Netflix’s Roald Dahl universe would be a golden ticket to despair | Stuart Heritage

A glitzy franchise in which Matilda, the BFG and Willy Wonka all star threatens Dahl’s legacy and Netflix’s reputation

At this stage, it is abundantly clear that not everyone can pull off a shared universe. Marvel’s success has been followed up by a flurry of awkward misfires. The DC Extended Universe culminated in two versions of the same terrible Justice League movie. Universal’s Dark Universe consisted of one bad Mummy film and the least comfortable photoshoot in living memory. Star Wars is floundering. Even Sony’s Spider-Man universe, which shares a chunk of its DNA with Marvel, is almost guaranteed to take a knock when its Jared Leto vampire film comes out next year.

The shared universe is a very, very hard thing to make a success of. And that’s why Netflix’s splashy announcement that it has snapped up Roald Dahl’s entire catalogue should give you pause for thought.

The deal, reported to be worth half a billion pounds, seems like a no-brainer on the part of the Dahl estate. The author’s catalogue is thought to bring in about £26m a year, so the prospect of getting two decades of cash in one fell swoop – and all the actual work taken out of their hands – must have felt like a gift. And, at least initially, Taika Waititi’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory series and Working Title’s adaptation of the Matilda musical promise good things from the deal.

The worrying part, however, comes further down Netflix’s acquisition statement: “These projects opened our eyes to a much more ambitious venture – the creation of a unique universe across animated and live action films and TV, publishing, games, immersive experiences, live theatre, consumer products and more.”

A shared Dahl universe. A Dahliverse, if you will. A universe where the BFG and Willy Wonka team up to take down the Twits. A universe where George’s Marvellous Medicine is genetically fused to James’s giant peach so that Fantastic Mr Fox can squash the Witches. It sounds like a nightmare.

With the exception of his unforgivable views about Jewish people, Roald Dahl knew what he was doing. If he wanted to combine characters from his stories into a new book, he would have done it. It wasn’t like he prized his artistry over a quick buck – he once recommended that Kingsley Amis quickly churn out a kid’s book because “that’s where the money is: the little bastards’d swallow it” – so if he had a sniff that Danny the Champion of the World in the Great Glass Elevator would shift copies, he would have written it. But he didn’t, because it sounds like an incredibly bad idea.

Worse, there’s a very good chance that it would dilute what was great about Dahl’s books: almost without exception, they were concise and self-contained, and the best parts were his interjections as an author. Writers are told “show, don’t tell”, but Dahl would always much rather tell; wading into stories to tell us in no uncertain terms that the baddies were baddies. It’s a trick that works extremely well in small quantities, but has the potential to be an almighty mess if stories and characters start crashing into each other.

A couple of years ago, Netflix bought the rights to Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, a slight story with a vocabulary of just 50 words. The resulting series was 13 episodes long, and took such liberties with the source material that it deserves to be buried in an unmarked grave. And it came just 15 years after Mike Myers turned The Cat in the Hat into a childhood-destroying orgy of ugliness and dick jokes. Meanwhile, in the 1970s and 1980s, Seuss himself wrote a series of animated television specials – some of which veered towards the shared universe end of the spectrum – and they were far more creatively successful. There is a lot to be said about retaining the voice of the creator in these matters.

Basically, the Dahliverse has a long, hard road ahead. Pulling it off will take care and thought and backbreaking effort. Simply slapping his name on a load of badly thought-out rubbish will be bad for Netflix in the short term and ruinous for Dahl’s legacy in the long term. That said, Netflix, if you want to buy the rights to my children’s books for millions of pounds so that you can slap my name on loads of badly thought-out rubbish, please do get in touch. I’m very cheap.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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