Hearing the secret whisperings of the world

Editor Jon Sutton on the movie adaptation of The BFG.

Have you ever wondered why the titular Big Friendly Giant of Roald Dahl’s story is so quick to snatch Sophie from her orphanage bed in the dead of night? And so dismissive of the idea of taking her back? Steven Spielberg’s dreamy adaptation plumps squarely for a fairly psychological explanation: loneliness. 

Actor Mark Rylance, whose motion-capture performance looms suitably large over this film, has said that ‘The heart of the story is a love story between two very lonely people’. Sophie is lonely because she’s pottering around an orphanage at three in the morning; the BFG is lonely because he lives amongst giant child-killing bullies, while he eats only snozzcumbers.

It’s a theme of the book as well, but the film adds a ‘tragic backstory’ which interestingly traces a path from loneliness, through the actions it compels, to guilt and the search for redemption. This isn’t the BFG’s first child abduction, and the other one didn’t pan out well. (Unless I’m much mistaken, there was an interesting social commentary on the sheltered lives of Royal children in there.) The BFG does right by these children, but there’s a suggestion that even he acknowledges this is all a bit weird, and although directed at the other giants there’s extra poignancy to the line ‘look at what you has done, and there be no forgiveness’. 

The film is a visual treat, absolutely nailing the depiction of the BFG’s movement and his manipulation of dreams. And there are plenty of fart jokes for the younger kids. But if you’re of a psychological bent, it might be this ‘love story of the lonely’ that really grabs you. With an ageing population, we hear quite a lot about loneliness in older people; at the other end of the lifespan, consideration of loneliness tends to be a little lost in amongst childhood bullying and rejection. Indeed, at one time psychologists argued that children couldn’t really be lonely until they reached adolescence. I hope that the film prompts a few psychologists to consider the causes and consequences of loneliness in childhood.

That’s not to say that ‘being alone’ is necessarily a bad thing. Sherry Turkle says that our children will always be lonely unless we can teach them how to be alone. And renowned loneliness expert John Cacioppo points to the civilising influence of loneliness. But the film certainly left me thinking of children in anything approaching Sophie’s situation – bringing to mind Harry Harlow on privation, or Michael Rutter’s work with Romanian orphans – and longing for all children to have a friend like the BFG. ‘When I am lonely I talk to him and he actually hears me’, Sophie says with some surprise, ‘because BFG hears all the secret whisperings of the world.’

- The BFG is on general release. 

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We saw this film and I was not impressed. Just because Sophie is an orphan doesn't give a lonely giant, friendly or otherwise, carte blanche to kidnap her, whatever he feels he can offer her. Kidnapping is a criminal offence, made worse because the child is lacking parental protection, and so the story's foundation rests on very shaky ground. Big old man with victim complex snatches child and then helps her to break into Buckingham Palace and give the Queen an attack of flatulence.

The film was expertly done, as are all Spielberg's offerings, but this one left a nasty taste in the mouth that no cute special effects could disguise. Dahl's miserable ideas are not my idea of good entertainment and I certainly don't recommend anyone seeing it.