2016 marks the 100th birthday of Roald Dahl, one of the greatest children’s authors of the Twentieth Century. His popular stories and characters continue to enchant the lives of many readers (including myself) but there is one not-so-well-known story that has the claim of being one of Roald Dahl’s first piece of writing for children. It is called Gremlins and based off those of Second World War fame – mythical creatures that sabotaged military aircraft. The premise is that a Hurricane pilot by the name of Gus tames these gremlins and persuades them to help him return to flying after being wounded.
What has this got to do with Disney, you may ask? Well the finished story was forwarded to many people until it ended up across the desk of our favourite film and entertainment entrepreneur, Walt Disney. He liked the story so much that he wanted to turn it into a film.
Walt Disney and Roald Dahl (a pilot in the RAF) met in July of 1942 and talks began. First to illustrate the story for a magazine so Disney had the chance to establish and copyright his own artistic vision of the characters, and also be the only claimant to Dahl’s original story concept. However this was far from simple as neither Disney, his animation team, nor Dahl could agree on a universal design for the little creatures.
In one of the discussions, Dahl said that “If only I had been able to come down and talk with you [Disney] about them, I know I could have, at any rate, given you an accurate description of what they looked like.”
Essentially, he was displeased with Disney’s design.
Nonetheless, the contract with Disney was signed in the October of 1942, although there were a couple of stipulations that Disney had to abide by:
- any material written by Disney had to be signed off by Dahl and the British Air Ministry
- Disney had to keep the air attaché of the British Embassy advised from time to time of story development, so that they could essentially approve the final version of said motion picture.
- Disney would provide office space at the studio to accommodate a technical advisor who would represent the interests of the Air Ministry throughout production.
With the popularity for Gremlins growing in 1942, it made good business sense for Disney to pursue the production of the film, a feature they’d temporarily titled ‘Gremlin Lore.’ However, that didn’t stop Walt from having some reservations due to the above stipulations. In addition, the feature was new territory for Disney in many ways:
- It combined live action and animation on a grand scale
- It was set during war times – something audiences wanted to escape
- The mythical central character had a physical appearance that was widely contested
- It was already a challenge finding the right approach to the material without also having to constantly please the British government.
What truly came out of the production was much displeasure. Alongside the contract clause, constant changes made to the film (the LA/A hybrid became 100% animation and scaled down to a short), problems with the mythical background of Gremlins, and other studio productions, Walt Disney began to tire of the concept. Thus in December of 1943, he broke the news to Dahl that The Gremlins was to be scrapped. A shorter version of the story was still published in Cosmopolitan with Dahl writing under the pen name “Pegasus” and the book was published as a book by Walt Disney and Random House – the proceeds going to the RAF Benevolent Fund.
From everything I’ve read about this project, what surprised me is how long it took for Walt Disney to eventually shelve Gremlins. Walt Disney is famous for being a stubborn and determined man so it almost seems out of character for him to decide against making the film despite all the problems it created. At the end of the day, I think Walt Disney made the right decision, although it’s interesting to speculate what would have happened with the film had it gone through production and distribution.
Would it have been successful?
Would it have become a cult classic?
What impact would it have had on wartime audiences?
We are never going to know what would have come out of Gremlins but I certainly think it is something that Roald Dahl should be remembered for. There’s also the added bonus in that he walked away from this collaboration with fondness and happy memories, unlike other authors we know who have worked with Disney. And since Disney has recently released The BFG into cinemas, maybe it’s time to remember that the history between Roald Dahl and his works goes back to the time of Gremlins, before any of his more popular works were written.
As well as looking on the official Roald Dahl website, all the information regarding his collaboration with Disney can be found in Disney During World War II, a well-written and interesting book detailing Disney’s contribution to allied victory.
A simplified account of Gremlins can also be found at:
I don’t know if Gremlins is available but if anyone is interested in Disney During WWII, you can purchase it from:
Book Depository (free worldwide delivery)
What do all you guys think about the collaboration between Disney and Roald Dahl? Was Walt Disney right to scrap Gremlins? Let me know in the comments below.
That’s everything from me today so thanks for reading, and have a brazzle dazzle day!