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Literature / Danny, the Champion of the World

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A 1975 Roald Dahl book about Danny, a half-orphan living with his father, a man with a certain fondness for poaching pheasants, in a caravan next to his father's petrol station/garage on a rather desirable plot in the English countryside. Mr. Hazell, the rich land-owner from whose land pheasants are poached, is less than amused by this hobby and attempts to thwart Danny's efforts.

Danny, however, comes up with an Evil Plan. All very sweet and lovely, unless you're a pheasant. (Though even then, it has to beat the fate Hazell had in mind for them....)

There is, of course, a film; a rather sweet one from 1989 starring Jeremy Irons and his son Samuel as the father and son, and Robbie Coltrane as Mr. Hazell.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Dahl wrote an earlier short story, simply titled The Champion of the World, which has a pair of adult protagonists and covers the events from the inception of the sleeping pill method to the pheasants awaking in the baby carriage. The book changes the story to one about a boy and his father and expands the plot, while featuring most of the same names and details.
  • Amusing Injuries: Played for Black Comedy. Danny's father describes gunshot wounds in rather humorous ways, while Danny himself is too horrified to laugh.
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle: Dahl, despite his apparent dislike for putting morals in children's books, delivers a very direct example of this trope at the end of the book:
    A MESSAGE to children Who Have Read This Book. When you grow up and have children of your own, do please remember something important: A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves, is a parent who is SPARKY.
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  • Arcadia: The pleasant rural environment where it all takes place, spoiled only by this rather nasty Hazell character.
  • Asshole Victim: Good thing Hazell's such a jerk, or the fact that our hero is a poacher would be a lot more problematic.
  • Author Appeal: Roald Dahl loves childhood nostalgia, and he loves Food Porn.
  • Based on a True Story: Danny's caning by Captain Lancaster is closely based on Dahl's own experiences, as anyone who's read his autobiography Boy will immediately recognise.
  • Billions of Buttons: When discussing which electric oven to buy (perhaps one of the more advanced pieces of equipment in their filling station), Danny's father comments that one of them is so covered in dials and knobs, it looks like the cockpit of an aeroplane.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The great poaching expedition does not end up exactly as planned, with Danny and his father only able to keep two of the hundred and twenty pheasants they had originally bagged. However, Mr Hazell is greatly humiliated, albeit in a different way from expected.
  • The Caper: The latter half of the book is mostly about Danny's poaching idea and he and his dad's attempt to implement it.
  • Carload of Cool Kids: Just as Danny and his father are about to head off for the wood for their big job, a station-wagon pulls up at their filling-station, with a woman at the wheel, and about eight children in the back, all eating ice-creams; who pleads to be served with a few gallons, even though the filling-station is closed.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Danny points out early on that two hundred drugged raisins wouldn't net two hundred pheasants, since some of the greedier ones would eat ten or more. Danny and his father end up bagging a hundred and twenty pheasants out of the two hundred. After the sleeping pills have worn off and the pheasants have flown off, Doc Spencer checks where the pheasants were originally hidden and finds six that are still unresponsive, presumably having overdosed on the drug. The local vicar, Sergeant Samways, and Danny's father get two each.
  • Clucking Funny: Danny's grandfather was a master poacher, who often used his chickens to experiment new techniques, the idea being that if it'll work on a chicken, it'll work on a pheasant. Illustrator Quentin Blake has lots of fun drawing these experiments.
  • Corporal Punishment: Danny is caned on the hand by his Sadist Teacher. Mr Hazell also threatens Danny with this, which is one reason of many for the animosity between Mr Hazell and Danny's father.
    There was a leather riding crop on the seat beside him. Mr Hazell picked it up, and pointed it at me like a pistol. "If you make any dirty finger marks on my paintwork, I'll step right out of this car and give you a good hiding."
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Danny's father tells him about The BFG. It's interesting to see the illustration in the first edition, which shows the BFG as a much darker and more intimidating figure - though still ultimately a force for good - and contrast it with the now prevailing picture of the BFG derived from Quentin Blake and the Animated Adaptation.
  • Evil Is Petty: Danny's father just declined to serve Mr. Hazell petrol once after Hazell was dismissive and cruel towards Danny for no reason, and Mr. Hazell subsequently attempted to use various legal tricks to force the family off their land (although none of them work).
  • Everybody Knew Already: Danny is quite astonished when he finds out how many local notables (including, but not limited to, the village policeman, the doctor and The Vicar) are well aware of the pheasant poaching going on and either turning a blind eye or having a go at it themselves.
  • Extra Digits: Danny's father mentions that Mrs Snoddy is a sort of witch; and to prove it, she has seven toes on each foot.
  • Funetik Aksent: There's a policeman with a very rustic accent.
    Sergeant Samways: Drive on, Mr 'Azell, sir. Hignore them pheasants, Mr 'Azell, and haccelerate that hengine!
  • Giving Someone the Pointer Finger: Captain Lancaster, just before Danny's caning.
    Captain Lancaster's finger shot out like a bullet and pointed at my face.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "Kindly do not molest us."
  • Henpecked Husband: The speculated reason for the "glass of water" (it's really gin) one of Danny's better teachers is always drinking in the book. Despite discovering the truth, Danny and his best friend never spill the beans. He is a good teacher, after all.
  • Homemade Inventions: Danny's father is good at these (in a more grounded-in-reality way than some examples).
  • Humiliation Conga: Danny and his father plot to humiliate Mr Hazell by trying to poach all the pheasants from his wood the night before his great pheasant shooting party. In the end, the humiliation manifests in a very different way. As the pheasants doped with sleeping pills are delivered to their filling station, the sleeping pills start wearing off, and the pheasants fly around drunkenly, settling all over the road. Mr Hazell happens to pass in his Rolls-Royce, and is horrified to discover the pheasants on "this dirty little filling-station". The local policeman craftily suggests chasing the pheasants back on to Mr Hazell's land, but they end up all over his beautiful car. This is witnessed by a large crowd of passers-by. And, insult to injury, when the pheasants fully recover (with the exception of the six birds that had overdosed), they fly away from Mr Hazell's land, meaning that they still won't be part of the great shooting party that Mr Hazell had planned.
  • Injured Limb Episode: During one of the pheasant-poaching trips, Danny's dad ends up with a wonky leg.
  • Kick the Dog: A literal example when Mr Hazell visits Doc Spencer's surgery: instead of stepping over Doc Spencer's dog dozing on the doorstep, he kicks him out of the way with his riding boot. Doc Spencer gets his revenge by giving him an injection with the oldest, bluntest needle he can find.
  • Kid Has a Point: Danny comes up with the idea of dosing pheasants with sleeping pills to poach them, but he really has to persuade his father to listen; however, the title comes from this being Danny's great idea. Also, a lesser example, in the same scene:
    Danny: But two hundred raisins aren't going to get you two hundred pheasants.
    Danny's father: Why not?
    Danny: Because the greediest birds are going to gobble up about ten raisins each.
    Danny's father: You've got a point there.
  • Kids Driving Cars: When the nine-year-old Danny fears that his father has been injured while poaching, he takes a customer's car out to fetch him. Despite driving quite slowly, in complete terror, and being passed by a police car, he manages it without incident. Justified since he's helped out in his father's car repair shop for most of his life and knows them inside and out.
  • A Lighter Shade of Grey: This book introduces a bit more moral ambiguity than Dahl is commonly known for, but there is still clearly a good-guy side and a bad-guy side. What the good guys are doing is clearly not remotely legal, but they’re poor and hungry and the guy they do it to is kind of a tool so it's okay. This is lampshaded when Danny learns about keepers shooting (usually non-fatally) at poachers from behind:
    Danny: They can't do that! They could go to prison for shooting someone.
    Danny's father: (cheerfully) You could go to prison for poaching.
  • Missing Mom: Danny's mother died when he was four months old. One chapter looks at Danny's father talking about his wife's involvement in poaching, her brilliant sewing skills, and her plans to have two more children besides Danny. Danny reflects that he always finds it hard to know what to say when his mother comes up, but it's clear how much his father loved her.
  • Mr. Fixit: The father fixes cars at his petrol station and taught his son a fair bit.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Despite Danny's fantastic idea of putting the pheasants to sleep, they do not consider that the sleeping pills will wear off by the following morning.
  • No Name Given: Danny's surname is never revealed. In the 1989 film, it's 'Smith'.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Subverted by Danny's grandfather, who always tested out his pheasant poaching theories on chickens well before trying them in the field. Danny's father at one point laments that the time and material constraints on their own operation mean he doesn't have time to do a test run with the sleeping pills like his dad would have.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Danny's dad does NOT take kindly to Captain Lancaster caning his son. He is ready to go find Captain Lancaster and "beat the living daylights out of him", and only doesn't because Danny stops him.
    • In an earlier scene, Mr. Hazell stops by the station for service and threatens to whip Danny if he gets any smudges on his fancy car. Danny's father hands him his keys and quietly tells him that he will never receive service there again.
  • One Dose Fits All: Discussed. Danny is worried that they only have fifty sedative capsules for two hundred pheasants. His dad points out that pheasants are only a fraction of the size of a human, so even a quarter dose will be more than sufficient.
  • Parents as People: Danny's dad is clearly a kind and loving father, but he's got his share of flaws and he also poaches for fun, a hobby that could have potentially gotten him fatally shot which would have left Danny an orphan.
    You will learn as you get older, that no father is perfect. Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.
  • Sadist Teacher: Captain Lancaster is not a nice man. His appearance isn't terribly relevant to the plot (although it suggests he was based on one of Roald Dahl's own teachers), but adds a touch of colour to the story.
  • Shot in the Ass: An easy target on a fleeing poacher. Danny's grandfather had so many scars there it looked like he'd been snowed on.
  • Slice of Life: In contrast to Dahl’s other children’s stories with elements of whimsy and fantasy, Danny’s story lacks fantastical elements; the plot centers around him and his father poaching pheasants.
  • Sneakers of Sneaking: Danny's father tells him to take off his white sneakers and wear his black shoes instead for poaching in the woods, presumably because black shoes would be less noticeable in the twilight.
  • So Proud of You: Danny's father says this, during Danny's first experience of creeping through the wood avoiding keepers.
  • Spiteful Spit: The head keeper does this to Danny's father, after Danny's father's Deadpan Snarker reply.
    "What are we playing?" my father said. "Twenty Questions?"
    The keeper spat out a big gob of spit which went sailing through the air and landed close to my father's plaster foot. It looked like a little baby oyster lying there.
  • Talks Like a Simile: Danny's father uses similes a lot, especially when describing doped pheasants falling out of trees:
    They will be falling out of the trees like raindrops.
    They will be falling out of the trees like apples.
    We'll be picking them off the ground like pebbles.
  • Technically a Smile: Inverted. Danny's father never smiles with his mouth, but only with his eyes. This causes a lot of people to assume he is a very serious man, but he actually has a fantastic, deadpan sense of humour. Danny also notes that he prefers this style, as it's impossible to fake a smile with your eyes.
  • Thrill Seeker: Danny's father explains why he can't stop poaching, despite the inherent risks involved. It's not easy to catch a pheasant, it's just the hunter and the prey, but detests Hazell's organised shooting events as unnatural, wholesale slaughter, where the poor creatures stand no chance.
  • Too Unhappy to Be Hungry: Danny and his father are too afraid to eat their food because they plan to poach a whole lot of pheasants the next day. Downplayed though as they're not really unhappy, they're excited as well as afraid.
    Although the snakes were still wiggling in my stomach, I wouldn't have swapped places with the King of Arabia at that moment.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Raisins to pheasants, which was one of Danny's grandfather's greatest discoveries.
  • Unconventional Food Usage: Danny's father's friend mentions stopping a car by putting sugar in its gas tank.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: Taxi driver and veteran poacher Charlie Kinch advocates putting sugar in the gamekeepers' petrol tanks, to prevent them from spying on suspected poachers.
    We always made sure to give the keepers a little sugar before we went out on a poach. I'm surprised you didn't bother to do that, especially for a big job like this one.
  • We Have to Get the Bullet Out: A risk run by those who poach pheasants was to be "shot up" by the keepers, usually in the backside. Danny's father describes seeing his own father having pellets of shot dug out of his backside with a potato knife.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It is not clear what happens with Mr Hazell's great shooting party, although we are told that the pheasants fly in the opposite direction from the party; so presumably, there were not many left for the fancy folk to shoot.
  • You Have No Idea Who You're Dealing With: Mr Hazell. When Danny's father refuses to serve him, he uses his connections to try to run Danny and his father off their land. There is also this dialogue between him and Sergeant Samways:
    "All my finest birds are on this dirty little filling station when they ought to be in my woods getting ready for the shoot!" The words poured out of Mr Hazell's mouth like hot lava from an erupting volcano.
    "Am I correct," said Sergeant Samways, "am I habsolutely haccurate in thinking that today is the day of your great shootin' party, Mr 'Azell?"
    "That's the whole point!" cried Mr Hazell, stabbing his forefinger into the sergeant's chest as though he were punching a typewriter or an adding machine. "And if I don't get these birds back on my land quick sharp, some very important people are going to be extremely angry this morning. And I'll have you know that one of my guests is none other than your own boss, the Chief Constable of the County! So you had better do something about it fast, hadn't you, unless you want to lose those Sergeant's stripes of yours?"

The movie adds examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • Hazell is given an ulterior motive for attempting to run Danny and his father off their land: he wants to sell his vast land to a developer so they can build an entire new town.
    • The film includes an ongoing subplot of Danny being tormented by his teacher Captain Lancaster, expanded from a single event in the book.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Charles Tallon, the representative of the building corporation that is making a deal with Hazell to build a new town on his estate. This would likely make his company a lot of money, but it's clear from their meeting that he doesn't like Hazell any more than anyone else does, disapproves of what he's planning, and would prefer to have nothing to do with it. When he learns that Hazell lied about having bought Mr. Smith's land — a clear violation of their contract — and that Mr. Smith has no intention of selling, it's clearly with no small degree of satisfaction that he tells the man the deal's off, before cheerfully revealing the whole scheme to the locals and that the Smiths have "saved the day".
  • The Film of the Book: Naturally.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Danny and his father are given the surname Smith.
  • Period Piece: Set in 1955, while the novel was set in the present day of the mid-1970s.


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