Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl - A Lesson in Adaptation


Charlie Craven (he/him) explores the wonderful world of Wes Anderson's adaptations

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By Charlie Craven

I’ve never liked the works of Roald Dahl. To some this is borderline blasphemous, yet his distinct approach with an iconic visual style (pioneered by Quentin Blake), memorable characters and intense tonal shifts has never appealed. However, my opinion of Wes Anderson is almost antithetical – a filmmaker with a beautiful visual style, effective characters and intense tonal shifts which effortlessly flick between comedy and tragedy. This makes Wes Anderson’s latest short films – an expectedly eclectic smorgasbord of Roald Dahl adaptations – particularly interesting for me. Could my love of Anderson’s approach outweigh my trepidations towards Dahl’s stories?

Well - yes. The four Netflix short films adapt Dahl’s stories in a way only Wes Anderson could. There are a number of framing devices – be it Dahl (played by Ralph Fiennes) himself telling the stories directly to the audience or the theatrical approach through which each story is presented. The primary stylistic influence appears less from the French New Wave, and more so from the world of plays (similar to the style of Anderson’s Asteroid City). From the minimal cast where each actor plays multiple roles, to the obvious appearance of stagehands, Anderson’s presentation is hardly aimed toward verisimilitude. Instead there’s a postmodern artifice to the films’ entire formal construction – the audience knows none of this is real. Whether this works with the theoretically intended audience of children I don’t know, but Anderson’s approach feels like an experimental sandbox in which innovative approaches are rife.

But what of the short films themselves? The obvious showpiece of the collection is by no coincidence it's longest and perhaps my favourite, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Here, the titular character (played exquisitely by Benedict Cumberbatch) goes on a classic journey from miserly millionaire to private philanthropist. The world of the story is as the title suggests – simply wonderful, with a playful energy permeating throughout. How Anderson chooses to present the events is simply magical: from the classic back projection to present Sugar’s speeding motorcar, to the ‘practical’ approach toward making characters “levitate” (sitting on a box painted to look like the background). Whilst the interlude focussing on Imdad Khan’s backstory drags a little, it’s hardly noticeable given the film is only 41 minutes long. As an introduction to this new, bizarre world of Dahl adaptations, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar definitely does not disappoint.

My second foray into this collection was with The Rat Catcher, an entry with a far smaller scale. Here, Richard Ayoade plays the narrator who interacts with an unusual exterminator who attempts to rid a town of rodent infestation. This was undoubtedly a step down from the previous story, highlighting Dahl’s afflictions which I so disliked as a child. With needlessly brutal characters and little narrative resolution, The Rat Catcher left me feeling relatively empty – save the excellent presentation of its finale. There’s little sense of progression or stakes, which leaves this particular short film feeling overwhelmingly lacklustre.

Thankfully, the third of Anderson’s films reignited my interest in this format – the simple yet holistically effective Poison. From the very beginning, the mystery of the short is undeniable, with a character returning home to find his friend near-paralysed in bed. The issue? A venomous snake lies under his bedsheet. With such an engaging premise, Poison excels in providing an almost Hitchcockian suspense, the tension palpable despite the heightened stylistic approach. Dev Patel is truly incredible, holding his own against the overall impeccable cast by firing out his monologue with unparalleled speed and hilarity. Whilst obviously less of a showcase when compared to Henry Sugar, Poison feels like the ultimate synthesis of Dahl and Anderson – almost as though each auteur is challenging the other to try something new. The uncertainty of the ending is unique too. Perhaps the truest and most uncomfortable moment of emotion in the collection so far, it serves to highlight the length of time between Dahl’s original works and today. Poison was a brilliant penultimate story in my time with Anderson’s short films, though the last entry presented a tragedy I certainly did not expect.

The Swan is maybe the most ‘Roald Dahl’ story of the collection, with a boy holding his own against a pair of bullies. Yet Anderson’s classic balance of comedy and tragedy also presents itself most clearly here. Rupert Friend and Asa Jennings performances are pitch perfect here, the former in particular a highlight as he walks nonchalantly through the trials caused by the sadistic bullies. This lends the story a bizarre yet undeniably affecting quality, portraying the nightmarish feeling of being bullied in a dream-like way. The peak of this lies within the train sequence, with the sheer power of the vehicle feeling palpable. The story functions almost as a therapy session, an unveiling of trauma which serves to highlight the idiocy and cowardice of bullies. However, the conclusion yet again functions as a melancholic tragedy as the child protagonist is killed. It’s challenging, uncomfortable, maybe downright unfair – but it’s unfortunately inevitable for the story. This is certainly the most emotionally impactful of Dahl’s parables; a celebration of being brave in the face of adversity.

Despite my hesitancy toward Dahl’s works, I thoroughly enjoyed Wes Anderson’s collection of short story adaptations. Whilst some clearly excel more than others, each film provides the perfect synthesis between both men’s creative visions. I’d love to see Anderson explore the short film format more, providing a brilliant canvas on which he can experiment both narratively and formally. Does this mean my indifference towards Dahl has been altered? Not massively – though if any creative today could make me enjoy his works, it would be Wes Anderson, I said.