The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar Is Another Day at the Office for Wes Anderson

In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the first of four Roald Dahl mini adaptations, I was hoping for something like Fantastic Mr. Fox — but it’s the same old Wes Anderson. Still, he claims it took “years to decide how to shoot the story.”

Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character in Wes Anderson's new Roald Dahl adaptation, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. (Netflix)

When I read that writer-director Wes Anderson was doing another Roald Dahl adaptation, this time the 1977 fantasy The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, I decided to check it out only because I’d liked 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, his earlier Dahl effort, so much. That’s the only Wes Anderson film I still have a complete fondness for, now that I’m so soured on his work it’s even ruined the memory of The Royal Tenenbaums for me.

I was hoping for another delightful and inventive stop-motion animated film in the vein of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is just another regular live-action Wes Anderson film. Shorter than most at thirty-nine minutes, this is the first of four short-film Dahl adaptations Anderson has been contracted to do for Netflix — the others are The Swan, Poison, and Ratcatcher. But Henry Sugar is the same old, same old for Anderson: A-list actors declaiming in an ironic deadpan manner to the camera, pretty-colored production design elements sliding in and out of scenes like theater flats, and narrated flashbacks creating a nesting-box story-within-a-story structure. You know the drill.

“In a way, it’s almost more like a little theatrical presentation that we found a way to film,” Anderson told reporters at the Venice Film Festival, where Henry Sugar premiered. He claims it “had taken years to decide how to shoot the story.”

This is strange, considering that Anderson approaches the story the way he always does, in the most Wes-Andersonian way possible. You’d think it’d be just another day at the office shooting The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.

Henry Sugar features Ralph Fiennes, who played the lead in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, playing Roald Dahl himself as he narrates the proceedings. But first he has to tell us about Dr Chatterjee (Dev Patel) and Dr Marshall (Richard Ayoade), who had a strange encounter with Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), a man who studied under the reclusive Great Yogi (also Ayoade) and trained himself to see without the use of his eyes. Dr Chatterjee writes an account of Khan’s remarkable life that is found by Henry Sugar one day, while he is bored at a country house party.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays this title character, typecast as a rich, unfeeling bastard dressed in nice suits. He always wants to get richer and is an avid gambler who is inspired by reading Dr Khan’s account. Sugar’s goal is to master mind reading when playing cards so he can cheat and win more money.

Anyway, by this point, people who like Wes Anderson films will like The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and people who don’t won’t.

In publicizing Henry Sugar at the Venice Film Festival, Anderson made headlines discussing the recent Roald Dahl controversy. Penguin Random House had released editions of Dahl’s books such as Matilda and James and the Giant Peach with some of the author’s nastier attitudes related to gender, race, and physical appearance scrubbed out. This included such words as “fat” and “crazy.” Such was the public outcry that the publisher announced it would rerelease the same Dahl book unedited, “in ‘classic’ form,” later this year.

“Certainly no one who’s not an author should be modifying somebody’s book. He’s dead,” said Anderson of censoring Dahl’s work.

Traditionalist Anderson expanded on his objections:

If you ask me if Renoir should be allowed to touch up one of his pictures, I would say no. It’s done. . . . I don’t even want the artist to modify their work. I understand the motivation for it, but I’m in the school where, when the piece of work is done, we participate in it. We know it. So I think when it’s done, it’s done.

The thing is, all arts aren’t the same, and painting — in which the original is the fetishized object — is a different case than a piece of written work (or a film), which can be copied endlessly with no one but a rare-book collector caring about the state of things like first editions. As long as Dahl’s “classic” works are available, is it really such a big deal if bowdlerized versions also appear? Must we get precious about it?

I hate colorized films, personally. But I have to admit, what was such a big controversial brouhaha back in the 1980s, when Ted Turner was threatening to bring out every black-and-white film masterpiece in those hideous pastel shades of pink and yellow and powder blue favored by colorizers, has turned out to be no big deal. If some yutz wants to watch the colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmastime, when any cinephile can see the black-and-white version is a thousand times better, well — does it really matter in the scheme of things?

I also have to admit that it’s an unpleasant shock to read hideously racist and antisemitic references in old Agatha Christie mysteries and P. G. Wodehouse novels. And while I think it’s a good thing to have encounters with the past that show us what the past has been, however god-awful it generally was, I’d just as soon not see the N-word popping up in one of my favorite Wodehouse stories.

But then maybe I just hate Wes Anderson so much by this point that if he argues it’s up, I say it’s down, and if he says it’s day, I say it’s night.

And in acknowledging this by-now-obsessive antipathy, I promise not to review the rest of Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl adaptations when they come out. I can see them already without the use of my eyes, just like Imdad Khan in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.