a simple message: “Look at what you has done. And there be no forgiveness.” For the stubbornly optimistic Spielberg, who found light even in the darkness of the Holocaust, it’s notable that the ultimate nightmare isn’t some monstrous external force, but the absence of something from within – forgiveness, redemption, happiness, the ability to change and move on. Stories are dreams, Spielberg suggests, and in those dreams, anything can happen. But nightmares… nightmares are a lack of story, a place where transformation is impossible, and forgiveness can never arrive. Lack, loneliness, longing for something that is desperately needed but will always remain just out of reach. It’s a very Spielbergian kind of horror.
The only cure for such emptiness, the film suggests, is to spread the joy of storytelling, and The BFG’s role in the movie is not just to deliver dreams, but to turn others into dream-makers and storytellers. When Sophie hides in the alcove where the little boy slept, she sees drawings detailing his and the giant’s time together. They embarked on numerous adventures and there’s even the suggestion that it was the boy who named his friend the Big Friendly Giant, a monicker the giant seems delighted to accept. Again, the concept of storytelling as a way to control memory, ease the pain of the things we’ve lost in the past, while simultaneously remembering them to shape our future, emerges. By continuing to use the name, The BFG reminds himself of his lost friend and pays tribute to him at the same time.
Sophie becomes a storyteller too, turning the Big Friendly Giant into the more manageable BFG, and helping him concoct the nightmare that will form a critical part of their plan to defeat the mean giants. Having conceived of the idea, then formed the story, Sophie subsequently becomes the teller, delivering the nightmare to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. In this moment, Spielberg does something unexpected and rather brilliant by not showing how the Queen responds to the dream (beyond a few off-screen upset cries). Instead, his camera stays focused on Sophie as she delightedly watches the Royal experience the story she’s created. Thus Sophie’s journey from consumer to creator is complete. Her joy in seeing the dream play out, and knowledge of the positive effects it will bring, underlines how potent such stories can be, and why the film cares so passionately about them.
They are one of the few dependable things that can complete us and fill up the emptiness.
“Times’ll be hard, times’ll be soft. But she’ll remember the good deeds…“
And yet, it’s to absence that Spielberg returns as he and Mathison draw the story to a close. Two scenes stand out in the film’s finale, and both, fittingly for a film of moments rather than set pieces, are small grace notes.
The first comes as Sophie and The BFG are about to put their plan to beat the mean giants into action. They sit on the side of a mountain looking out across Giant Country and their sleeping foes. Having caught a dream earlier in the film, Sophie asks The BFG what it contains. He tells her that it’s her life – she grows up, finds love, finds fulfilment, and has kids of her own whose dreams she helps come true. However, he tells her, she can’t live that life in Giant Country. Just as Elliott needs to let E.T. go to mature, Sophie needs to wake up from her dream, rub her eyes, and join the real world again.
So in a dramatic divergence from the book, our heroes part. Whereas for Dahl, the BFG finished the story in England, living in a gigantic castle with Sophie next door in a small cottage, Spielberg puts Sophie in the care of Mary, the Queen’s maid, and suggests the beginnings of a family between her, Mary, and Rafe Spall’s Mr Tibbs. The BFG, meanwhile, remains in Giant Country. The mean giants have gone and much of the land is now taken up by fields filled with fruit and vegetables, but he’s still alone. It’s a surprising move – sentimental Spielberg providing a sadder ending than the mischievous, often dark Dahl – but it once again underlines Spielberg’s focus on longing and loneliness and what we can do to prevent them.
In the film’s final shots, Sophie leans out of the window of her new home after waking up from a dream in which she saw The BFG again, and quietly wishes her friend a good morning. Spielberg cuts to Giant Country, where The BFG’s huge ears twitch to pick up the sounds as he writes a book detailing his and Sophie’s adventures – the dream-maker literally becoming a storyteller. He smiles a smile that captures the film in one beautiful image – wistful, melancholic, but still undoubtedly happy. Like a promise made at a graveside, it’s the smile of a man who’s lost something but is perhaps happy to have had something to lose, the smile of a man who will look back on his time with Sophie with joy and fondness, even though the lack of contact with her aches. It’s a smile that captures Spielberg’s entire career, from David Mann’s alienation on those dusty roads in Duel to James Donovan’s persecution as he defends Abel, and would even act as the perfect fullstop for it.
Indeed, endings seem to weigh heavy on the film. Perhaps for Spielberg, former Movie Brat now turned one of cinema’s elder statesmen, and Mathison, who was ill while writing and shooting the film, The BFG, dreams, and stories are not just fantastical tales to help us escape the real world, but passages through to it (2), maybe even passages through to a form of immortality (3). Dreams remix past memories in creative ways, and stories do the same. The stories we tell keep our memories and emotions alive – bringing vivid reality to our fears, our joys, our hopes, and our longings. They’re the best way to keep the past strong in our minds, and the bonds between us firm – even when the physical distance is too great to be bridged. As long as we keep dreaming, keep telling stories and by doing those things, keep memory vital, then loneliness and longing somehow seem less painful.
It’s a beautiful idea. I hope it’s true.
(1) Whether Quint regaling Brody and Hooper with the tale of the USS Indianapolis, Jim in Empire of the Sun basing his vision of Basie off a character in a comic book, or John Hammond looking to give audiences “something real, something they can touch” in Jurassic Park, storytellers have often appeared in Spielberg films. The theme has moved into overdrive recently though. Joey acted as a bridge between disparate narratives in War Horse, Tintin’s very medium drew attention to its artificiality, Lincoln would repeatedly offer stories to help prove his points, and even Donovan became a storyteller in Bridge of Spies, offering the truth of Abel’s humanity in the face of paranoid scaremongering. The BFG continues the prominence of storytelling and storytellers in Spielberg’s recent fare, and it’ll be interesting to see where Ready Player One, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and Indiana Jones 5 take the concept.
(2) “I don’t want audiences to escape from reality,” Spielberg once said. “I want them to escape with reality.”
(3) “Dreams are so quick,” Sophie says after witnessing the boy’s short dream. “Yeah, on the outside, but long on the inside,” replies The BFG.