October 5, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco
As the leaves start to fall and a cool chill finds its way to campus, I’ve been more than eager to embrace the fall season. For me, this means turning to fall film favorites: “Jennifer’s Body,” “Dead Poets Society,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and, of course, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” I recently learned that, while adapting Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, filmmaker Wes Anderson stayed in the late writer’s original home.
Here, he gained insight into Dahl’s creative process and picking up on some of his own character quirks that helped him bring the quick-witted fox to the silver screen. Now, nearly 15 years and five films later, Anderson has again adapted Dahl’s original work — this time into four short films released last week on Netflix.
The most substantial of this series, and the first to be released, is “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” This 40-minute short tells the story of a wealthy man who attempts to learn a new meditation technique, hoping to gain the ability to see through playing cards (and, therefore, win blackjack every time).
As well as the troupe of actors who star in each short, the opening minutes of this film introduce Dahl (Ralph Fiennes) as a character himself. It becomes clear here that Anderson holds a sense of reverence for Dahl, showcasing his meticulous and eclectic writing practices through the decoration of his so-called “writing hut” and the idiosyncrasies of the character’s portrayal.
This respect for Dahl’s craft is carried throughout the short film and is particularly evident in the unique mode of storytelling seen in each of these shorts. In the writing of these films, Anderson rarely strays from Dahl’s original words, utilizing a narrator and strict character roles to remain closely aligned with the source material. Thus, Anderson’s signature cinematographic style and scene compositions become visual accompaniments to Dahl’s classic tales, rather than modes of retelling these stories.
“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” may take viewers a beat to get used to, especially if one anticipates a typical Anderson-esque narrative. This story is held together by the fast-paced, never-stuttering narration that bounces between characters, leaving little room for dialogue.
The film throws a lot at the audience, and it requires active viewership to keep up with the rapid dictation and ever-changing visuals. Clearly playing with the nature of the narrative as a short story, Anderson’s storytelling technique seems to encourage audience participation. The narrator makes eye contact and even directly addresses the viewer at points, dramatically breaking the fourth wall in a way that feels jarring – even for long-time fans of Anderson’s work. On top of this, the transitions and effects are always practical, giving the film a theatrical feel that stretches the boundaries of traditional worldbuilding.
The story-within-a-story that makes up “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is especially suited to Anderson’s abilities as a filmmaker, and the mechanics within this short film evoke the structure of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a film that cemented Anderson’s auteur status.
The other three shorts ring in at around 17 minutes each, and each take on a much darker tone than the first. “The Swan” provides less visual information and leans heavily on Dahl’s storytelling, telling the story of poor Peter Watson as two sadistic child bullies have their way with him.
Intercut with shots of Fiennes as Dahl (a through line in this series), this film forces viewers to ponder just how much a person can take. With the final credits, before viewers have let out a final breath, yellow-printed title cards provide contextualizing information about the short story, something that signifies the end of each short; “This one was inspired by a true story… somehow.”
“The Rat Catcher” is an equally unsettling tale, one that starts to make the audience a character in the story. When a small town calls upon a mysterious man to solve their rat problem in this film, his methods start to cause alarm and blur the line between predator and prey. The portrayal of the animals in this short is of particular interest and seems to engage the imagination of the viewer while maintaining control – not once did I know where this was going next.
The final installment, “Poison,” is (I would argue) the weakest of the collection. Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, who we last saw in “Henry Sugar,” this story follows what happens after a venomous snake finds its way onto a resting man’s chest and falls asleep. A relatively straight-forward tale, the majority of this film takes place in a single room, using rising tensions to build suspense. While the twist in this story didn’t hit home for me, it is a perfect example of both Anderson and Dahl’s ability to build strong characters.
Each person is certainly going to have a favorite Anderson-Dahl collaboration, and I encourage viewers to watch beyond “The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar” and delve further into this cleverly contrived universe. This series of shorts is unlike any other I’ve seen and (once I got over the initial adjustment period) I was pleasantly surprised – and I think you might be, too.