A child’s perspective on the world is different from that of an adult’s. That’s a seemingly obvious statement, but it’s one that we may not always consciously consider. Not only does a child’s limited life experience affect the way they comprehend conflict and solutions, but their physical smallness gives them quite literally a different point of view on the things that surround them. The world is an almost incomprehensibly large place, intimidating and filled with wonder in equal measure. Like adults, kids need stories to help them process the world – to feel empowered and to find their place – but the stories kids tell are very different from the kinds of stories adults tell. We adults like structure and patterns and our stories reflect that. We divide our tales into acts and sequences and scenes, each with its own set of established rules. You can go out and buy a hundred or more different books that will tell you on exactly which page your story should hit certain beats in order to be considered ‘correct.’ Even the stories that violate these rules generally do so with an understanding of them. “You have to know the rules in order to break them,” or so the old saying goes, but when a kid creates a story of make believe, they are not breaking the rules out of a clever sense of subversion, they’re telling a story with the unspoiled innocence of someone who doesn’t even realize that there are supposed to be rules in the first place. They tell stories that are absurd and oddly paced with conflicts that are perhaps not clearly defined and resolutions that are maybe too abrupt.
Steven Spielberg is someone who most assuredly knows the ‘rules’ of storytelling. These days, it’s popular to forget this, but Spielberg is a master of moviemaking. He’s a man who seems to feel cinema all the way down to his bones. He can communicate through the language of film more effectively than most of us can in our native tongue. In a single wordless shot, he is able to convey incredibly complex ideas that effortlessly connect with even the most casual of moviegoers. Recognized or not, Spielberg is our greatest living filmmaker, and he knows how storytelling works, which makes it fascinating that The BFG’s story is told as if by a child.
Spielberg is no stranger to stories about childhood. After all, the film that is perhaps his most iconic is also one of our culture’s preeminent stories about growing up. E.T. is a coming of age story; it’s a story about Elliott coming to terms with his father’s departure, learning how to connect with others, and finding the sense of responsibility to take care of other people. It’s Spielberg reflecting on his own childhood, pouring details of his own life into the margins and examining how these things informed the person he became as an adult.
There are a lot of parallels you can draw between E.T. and The BFG – they’re both stories about lonely children finding a friend from a strange and distant world – but what separates The BFG from E.T. (or The Iron Giant or any number of other films that followed in Spielberg’s footsteps) is that The BFG isn’t a coming of age story. It’s not a story about learning to become an adult, it’s a story of wistful admiration for the fleeting beauty of being a child.
When we meet Sophie, we’re given very little context to understand her place in the world. We are denied any details about her life in the orphanage, about the way she interacts with the other children, how she is treated by its director. For anyone looking to ‘punch-up’ this script, this would be a major sticking point. After all, the rules tell us that you should know as much about your character and their place in the world as possible before jumping into the main arc of their adventure. It’s the reason why we spend so much time with Dorothy in Kansas before we get to Oz. Or, perhaps more aptly, why we see so much of Elliott’s mundane suburban life before he meets E.T. And yet, for all that you gain in this more traditional approach, in some cases that extra context world might actually give us more information than the character themselves has. Sophie doesn’t have this broader perspective of the world. She doesn’t know what life outside of the orphanage is like, she has nothing to contrast it with. Is she being mistreated? Does her relationship with the other children differ from the way children interact outside the orphanage? How would she know? All she knows is that she is lonely, and in turn, that’s all we get to know about her – at least at the start. In fact, by denying us the opportunity to see her interact with anyone else in the orphanage, the film only highlights her loneliness and isolation. She’s all alone in this massive, dark orphanage, wide awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. Even cinematically her smallness is emphasized by dramatic vertical lines that dominate almost every shot of these opening scenes. As Sophie lays in bed, she is but a minuscule speck amid rows of beds and long shadows cast by street lamps seeming to stretch on into infinity.
In fact, just in terms of the way the film is framed, Sophie actually appears smaller in these first few scenes than she does at any other point during the rest of the film. Even after the BFG whisks her away to giant country, where she is comparatively the size of a pocket watch, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński shoot her at a human scale, emphasizing the bigness of the objects that surround her rather than her own smallness. She’s not small, everything else is big. For Sophie, even in this new, massive world, she’s never felt more empowered. This is an exciting, amazing adventure for her, and she immediately begins asserting her authority. The BFG, physically intimidating as he may be, is meek and timid, allowing Sophie to take charge of her situation. Even though, logically, she should be powerless, she steps forward and asserts in no uncertain terms that she is the hero of this story.
This is how kids play pretend. The limitations they have in the real world are of no consequence as they take on dragons, fight super villains, or battle space aliens. It would have been easy, and perhaps even effective, for Spielberg to pull from the same bag of tricks he used on Close Encounters and E.T. – using the language of horror as a prelude to something joyful and filled with wonder – but he doesn’t do that here. Instead, even as Sophie is being kidnapped by a massive monster in the middle of the night, it’s played to elicit excitement and wonder. Horror relies on the protagonist being disempowered, rendered helpless in the face of some unknowable force, but again, Sophie is never helpless. In fact, Sophie even has control over her own kidnapping, willfully disregarding the rules as she simultaneously quotes them out loud. In a way, it’s a statement of intent for the film itself.
Lest you think this is all accidental, as if the master of tone himself doesn’t know how to handle the opening of his film, this method of undermining danger by transforming it into play goes on to define his approach to the entire film. When the other giants awaken as Sophie and the BFG are sneaking off to go dream catching, even though Sophie is in grave danger of either being discovered or being squashed, Sophie is able to literally steer the conflict. She turns the wheel of the car one of the giants is using as substitute roller skates, causing him to veer off course and bang his crotch on another giant’s head. Sophie not only escapes danger, but she disempowers it and makes it funny.
In fact, the most ‘real’ danger that Sophie is ever in is when she is forced to return to the orphanage. Ripped away from her world of make believe, she climbs to the edge of her balcony and threatens to jump, only for the BFG to arrive and save her. The world is a cruel, cold, and dangerous place, and if you try to force a child to grow up too quickly, it can lead to devastating results. For Sophie, a world where she might be eaten by giants is far better than one in which she is no longer able to dream.
It’s our capacity to dream, this film argues, that defines childhood. To invent vast, fantastic worlds of pretend, and live in them far from the anguishes of ordinary life. Sophie, a child without a parents, without a home, was forced to grow up quicker than most, and has in turn lost the ability to dream (she’s an insomniac, staying awake long past the time when her peers have already slipped away into dreams). It’s only after she meets the BFG – a man who captures the raw elements of dreams, crafts them into stories, and then delivers them to children – that she’s able to regain this essential element of childhood. And these dreams needn’t be realistic or structurally sound as long as they capture a sense of wonder and empower the dreamer to feel as though they have an important place in the world. As absurd and silly and unconventional as Sophie’s final solution to the giant problem is, it makes perfect sense from the perspective of a child.
In our adult lives, we often feel like we have little to no control over the state of the world. These decisions are made by politicians and world leaders far away while none of us are allowed to be in the room where it happens. But when Sophie needs help to end the giants’ murderous rampage, she doesn’t think twice about taking her problem directly to the Queen of England. Logically this feels like a weird left turn, some have even accused it of being a sort of deus ex machina, but if you’re paying close attention, the film sets up this solution way in advance. When the BFG takes Sophie along as he delivers dreams to sleeping children, he allows Sophie to witness one of the dreams playing out. It’s a dream in which a young boy receives a phone call from the President of the United States, the President asking the boy for help with an urgent matter. It’s the ultimate sense of empowerment: a child being so important that one of the most powerful people in the world turns to them for help. And that’s exactly what happens for Sophie. The Queen can’t solve this problem on her own because she doesn’t even know the problem’s cause. She needs Sophie to not only inform her of the problem, but also to help plan the strategy for its solution. The entirety of British nobility finds itself at the beck and call of a nine-year-old girl and her gigantic best friend.
Even as the resolution to this conflict plays out somewhat abruptly – the British forces are able to capture and relocate the giants without much of a fight – it’s totally in keeping with this idea of the whole story being analogous to playing pretend. For kids, it’s not the resolution of the story that matters so much as it is the actual act of participating in the telling. Not only that, but the idea of the journey being more important than the destination strikes at the very heart of what the film is trying to say.
On the whole, this film is a very faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s original book, so much so, that I’ve even seen some dismiss Spielberg’s role in the making of the film. “Everything this film says,” they argue, “comes straight from Dahl.” But there is a difference – a difference that starts out so small as to be almost imperceptible, but one that grows over the course of the film to ultimately define its entire thematic purpose. The zany irreverence of Dahl’s original story is toned down somewhat, and in its place is a subtle undercurrent of melancholy. Even as Sophie has this grand, fantastical adventure, there’s a sense of lingering sadness that is tied to the character of the BFG. He’s an eternal being who has shaped the dreams of countless children, who wants nothing more than to have a friend, but whose friend will inevitably outgrow him. Where Roald Dahl ends his story with Sophie and the BFG living as next-door neighbors, Spielberg’s film sees Sophie finding a home in the real world as the BFG returns, alone, to giant country where he listens from afar to the secret whisperings of the world. The BFG has the power to shape childhoods and change lives, but as children age into adulthood, they begin to forget the magic that the BFG brought to them. There’s a magic to childhood that adults often dismiss or diminish. The unspoiled innocence of make believe is something to be cherished, but instead, we try to rush children into become little adults.
Before he leaves her life, the BFG hands Sophie a dream, bottled up in a jar. The jar is labeled ‘Sophie’s Perfect Dream’ and the BFG describes it as a dream of growing up, of having a family, of making a mark on the world of adults. It’s a beautiful dream, a meaningful, powerful dream, but it’s one the BFG encourages Sophie not to open just yet. The BFG celebrates the fleeting beauty of being a child, knowing that while maturing to adulthood is an important, meaningful adventure all on its own, it’s not something that should be rushed. Much like a story told by a child, The BFG is silly, oddly paced, occasionally juvenile, and totally ridiculous, but it’s also beautiful, touching, and profoundly meaningful. As adults, we dismiss the perspective of children. They’re young and foolish and uneducated. We also, in recent years, have come to dismiss Spielberg. He’s schmaltzy and sentimental and past his prime. But in both cases, these assertions only serve to close us off from some of the most beautiful parts of human life, and some of the most important films of the past two decades. For all its silliness, The BFG is a wonderful, remarkable film with a whole lot to say. It’s just a shame that nobody’s listening.