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The 7 best Roald Dahl movie adaptations, ranked

Timothée Chalamet in Wonka.
Warner Bros. Pictures

For the first time in nearly two decades, a new incarnation of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka is on the big screen. However, Wonka is not directly based on Dahl’s classic children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Instead, it’s an original story with Timothée Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka who is still chasing his dreams of opening a chocolate store and changing the world.

To celebrate the arrival of Wonka in theaters on December 15, we’re looking back at the seven best Roald Dahl movie adaptations. Dahl had a gift for writing dark stories for children, which is why his novels play so well on the big screen. However, not every Dahl adaptation was created equally, and the author himself had disdain for even some of his most popular films.

7. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

The cast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Tim Burton’s remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory narrowly makes the cut because Steven Spielberg’s The BFG was a toothless and dull adaptation of Dahl’s story, and the 2020 remake of The Witches lacks all charm. So, instead, we have to go with this batch of Burton-esque weirdness.

Before he went on to star in Bates Motel and The Good Doctor, Freddie Highmore portrayed Charlie Bucket, an impoverished young boy who is one of five children who discovers a Golden Ticket that lets him take a tour of the chocolate factory run by Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp). Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) take the tour alongside all the other winners, as Wonka lets each child prove their worth while knowing that most of the kids will give into temptation and pay the price for their greed.

Watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Max.

6. James and the Giant Peach (1996)

James finds some peril in Disney's James and the Giant Peach.
Walt Disney Pictures

Burton also produced Disney’s adaptation of Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, which was directed by The Nightmare Before Christmas helmer Henry Selick. This film features a mixture of live-action and animation as an orphan named James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) suffers under his abusive aunts, Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley).

After inadvertently creating a giant peach, James meets a wild assortment of anthropomorphic insects who live inside it, including Mr. Grasshopper (Simon Callow), Mr. Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), Mrs. Ladybug (Jane Leeves), Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon), Mr. Earthworm (David Thewlis), and Mrs. Glowworm (Margolyes). The insects take James in and use the giant peach to give him the adventure that he always dreamed about.

Watch James and the Giant Peach on Disney+.

5. Matilda (1996)

Mara Wilson in Matilda.
Sony Pictures

Matilda is one of Dahl’s most popular stories because the title character, Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson), is such a fantastic heroine. Unfortunately, Matilda’s parents, Harry (Danny DeVito) and Zinnia Wormwood (Rhea Perlman), scoff at her obvious genius-level intellect and leave her in a school where she and the other students are abused by the sadistic principal, Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris).

Matilda’s lone defender is her teacher, Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz), who is also mistreated by Trunchbull. But Matilda has a big secret that can change both of their lives for the better and give Trunchbull everything that’s coming to her.

Watch Matilda on The Roku Channel.

4. The Witches (1990)

Anjelica Huston in The Witches.
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Witches was the last film that Jim Henson worked on before his death, and Dahl reportedly clashed with The Muppets creator and director Nicolas Roeg over the movie’s more upbeat conclusion. Regardless, this is one of the best Dahl adaptations, largely thanks to Anjelica Huston’s performance as Eva Ernst, aka the Grand High Witch.

After losing his parents to a car accident, Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) moves to England with his grandmother, Helga Eveshim (Mai Zetterling). While at a hotel, Luke stumbles upon Eva and a convention of witches as they share their plans to turn children into mice. Luke is also one of the first victims of this plan, but Helga has some experience when dealing with witches. And together with Luke’s friend, Bruno Jenkins (Charlie Potter), they’re going to use the witches’ plans against them.

Watch The Witches on MGM+.

3. Matilda the Musical (2022)

Alisha Weir in Matilda the Musical.

The most recent adaptation of Matilda was based on both Dahl’s original story and the Matilda stage musical that opened in 2011. Matilda the Musical covers most of the same ground as the previous film, with an expanded backstory for Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) about the nature of her relationship with her aunt, Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson).

Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is considerably fiercer in this version of the story as she stands up to Trunchbull and her parents, Mr. Wormwood (Stephen Graham) and Mrs. Wormwood (Andrea Riseborough). The music and the songs also elevate this film into becoming one of the best Dahl adaptations to date.

Watch Matilda the Musical on Netflix.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Ash, Mr. Fox, Mrs. Fox, and Kristopherson in Fantastic Mr. Fox.
20th Century Studios

Wes Anderson directed and co-wrote the adaptation of Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which once again demonstrates that these stories translate really well to the medium of stop-motion animation. George Clooney lends his voice to Mr. Fox, a talented thief who promises his wife, Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep), that he will change his ways for the sake of his family. Years later, Mr. Fox and Felicity have a son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and they also take in their nephew, Kristofferson Silverfox (Eric Chase Anderson).

When Mr. Fox gives into temptation and returns to his life of crime, he earns the wrath of the local farmers: Frank Bean (Michael Gambon), Walt Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), and Nate Bunce (Hugo Guinness). With his life and the well-being of his family on the line, Mr. Fox rallies the other animals to take on the farmers and reclaim the resources that should have been theirs.

Watch Fantastic Mr. Fox on Max.

1. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Paramount Pictures

The fact that Dahl hated Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and publicly disowned the film gives a lot of credence to the idea that authors aren’t always the best judges of their own work. Director Mel Stuart and screenwriter David Seltzer did make changes that Dahl didn’t approve of, but audiences have embraced this film for decades, and no other adaptation of Dahl’s stories is more beloved than this one.

Gene Wilder deserves a lot of the credit for that, thanks to his brilliant performance as Willy Wonka, the eccentric owner of the titular chocolate factory. Golden ticket winner Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) and his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) take a tour of the factory alongside the other winners in the hope of winning the grand prize: A lifetime supply of chocolate. But Wonka has other ideas, as well as malicious ways to deal with greedy children who try to take advantage of his generosity. The music in this film is also delightful, and you may never get the Oompa-Loompas’ songs out of your head.

Watch Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on Max.

Editors' Recommendations

Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell has been an entertainment journalist for over 15 years. His bylines have appeared in Wizard Magazine, Geek…
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