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Wes Anderson’s Netflix shorts add a lot more layers to Roald Dahl’s stories

And Dahl’s work adds more layers to Anderson’s reflexive style, too

Harry (Benedict Cumberbatch) is seen in closeup, lying in his bed on his back, sweating and looking nervous in Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl adaptation Poison Photo: Netflix

Although Wes Anderson’s four Netflix shorts adapting famed British author Roald Dahl can be viewed in any permutation, it’s worth watching them in release order. The series’ casting and imaginative flourishes probe Dahl’s young adult writings, which take a different tone from his most famous works, children’s novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches. These four esoteric adaptations — The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison — also serve as a Rosetta stone for Anderson’s influences and filmmaking style, uncovering the reasons his visual language continues to be so effective.

No matter where you jump into Anderson’s anthology, what’s immediately striking is the strange, unique way he adapts Dahl, treating his prose as the script, with actors practically narrating the entire text. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar helps viewers understand this approach on a gut level. As with the other three shorts, the line between “character” and “narrator” blurs, as the actors perform both the dialogue and its tags (“he said,” “she said,” “I said,” etc.) in lengthy takes, while Anderson’s whip-smart blocking and camera movement maintain a breakneck momentum.

All four shorts also pull back further, allowing a version of Dahl himself (Ralph Fiennes) to frequently interject and embody his narrations. At 40 minutes long, Henry Sugar has a scope that lets it serve as a framing device for the anthology. It spends more time than the other, much shorter installments do with this fictitious Dahl in his busy, messy home, based on pictures of the real Dahl.

Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch, in red pajamas) sits crosslegged on a mostly transparent base designed to make him look like he’s levitating, in front of a stage-play-like backdrop of a green jungle and Indian-style forest hut in Netflix’s short The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar Image: Netflix

Like many of Anderson’s recent works, Henry Sugar features stories within stories within even more stories. Its idle, affluent titular character (Benedict Cumberbatch) chances upon the diary entries of an Indian doctor in pre-independent Calcutta (Dev Patel) that chronicle the narration of a mysterious man (Ben Kingsley) explaining the winding journey that taught him how to magically see without using his eyes. Henry hopes to learn this skill in turn. In each of these nested stories, the actors cross-pollinate, as if each narrator were projecting some part of themselves into the tale they’re telling. It’s a vivid depiction of the personal artistry involved in adaptation.

This story-within-a-story structure, which Anderson has employed in all his live-action features since The Grand Budapest Hotel, appears most overtly in Henry Sugar, though it sets the stage for how he frames the remaining shorts. The Swan, for instance, sees Rupert Friend narrating the tale of a young English schoolboy, Peter Watson (Asa Jennings), a victim of merciless bullying. Again, Anderson has Friend narrate every portion of Dahl’s text, even though the characters he’s describing appear alongside him. The camera tracks their movements through enormous hedges and hay piles with covert doors, through which stagehands guide other actors in and out of the space and pass them props.

Friend does virtually all of the talking in this short — a slight departure from Henry Sugar, which lets each character speak their own dialogue. Watching it feels like reading one of the Dahl books featuring the vivid illustrations of Quentin Blake, with Anderson’s background actors embodying living versions of the sketches that accompany the text. (Characters like Peter are even depicted using stop-motion puppets on occasion, if only to dull the edges of the story at its most violent.)

There’s a secondary reason for this structure, though, which becomes clearer when the narrator reveals his own personal connection to the story. At that point, The Swan becomes not only a living, moving illustration, but a memory that pairs whimsy with an immense sense of tragedy. Dahl based this story on real events, the closing text reveals, allowing reality to seep in from the corners of the frame and the pauses between words. That’s often how emotion works in Anderson’s films, edging in during moments of sudden grief and poignancy amid a colorful frolic.

Rupert Friend as the narrator stands in front of schoolboy Peter Watson (Asa Jennings), a small kid in blue wearing round glasses and clutching a book. They’re framed by walls of hay bales and vertical dried hay, in a scene from Netflix’s The Swan Photo: Netflix

Each of the four stories in the anthology ends similarly, with closing text resembling handwritten notes that add context about the circumstances of each story’s creation. As a whole, the project comments on the nature of authorship and artistry, not only by adapting Dahl’s stories wholesale, but by doing so in a twofold manner: We experience each story just as Anderson might’ve personally imagined it when he first discovered it, but he also brings Dahl’s real-world perspective into those imaginative visions.

The third story, The Rat Catcher, is most similar to The Swan in style and scale. It has the softest emotional impact of these four shorts, though that doesn’t make it less intriguing. The story, narrated by a newspaperman (Richard Ayoade, who also plays several roles in Henry Sugar), follows a rat catcher who is ratlike in appearance, with sharp nails, jet-black irises, and a pointy, yellow incisors. Some of the text focuses on his methodology and strange actions, like allowing his pet ferret to chase and kill a rodent inside his shirt.

But most of these creatures are invisible, as are the Rat Man’s lethal props. The actors pantomime their existence, and when the two animals battle inside the Rat Man’s clothing, Anderson focuses not on his chest, but on his face. The director isn’t looking at Dahl’s words so much as peering between them to find the empathy buried in the descriptions, inspired by a strange man (or urban legend) from the British town of Amersham, where Dahl lived in the 1940s.

Anderson particularly sells that empathy through his choice of casting. Fiennes plays the Rat Man in a fidgety, impatient, distinctly un-Andersonian fashion, as if he were a personal extension of Dahl rather than the filmmaker. Anderson extends his empathy in all directions, including toward the rodents, which the locals treat as disposable pests. One of the rats first appears in the story in stop-motion, but with hands and feet that look distinctly human, as if it were being piloted by a person, further emphasizing the subtle authorial projection in these stories. Even rats become a broad human conception once we discuss and label them — more of an idea, associated with infestation and plague, than specific individual creatures.

A very lean, gray animatronic rat with human-like pink front paws sits up on its haunches on a flat black surface in front of a window with mustard-yellow framing in Netflix’s short The Rat Catcher Photo: Netflix

This breakneck switch in perspective is a common tonal shift for Anderson’s work, and it seems like a projection of his own disagreements with Dahl’s narrative POV — a childlike disgruntlement that takes imaginative form, as if it were a good-natured objection Anderson had toward animal cruelty when reading the story as a child. His changes don’t fundamentally alter the text, but they shift its presentation; they’re a matter of framing, lighting, and focus.

The disagreement between Dahl’s words and Anderson’s framing becomes even more overt when Ayoade’s narrator describes a scuffle between the Rat Man and a rodent, which Anderson shoots in low-lit fashion, making it look like a Universal monster movie. The Rat Man is suddenly shot like Dracula, sapping him of the empathy Anderson had been imbuing him with, and transferring that feeling onto his rodent victim. At the same time, the rat is suddenly played by a human actor: Rupert Friend.

Friend appears as a supporting character throughout The Rat Catcher, so it makes logistical sense for him to step into this role, given the ways the anthology blurs the borders between stage and cinema, with actors playing multiple parts for convenience. But his sympathetic role in The Swan extends over into The Rat Catcher, if you watch them in that order. Maybe both stories are about bullying, since Anderson’s choice of casting meaningfully changes The Rat Catcher’s text, as if he were pulling from Dahl’s authorial perspective in order to highlight common elements between his stories.

As Anderson adapts each Dahl short, he also analyzes it. The series’ first three stories all have this self-reflexivity and probing textual scrutiny in common, and they’re bound by a similar visual approach: an old-world, squarish 4:3 aspect ratio and a washed-out palette with a yellowish tinge, as if the yellow walls of Dahl’s college, where he wrote many stories in his later years, were somehow manifesting in his work. The fourth story, Poison, departs from this style, but still keeps one eye fixed on Dahl’s writing.

Like Henry Sugar, Poison is also set in British India, and though it’s initially built with the same Brechtian hallmarks as the other three (including a set that opens up to the audience like a blooming flower), it steps back from their stagey framing and mid-20th-century cinematic facades. The aspect ratio is a widescreen 2.35:1 this time, and while the lighting is more harsh and direct — it’s all indoor lighting, owing to the nighttime setting — the colors are much more vivid; they’re solidified and saturated by the post-processing rather than washed out by it. Poison is about a British officer, Woods (Patel), seeking the help of an Indian doctor, Ganderbai (Kingsley), to help a fellow Englishman, Harry (Cumberbatch), trapped in his bed by a deadly snake sleeping on his stomach.

Dev Patel, dressed in the taupe uniform of a British military officer in occupation-era India, stands behind Ben Kingsley in blue scrubs and cap as an Indian doctor, as Benedict Cumberbatch lies in bed, flat on his back, behind them both in Netflix’s short Poison Photo: Netflix

There’s a visual haziness to the atmosphere, a product of the humid West Bengal setting that’s also the distinct look of a celluloid drama from the ’70s or ’80s. The palette resembles the later works of Bengali maestro Satyajit Ray — a frequent influence of Anderson’s, on films like The Darjeeling Limited and Asteroid City. It looks like Ray’s 1984 drama Ghare Baire, which features a similar, high-contrast harshness in its nighttime scenes.

But there’s another layer to this Ray connection: Ghare Baire was one of several films Ray adapted from the works of Indian author and poet Rabindranath Tagore, and one of these adaptations was the three-part 1961 anthology Teen Kanya (Three Girls). In treating Dahl like his own Tagore, adapting stories he wrote over the course of 30 years, Anderson maps his lifelong kinship and fascination with a particular author onto Ray’s project. He adapts his first three Dahl stories in the vein of Ray’s earlier, more classically framed films, then adds one more along the lines of Ray’s modern works. Anderson’s Poison practically quotes the 1990 color film Ganashatru and its foregrounding of human faces against background characters.

As a whole, the four-part anthology encapsulates the many things that make Wes Anderson’s storybook aesthetic so recognizable, while also unpacking why he continues to have such an impact on cinema and social media. He uses his signature stylizations to dig into both the layers of authorship featured in his recent films, as well as the meaning behind them, in a series that’s as much an adaptation of a specific author as it is a tribute to his life and legacy.

It’s a tremendous work of interpretation, too. While it adapts Dahl’s text wholesale, it also adds a mischievous spark to his dialogue, like the way Fiennes’ perfectly manicured delivery as the Rat Man sets up Ayoade’s narrator, who aptly describes what Fiennes just said in Dahl’s own words: “The word ‘rats’ came out of his mouth with a rich, fruity sound, as if he were gargling with melted butter.”

This description might as well extend to Anderson’s wondrous method of adaptation, too. It’s an energetic, richly textured approach that enhances the interplay between Anderson’s literary interpretations and his visual influences. The words are Dahl’s and the images are Anderson’s, but those images take inspiration from stories and films made across decades, as if to remind us that they aren’t his alone. They’re Dahl’s too, and Satyajit Ray’s — an amalgam of all the books and stories that defined Anderson’s sensibilities and now make up his unique cinematic outlook.

All four of Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl shorts are streaming on Netflix now.