Disney History: Roald Dahl’s “The Gremlins”

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Gremlins, when most people hear that word, they think of the demon characters from the 1984 film. That popular movie brought the word “gremlin” into wide use in the United States. However, traditional gremlins are quite different from those you see on screen. In fact, Walt Disney had plants to made a film about gremlins in the 1940s and I would argue that had that film been made, the 1984 Gremlins movie would not exist.

According to military folklore, a gremlin is a small creature that causes trouble, at least in the most basic sense of the word. More specifically, gremlins would wreak havoc on aircraft during wartime and were often discussed among pilots. Whenever something went awry on their plane, the pilots would blame these invisible creatures. One of these such pilots was Roald Dahl. Most people remember Roald Dahl as a writer of children’s literature and creator of such beloved characters as Willy Wonka and Matilda. However, most of his early writings focus almost exclusively on his experiences during the British war. As an air pilot, he dealt with gremlins extensively. Dahl’s first story for children is usually credited as “James and the Giant Peach”, published in 1961. In fact, his first story for children was titled “The Gremlins” and was published in 1943 with the help of Walt Disney.

Walt was fascinated with war, as evidenced from the numerous cartoons, shorts, and even a feature about this period that he produced at the studio. During the war years, Hollywood- and particularly the cartoon industry – needed to use this time to tell stories that were relevant, yet still entertaining. Disney did this extremely well by sending Donald Duck to war, and Warner Bros did the same with Bugs Bunny. The Gremlins was to be another chapter in these wartime tales but, sadly, this project never saw the light of day.

At the time Dahl wrote his story, he was working for the British embassy and was stationed in Washington. He published a shortened version of his story under the pen name “Pegasus” described as “a noted Gremlinologist”. This sample gave readers and Disney fans a small taste of what was to come on the big screen. Walt flew Roald Dahl from Washington to California and allowed him lots of input into the development of the film. 

One major problem, however, was that gremlins really weren’t Roald Dahl’s creation or his sole story to tell. Several people, including military men whom he had himself worked with, were upset by Dahl’s claims that this was his invention. In fact, two names he uses in his story “Fifinellas” and “Widgets”, were family names of Douglas Bisgood, who was a peer of Dahl’s during the war. These issues with the characters of the gremlins weren’t the ultimate reason that the film didn’t get made, but they certainly didn’t help.

Over the war years, Walt and his team developed a lot of artwork for this film. It was to be a mix of live-action and animation, similarly to other films Walt made during that era. There doesn’t seem to be one definitive reason why this film didn’t get made, except for the fact that the appeal for this kind of movie just wore out. People were tired of war films, or at least that is what Walt wrote to Roald in a 1943 letter. The work on “The Gremlins” wasn’t entirely in vain, however.

Despite never being seen on the big screen, The Gremlins has lived on in other forms. Of course, the biggest was the storybook that was published by Walt Disney Productions in 1943. At this point, it seemed the film was on track to be made due to the subtitle on the cover: “A Walt Disney Production”. It is fascinating to see such a drastic change in the development of the film in the year of 1943, between the publication of this book and the letter that Walt wrote to Dahl. The book itself was out of print for many years, but was finally republished in 2006, with a new introduction by Leonard Maltin, who helps set the context for this property as a whole. Unfortunately, this edition is now out of print as well.

In addition to the book, Gremlins have reappeared in other forms in recent years. They have made an appearance in the popular video game Epic Mickey. They have also been featured in a spinoff comic book series, Return of the Gremlins. A dream of mine would be to see this film get made at some point, as Disney still retains the rights and, with the help of the Roald Dahl estate, I could see it being a grand success. Sadly, this seems quite unlikely at this point. The book itself is somewhat unmemorable, and not nearly as interesting as Dahl’s later work.

This article only scratches the surface on the project between Walt Disney and Roald Dahl. In 2017, Disney historian Jim Korkis published an in-depth book titled Gremlin Trouble, which had been in the works since 1980. There are a great many other resources that are available as well and those interested in this lost film should check those out below. 

Bibliography:

Dahl, Roald. The Gremlins: the Lost Walt Disney Production. Dark Horse Books, 2006.

Howard, Kristine. “The Gremlins.” Roald Dahl Fans, www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-gremlins/.

Korkis, Jim. “The True Origin of Disney’s Gremlins.” MousePlanet, 2017, www.mouseplanet.com/11728/The_True_Origin_of_Disneys_Gremlins.

Maltin, Leonard, and Roald Dahl. “‘The Gremlins Got ‘Em: How Walt Disney and Roald Dahl Didn’t Get to Make a Movie Together.’” The Gremlins: the Lost Walt Disney Production, Dark Horse Books, 2006.

 

 

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