“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” -Netflix’s acquisition of Roald Dahl.

image by Jade87 from Pixabay

On the 22nd of September, Netflix announced that they would be teaming up with the Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC) to bring some of the most cherished, unique and peculiar stories to a whole new audience of future fans in new and creative ways.

After acquiring the Welsh author’s entire catalogue in a deal reportedly upwards of £500million, Netflix will be free to create a whole new animated universe packed full of characters from stories such as Matilda, The BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and more.

The streaming giant has revealed their intention to create a Roald Dahl universe spanning across both animated and live action films, tv, games and more.

On the surface this seems like fantastic news. Millions of kids around the world will fall in love with this collection of bizarre stories all over again in this new expansive universe. The thing is, I can’t help but feel there’s something unsettling about it.

Think about it, an entire collection of one individual’s work consisting of original stories, characters and settings, purchased by one company and reinvented under their dauntingly large umbrella, where have we seen this before? Well if you’re thinking that today, there’s quite a list of potential answers to that question, you’d be right, and that’s the point.

I’ll be the first to admit, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was an astronomical success. In 2009 Disney bought Marvel Entertainment and proceeded to produce a vast sprawling universe based on the original comics by Stan Lee. The universe has become a non-stop conveyor belt, churning out some of the most highly anticipated blockbusters year after year. With three of its instalments ranking among the 10 highest grossing films of all time, I doubt anybody could argue that this move didn’t work out.

Just as they did with Marvel, when Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, they became the owners of Star Wars, one of the most iconic movie franchises of all time. Lo and behold, they revealed the exact same game plan – expand, expand, expand. They immediately set the wheels in motion to produce new films and series to add to the Star Wars universe. This time however, Disney would have their work cut out for them. There aren’t many fan communities out there that are as passionate as the Star Wars fanbase. If you meddle with this cult classic and get it wrong, they’re unforgiving. So far in the Disney/Star Wars relationship, that’s partially been the case.

Disney’s sequel trilogy, which brought Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia back to our screens after more than thirty years, left a lot of people feeling quite dissatisfied (myself included) after its final instalment. One of the most legendary franchises to ever grace the big screen had shown chinks in the armour. On the other hand however, Disney’s The Mandalorian, has been a massive success and other upcoming Star Wars projects that Disney has in the pipeline are looking likely to follow suit. Namely The Book of Boba Fett, Ahsoka and most importantly, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Essentially, Disney is expanding on both the Marvel and Star Wars universes further than anyone could have previously imagined.

This is key to understanding Netflix’s acquisition of Roald Dahl. When we have the conversation of which streaming platforms to subscribe to, for households with young kids, Disney + wins every time. Even after the giants of Star Wars and Marvel, Disney still has plenty to offer. From all the Disney-Pixar classics like Toy Story and Monsters Inc, to box office hits like Pirates of the Caribbean, no one does family friendly better than Disney.

Essentially, the works of Roald Dahl is Netflix’s golden ticket to getting back in the game. Where they originally focused on the adult audience with gritty crime dramas and thrillers, the emergence of Disney + has forced Netflix’s hand. If they want to attract future long-term subscribers, then they have to aim young. To compete with Disney, they’re thinking they need family friendly content. So what’s out there that’s family friendly, very popular and has huge potential to be adapted or reinvented? Why the entire catalogue of Roald Dahl of course. Not only that though, Netflix is also developing new live-action adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis.

Amazon are in this game aswell. Since the launch of their streaming platform, Prime Video, their most highly anticipated project has without doubt been the long-awaited, multi-season television adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Originally announced in 2017, fans of the epic fantasy trilogy eagerly await the return to Middle Earth with the added excitement of catching a glimpse of Númenor and the elf-capital of Lindon for the first time.

This all sounds amazing. The reality is however, a shared universe is extremely difficult to pull off and it doesn’t suit every creation. So why force it? While the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a box-office sensation, it wasn’t perfect. The Star Wars sequel trilogy left just as many fans disappointed and frustrated as it did captivated and inspired. Then there’s the DC Universe, I don’t think even they know what’s really going on there. Besides of course, agreeing to release a sequel to Suicide Squad, which is actually just a complete remake of their failed previous effort and hope no one notices. A shared universe is a delicate, tricky endeavour. In contrast to George Lucas, Stan Lee and J.R.R Tolkien, I don’t imagine that Roald Dahl ever envisioned a world where the characters from each of his books would cross paths.

There’s also a larger, growing concern here other than whether or not these new ventures will be successful. My worry is that with every collection of work that’s purchased by another company and reinvented, eventually they’ll gradually all begin to look the same.

It’s not just the plotline of a story that gives it it’s personality. It’s the ideology and personality behind the creator which seeps into the work. Every time a collection of original work is reinvented it’s tailored to fit the image and ideology of its new owner. The tease of “fresh magic” in this statement from Luke Kelly, managing director of RDSC, and Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos indicates that this time it’ll be no different.

“As we bring these timeless tales to more audiences in new formats, we’re committed to maintaining their unique spirit and their universal themes of surprise and kindness, while also sprinkling some fresh magic into the mix.”

If all of the stories we know become rebranded by the same company, how long before we get bored of being told the same story in different ways? Like a supermarket aisle stacked full of rebranded products, is anything going to stand out?

Stories are what give life a sense of magic. It’s the ability to compare and contrast the unique creation of one individual to another that allows us to appreciate them all in their own right. Alternatively, if we’re headed for a future where all the stories we consume, the universes we enter to escape reality, are all cut from the same cloth, surely that’s a road to a lack of contrasting ideologies, innovation and originality. Is that something we really want? The trouble is however, it might be inevitable.

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Published by Rory Corbett

My take on the world and everything in it

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