It’s difficult to adapt books for the screen. Success usually happens in one of two circumstances: either the book is simple and easily expanded upon (“Where the Wild Things Are”) or the filmmaker does something wildly stylistic and transforms the material completely (Alfonso Cuarón’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”). Steven Spielberg’s film “The BFG” (in theaters now) falls into the former category. Roald Dahl’s original “BFG” is a dark British children’s novella starring a feisty protagonist named Sophie, and it’s relatively thin in volume but helped along by Quentin Blake’s sketchy black-and-white illustrations.
Spielberg fleshes the thin story out with a moving performance by Mark Rylance as the “Big Friendly Giant,” and by rendering the title character much sadder. This might not sound ideal for stoned-viewing, but the movie is equal parts melancholy, whimsical and sweet – children won’t notice the sadness in it, and adults will appreciate the emotional complexity. Sophie is an excellent cinematic role model, an orphaned intellectual who isn’t dreamy or imaginative. It’s refreshing to see a purely practical little girl on-screen, as they are quite rare. Not all girls like to play dress-up.
In Dahl’s book, the BFG is lonely. His fellow giants are larger and meaner than he is, so he’s picked on and misunderstood. But Spielberg adds immortality to the giant’s burden, as well as hints of a previous relationship with a kid before Sophie (that didn’t work out). Immortal beings can’t exactly keep their friends around forever. The book notes the BFG’s oversized ears listening to ants whispering to each other or children breathing in their beds; but the film reveals the inherent downside of this superpower. Though BFG hears all the secret wonders of the world, he also hears the terrible stuff. His eyes grow wide when he recalls suffering and grief.
“The BFG” is inspiring, in its gentle way. If you’re a joker, smoker or midnight toker who feels not-good-enough or mediocre, the BFG is a giant who feels your pain. He does his best, but suspects himself slightly worthless. After befriending Sophie and the Queen of England (British etiquette requires her servers to dote on him politely at the palace, despite his monstrous size), the BFG finds his place in the world.
— Anya Jaremko-Greenwold