Wes Anderson Rewrites the Book on Adaptations

Unlike some other book-to-movie adaptations where the director takes creative liberty in fitting the story for a screen, Anderson seemed to follow Roald Dahl’s writing with precision.

Wes Anderson has cemented his place in this year’s fall movie canon with the release of a new mini-series on Netflix. 

The four films are adapted short stories from children’s author Roald Dahl (“Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” was released Sept. 27, with the rest of the movies — “The Swan,” “The Rat Catcher” and “Poison” — following in succession. 

Unlike some other book-to-movie adaptations where the director takes creative liberty in fitting the story for a screen, Anderson seemed to follow Dahl’s writing with precision. The small troupe of actors who worked on the films ran with the inventive style, speaking mainly in third person and in Dahl’s descriptive style. 

As a veteran director, Anderson has spent his career formulating a distinct style. The methods of eye level camera shots, distinct color palettes and dispassionate delivery of shocking lines create a cohesion between films — making them all unmistakably Anderson’s work. 

“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”

Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) masters the teachings of the mystical Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley) to swindle casinos and card rooms around the world out of millions of dollars. Khan has perfected the art of seeing without using his eyes — a coveted skill by Sugar, who is not above cheating. 

Anderson plays with multidimensional storylines with the tale of the Great Yogi (Richard Ayoade) being told by Khan whose story is revealed in a little blue book read by Sugar. This style was previously used by Anderson in “Asteroid City” and creates a strong sense of interconnectivity among characters, which emulates the real world. 

Dahl’s prose seamlessly guides the audience through a magical world where seeing is done with the mind rather than the eyes, and money is the root of opportunity rather than evil. 

Clocking-in at just 37 minutes, the pace of the film feels more like a TV episode than a movie, due to the rushed sequences and lack of character background. In typical Anderson style, the actions of the characters are left to do most of the talking, forcing viewers’ eyes to stay glued to the screen just long enough to ask, “Was that Benedict Cumberbatch in a dress?”

“The Swan”

Narrator Peter Watson (Rupert Friend) returns to the trauma of his youth as a younger self, being tormented by two older boys in this 17-minute dark comedy. Sporting binoculars for bird watching, Watson is bullied and forced into a day full of whacky events ranging from being tied to train tracks to a modern recreation of the flight of Icarus — poached swan wings and all.

The story contains three characters who are all created mainly through the lively storytelling of Watson’s narration. The cadence of Rupert Friend’s (“Asteroid City”, ”The French Dispatch”) speech coupled with Dahl’s evocative writing style mimic the feeling of reading a book, but instead of seeing black and white print, the audience’s eyes follow Anderson’s signature yellow and blue color palette.

This style is jarring due to the constant breaking of the fourth wall throughout the mini-series, making the viewer feel as if the characters were telling them a secret. However, the storybook-esque film is something many adaptations should emulate, given how it preserves the beauty of Dahl’s prose, with visuals to spark viewers’ curiosity. 

The evocative short piece will leave viewers wondering if Watson truly has an indomitable spirit — or if such a thing truly exists.

“The Rat Catcher”

The Rat Man (Ralph Fiennes) is his name and catching vermin is his game. This film may be one of the most confusing 17-minutes of cinematic history — leaving viewers scratching their heads trying to follow an editor (Richard Ayoade), a mechanic (Rupert Friend) and a rat catcher on a mission to rid a hayrick of rats. 

The editor and mechanic watch alongside the audience as the Rat Man’s ego is destroyed following his failure to ensnare the beasts who define his identity. 

The defense of the Rat Man is simple — it’s not easy to outsmart a clever rat. 

The story follows the mismatched companions as the Rat Man desperately tries to retrieve his reputation from the pink-tailed beasts. The concept of the story is avant-garde, but falls flat amongst other works by Dahl and Anderson. 


Harry (Benedict Cumberbatch) is imprisoned in his own bed, trapped under a poisonous krait snake. His friend Woods (Dev Patel) returns home to the dire situation and quickly enlists the help of Dr. Ganderbai (Ben Kingsley) whose solutions include injecting Harry with anti-venom and the snake with chloroform. 

There’s only one issue — no one has actually seen the snake. 

Harry’s position under the covers of a sheet and book leave Woods, Dr. Ganderbai and viewers guessing at what may lay beneath.The slow removal of the sheet off of Harry’s body will leave audiences inching forward in their seats to try and get a better look. While the temptation is to focus solely on Harry and his snake experience, the story of Woods is much more elusive and left up to the viewer to discover.

The story ends with a short blurb saying Dahl named Woods after a Royal Air Force pilot killed in the Battle of Athens. Flashbacks to past medical treatments and a scar on Wood’s forehead allude to a story Dahl and Anderson are leaving up to the audience. 

Anderson didn’t sacrifice intricate storytelling with only 17-minutes of screen time, making this a film one could return to and still find new threads to pull. 

All four movies are available to stream on Netflix.

Julia Soeder

Julia Soeder