Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl: A match made in picture-book heaven - Hindustan Times
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Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl: A match made in picture-book heaven

Dec 05, 2023 09:36 PM IST

From The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar to The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison, a look at how Anderson handles four of Dahl’s stories on Netflix

Hidden away in the garden of Gipsy House in Buckinghamshire was a cosy little shed where Roald Dahl penned some of his most phizz-whizzing stories. For Dahl, as for any writer, his daily workspace was a sacred place of creative incubation, a safe refuge from the external world that allowed him to be alone with his many internal ones. This consecrated writing shed and all the elements that were slaves to Dahl’s imagination are recreated to forensic perfection by Wes Anderson in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the first of four parts in a Netflix anthology based on the British author’s lesser-known short stories. We meet Dahl himself, played by Ralph Fiennes, dressed in a beige cardigan, seated in his green armchair, with supplies of cigarettes, coffee, chocolates topped up, brushing away the eraser shavings on his wooden lap desk, and sharpening six pencils so he can begin writing his next story. Seeing a museum-grade diorama of where Dahl gobblefunked with words feels the closest to making a pilgrimage to where stories like Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG were born.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (Netflix) PREMIUM
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (Netflix)

Hidden away in the garden of Gipsy House in Buckinghamshire was a cosy little shed where Roald Dahl penned some of his most phizz-whizzing stories. For Dahl, as for any writer, his daily workspace was a sacred place of creative incubation, a safe refuge from the external world that allowed him to be alone with his many internal ones. This consecrated writing shed and all the elements that were slaves to Dahl’s imagination are recreated to forensic perfection by Wes Anderson in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the first of four parts in a Netflix anthology based on the British author’s lesser-known short stories. We meet Dahl himself, played by Ralph Fiennes, dressed in a beige cardigan, seated in his green armchair, with supplies of cigarettes, coffee, chocolates topped up, brushing away the eraser shavings on his wooden lap desk, and sharpening six pencils so he can begin writing his next story. Seeing a museum-grade diorama of where Dahl gobblefunked with words feels the closest to making a pilgrimage to where stories like Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG were born.

Roald Dahl (Jürgen Wieshoff / Wikimedia Commons)
Roald Dahl (Jürgen Wieshoff / Wikimedia Commons)

As the title of the short film spells out, the story being told here though is of Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), a wealthy but bored man living in a bubble of privilege. “Men like Henry Sugar can be found drifting like seaweed all over the world,” says Dahl, “They’re not particularly bad men. But they’re not good men either. They’re simply part of the decoration.” The camera slides from the set of Gipsy House to that of a country mansion, where Fiennes’s Dahl practically passes the narrator baton to Cumberbatch’s Henry. Stuck indoors on a rainy day, Henry stumbles upon the handwritten journal of ZZ Chatterjee (Dev Patel), a doctor from pre-Independence Calcutta who chronicles the story of Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), a circus performer who in turn chronicles the story of how he met a Great Yogi who helped him master the ability to see without the use of his eyes. Henry, ever the schemer, sees Imdad’s ability as a way to cheat at cards and get richer. Until the resulting feelings of emptiness urge him towards a redemptive path of selflessness.

Across the five levels of this story, each with its own teller/reteller, the viewer is ferried from a country mansion to a Calcutta hospital to a travelling circus to the depths of a jungle. Sets are wheeled in and out of frame like drapery being changed. Stagehands scamper in and out to hand props and help with costume changes and make-up. Actors read out Dahl’s text verbatim — right down to “I said”s and “He replied”s — into the camera with a studied affectlessness. Few players among the repertory company take on multiple roles within the same film. The choice to render Dahl’s imagination as a theatrical frame is a deliberate one: To replicate the feeling of a story taking shape in the mind’s eye. The near-breathless narration and all the moving parts capture the excitable frenzy of a mind at full gallop. With one person’s story contained inside the voice of another, the nesting doll structure presents Anderson a framework to underline the personal element of each retelling. Which is to say: Storytellers project a bit of themselves in the stories they tell of others.

“The stories within the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) expose the dark side of nostalgia and pains of the past.” (Film still)
“The stories within the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) expose the dark side of nostalgia and pains of the past.” (Film still)

This is hardly the first time Anderson has been keen to reveal the framing device and make explicit the artifice of his fiction. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) opens with a shot of a novel of the same name being checked out from a library. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) begins at the premiere of a documentary of the same name. The stories within the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) expose the dark side of nostalgia and pains of the past. Asteroid City, from earlier this year, is a self-intoxicated foxtrot along the porous borders of reality and fiction, actor and character, that had many film critics exhausting a career’s worth of words to suffix “meta” and itching to understand the difference between self-reflexive and self-reflective. Never one to deny the fundamental artifice of his work, Anderson has started to pull back further in recent years. Right from the get-go, we are made aware that we are watching a film whose story-within-a-story exists in quotation marks. Calling attention to the seams doesn’t distance us from the emotions contained within Dahl’s stories, but enriches them in strange, paradoxical ways.

Pinned to the wall in Dahl’s shed was a quote from French Impressionist Edgar Degas — “Art is a lie to which one gives the accent of truth” — that boils down Anderson’s own approach towards filmmaking. The artifice, as employed by the filmmaker, is not a phantasmal shell blinding us to the truth, but a deliberate distortion compelling us to accept the lie for what it is and seek a deeper truth. The more Anderson affirms the artifice, the clearer the truth becomes. If art is but an attempt to find meaningful order in the chaos of reality, Anderson’s painstaking style is truer for what it ends up revealing than any painstaking attempt to render reality as it is. Cahiers du cinéma critic Luc Moullet said it best: “In art, there is only artifice. Let us therefore praise an artifice that is cultivated without remorse, which consequently acquires a greater sincerity rather than artifice masked by itself as by others under hypocritical pretexts. The true is as false as the false; only the archi-false becomes true.”

Reading Dahl’s stories as a child felt like being told the truth about a world run by adults. There was no sugar-coating. From a child’s point of view, adults can appear menacing and sometimes be cruel. Dahl understood wishful fantasies offered sanctuary from the unbridled terrors of being young and misunderstood. With Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison, Anderson takes some of the more unpleasant characters in Dahl’s fiction and meets them at eye-level in his pleasant picture-book worlds. This is of course the second time Anderson has tackled Dahl after 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, in which woodland critters mount a series of daring heists on three dastardly farmers. For Dahl, it was a fable about the struggle to survive in a greedy world. For Anderson, it was a fable about a father-son gulf, a midlife identity crisis, the pressure of growing up, and strained family dynamics — animated with his own brand of mischief, whimsy and existential angst.

If watching Anderson take Dahl’s tale and make it resolutely his own was a joy to behold the first time around, watching the new quartet of shorts is doubly so. For each proves Anderson’s vision pairs just as well with Dahl’s voice in live-action as it did in stop-motion. Seldom has a page-to-screen adaptation been so faithful to its author and peculiar to its director. Each of the shorts, as is taken for granted, features gorgeous set design, symmetrical compositions, and deadpan line delivery, all worked into a mode of conscious artificiality that can only be described with the name Wes Anderson as an adjective.

“The Rat Catcher is about a man who believes the only way to outsmart a rat is to think like one yourself” (Netflix)
“The Rat Catcher is about a man who believes the only way to outsmart a rat is to think like one yourself” (Netflix)

However, the formal rigour doesn’t suffocate the story or its characters in a hermetic box of wonders and terrors. It liberates them. The fluidity of theatre affords Anderson the means to navigate through the narrative levels with dexterous ease. The fluency of theatre lets actors savour the texture, flavour and odour of Dahl’s prose. Richard Ayoade’s narration in The Rat Catcher presents a quite literal case in point: “The word ‘rats’ came out of his mouth with a rich, fruity sound, as if he were gargling with melted butter.” The Rat Catcher is about a man (played again by Fiennes) who believes the only way to outsmart a rat is to think like one yourself. Two-thirds into the 17-minute short, a perspective shift first plays up the similarities between the two by syncing the rat catcher’s voice to a stop-motion animated rat. When this odious man readies himself to kill the rat with nothing but his “two long, sulphur-yellow teeth”, the rat appears a lot more human than the man who has made a career out of killing its kind. The delight he seems to take in killing rats feels all the more perverse. The language he employs recalls how Nazis dehumanised Jews by portraying them as vermin. The newspaperman (Ayoade) and the mechanic (Rupert Friend) watching on in horror, as the rat catcher puts on a repulsive show of strength, could be seen as all the bystanders to the escalating persecution. Dahl himself made no attempt at keeping his anti-Semitic sentiments a secret. “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” he told The New Statesman in 1983. “There’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” Casting Fiennes as both Dahl and the Rat Catcher is Anderson refusing to cordon off the writer from his complicated past and reckoning with his dark side.

Wes Anderson (John Rasimus / Wikimedia Commons)
Wes Anderson (John Rasimus / Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this year, Puffin Books had come under fire for its edits and rewrites of Dahl’s stories to make them more acceptable to modern readers. And rightly so. Following the world premiere of Henry Sugar at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, Anderson spoke out against such censorship, saying “no one who is not an author should be modifying somebody’s book.” But his four shorts do present an alternate approach to confront Dahl’s racism and controversial legacy. Instead of rewriting, he surveys the work from fresh angles and perspectives already present but not necessarily considered in the source material.

In The Swan, Dahl follows teen bullies Ernie and Raymond before gradually shifting the focus to their victim Peter Watson. Anderson reframes the story as an adult Peter (Friend) recollecting a harrowing episode from his childhood. While the adult Peter narrates, the episode plays out with the young, gentle, bird-loving Peter being tormented by two older schoolboys just outside the frame, like trauma carried from the past continuing to plague a survivor in the present. First, the sadistic teens tie poor Peter up and make him lie down on a railway track with a train approaching. Next, Ernie shoots a white swan, tears off its wings, straps them to Peter’s back, and orders him to leap from the top of a tree to see if he can fly like a swan — a symbol of innocence corrupted by unthinkable cruelty. That adult Peter is the one relating the story sets our minds at ease as to whether the young boy comes out the other side of the ordeal.

“Poison whisks us to British-occupied India — this time less a place of yogis with mystical abilities, more a site of colonials with venomous fangs.” (Netflix)
“Poison whisks us to British-occupied India — this time less a place of yogis with mystical abilities, more a site of colonials with venomous fangs.” (Netflix)

Like Henry Sugar, Poison whisks us to British-occupied India — this time less a place of yogis with mystical abilities, more a site of colonials with venomous fangs. As the narrator Timber Woods, Dev Patel takes us through the panicky-jittery tale of how an Englishman named Harry Pope (Cumberbatch) lay frozen and sweating in bed, convinced a deadly snake had crawled onto his stomach while asleep. Afraid the snake will bite him if he makes the tiniest movement, Harry instructs his friend Timber, quietly, to get Dr Ganderbai (Kingsley). On arriving, the doctor takes every diligent measure to ensure Harry isn’t bitten, only to find there is no snake. When he queries in jest if Harry was perhaps dreaming, Harry takes it as an insult and unleashes a racist tirade. The “civilised” white man thereby reveals his true colours. Dr Ganderbai leaves right away. Timber follows behind to apologise on Harry’s behalf.

Poison had been adapted twice before, once as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1958 and a second time as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected in 1980. On both occasions, Harry was portrayed as a man with a drinking problem and alcohol as the poison. Timber Woods was, as Dahl had imagined, a white man. With Patel playing the character, the poison that Harry spits at Dr Ganderbai has a much sharper sting of racial animus. At the end of Anderson’s short, the doctor drives away and Patel looks at the camera, at us, with a sadness, saying everything by not saying anything. The scene then cuts to Dahl in his writing shed, as if the actor were addressing the author himself and challenging the racism that poisoned his mind. The scripted interjections of Fiennes’s Dahl in each entry allows the actors — and the viewers through them — to face squarely the sometimes-offensive nature of the words. Anderson shows us the way forward lies not in censorship or cancellation, but in how Dahl’s words ring out in his own voice and the voices of others.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.

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