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19 August 2016updated 04 Oct 2023 10:04am

From Babe to the BFG: how children’s stories promote vegetarianism

The story of a strange old man who wants to do nothing more than grow tomatoes in peace is just one in a long line of kids’ films with vegetarian messages at their centre

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Roald Dahl’s The BFG is a children’s classic we all know and love – but what is it about? A child who escapes a miserable orphanage and finds a friend? A magical story explaining where the dreams we experience each night come from? Monarchist propaganda that insists only the Queen and the army can save us from monsters lurking over the horizon?

One element of the Big Friendly Giant’s story I had almost forgotten, and that Steven Speilberg’s new adaption reminded me of, was how concerned The BFG is with what we eat. Like so many of Dahl’s stories, it is stuffed to the brim with meals delicious and disgusting: slimy snozzcumbers, fizzing frobscottle, a twelve foot-high table groaning under the weight of eight eggs, twelve sausages, sixteen rashers of bacon and a heap of fried potatoes. It’s also concerned with what we don’t eat: the BFG himself, unlike The Fleshlumpeater, The Bonecruncher, The Manhugger, The Childchewer, The Meatdripper, The Gizzardgulper, The Maidmasher, The Bloodbottler, and The Butcher Boy, won’t eat children.

In fact, it’s not that the BFG, nicknamed “Runt” by the other giants, won’t eat kids – he doesn’t like the idea of eating meat at all. “I is not understanding human beans at all,” he says to Sophie in Dahl’s original story. “You is a human bean and you is saying it is grizzling and horrigust for giants to be eating human beans.” She does.

“I think it’s rotten that those foul giants should go off every night to eat humans. Humans have never done them any harm.”

“That is what the little piggy-wig is saying every day,” the BFG answered. “He is saying, ‘I has never done any harm to the human bean so why should he be eating me?’”

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“Oh dear,” Sophie said.

“The human beans is making rules to suit themselves,” the BFG went on. “But the rules they is making do not suit the little piggy-wiggies.”

The happy ending in Spielberg’s film comes when the disposal of the other giants allows the BFG to be left alone in Giant Country, transforming it into one enormous allotment and growing a wide variety of vegetables.

It’s not the first kids’ film to seemingly encourage concern for little piggly-wiggies. Perhaps the most famous instance is 1995’s Babe (based on Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig), which followed the story of another runt, a little pig bred for meat won by a farmer at a country fair. Babe believes that lucky pigs escape the cruel and sunless world of pig farms by escaping to Pig Paradise – a place so wonderful no pig had ever wanted to come back. That is, until the farm’s cat tells him differently:

All right, for your own sake, I’ll be blunt. Why do the Bosses keep ducks? To eat them. So why do the Bosses keep a pig? The fact is that animals that don’t seem to have a purpose really do have a purpose. The Bosses have to eat. It’s probably the most noble purpose of all, when you come to think about it.

Babe is horrified, and proves his worth as a sheep-pig to avoid such a fate.

James Cromwell, who played the film’s kindly farmer, was so moved by the animals on set that he became a hardcore vegan after some years as a casual vegetarian. After the film’s release, the Vegetarian Times reported that sales of pork had significantly dropped.

In an academic paper, Nathan Nobis wrote that the film caused a wave of young female vegetarians sometimes referred to as “the Babe effect”, and tracked down some of the Babe vegetarians themselves. One, Jessica, recalled “Though only eight years old, I’d decided never again to eat another animal,” while another, Megan, explained:

Just as babe the pig did not want to be a ‘pig’, but a sheepherder… this made me think that animals are forced into their roles as food, and only food. Babe the movie was the epitome of connecting at an emotional level to animals; if an animal could even just want to live, [that] was enough for me not to be responsible for their murder.

E B White’s Charlotte’s Web has Wilbur, an adorable pig to rival Babe in cuteness, who is also desperately trying to avoid the chop. The story was inspired by a real pig in White’s life, who was the subject of his now famous essay, “The Death of a Pig”, in which he writes: “The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig. He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.” There are many accounts (again, mostly by and about women) of Charlotte’s Web sparking a decision to turn vegetarian, even if White himself remained a pig farmer until his death.

These questions expand far beyond pig-centric literature. Doctor Dolittle still inspires discussions on the ethics of eating meat years later. The release of 2000’s Chicken Run, which follows hens desperate to escape their fate as chicken pot pies, was met with speculation from the press about the impact it would have on the sales of sales of poultry. Both 2003’s Finding Nemo and 2004’s Shark Tale have vegetarian sharks: Finding Nemo’s Marlin and Dory walk in on a meeting of sharks pledging – AA-style – that “fish are friends, not food”, and Shark Tale’s Lenny refuses to eat fish like the rest of his family. Of course, more generally, animal rights themes abound in children’s movies: classics like Bambi, 101 Dalmatians, Madagascar, Dumbo, and The Fox and the Hound all suggest we should be kinder to animals (and each other).

So while the story of a strange old giant who wants to do nothing more than grow tomatoes in peace might seem like an unusual 2016 summer blockbuster, it’s just one in a long line of kids’ films with vegetarian messages at their centre.

Now listen to a review of The BFG on SRSLY, the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast:

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