Wes Anderson’s recent collection of Roald Dahl adaptations for Netflix are so specifically theatrical that you could replicate them on virtually any stage armed with just a small troupe of repertory actors and a meager budget. Characters narrate what’s happening while staring directly at us, the implied audience; obliging stagehands shift scenery and assist with costume changes and makeup right in front of our eyes. The action is so resolutely analog that it feels like a manifesto for good old-fashioned stagecraft in a cinematic era steamrolled by CGI—our imaginations are forced to fill in the gaps when, say, a train rushes right over a character, or a man appears to levitate several feet off the ground. This is storytelling that shows you all of its seams. The question is: Why?
And what are we even watching, anyway? Here we have one of the most distinctive auteurs of 21st-century cinema, adapting short stories into a series of filmed plays for a streaming service, and somehow it makes perfect sense. Netflix seemed not to remotely know how to handle what I’ll call the Henry Sugar Quartet: I had to search for the four shorts individually to watch them, even though Ralph Fiennes, playing Dahl, appears in each one, part avuncular host, part ferryman into the underworld of the author’s macabre imagination. These are easily the least twee works Anderson has ever made—there are no banjos, no pastel colors, scarcely a shred of disaffected existentialist whimsy. But there is a point behind the series, not unrelated to the foregrounding of Dahl. Throughout, Anderson jolts us in and out of the story, encouraging us to think actively and even skeptically about what it’s telling us.
This intentional distancing of his audience from his action—call it Verfremdungseffekt if you want to be proper about it—has long been a side effect of Anderson’s tendency to layer stories within stories. The Royal Tenenbaums begins with a shot of a hardback library book of the same name, implying literary origins; The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with a woman visiting the shrine of an author whose book contains the action of the movie; Asteroid City, Anderson’s most recent film, is a play that looks like a movie contained within a black-and-white TV documentary capturing the making of that play. Each frame from Asteroid City is as punctiliously composed as a painting, or a living tableau that actually moves and speaks. Watching it recently, I kept thinking of the photography of Slim Aarons, all icy blues and warm yellows, the women gazing accusingly at the camera. If most movies absorb you in naturalistic exploits intended to feel real, Anderson’s nudge you continuously with their artificiality, their absurdity, their self-awareness.
“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which Dahl published in a 1977 short-story collection, has been cited by Anderson as one of the early inspirations for his habit of nesting narratives inside one another. The tale is about a wealthy, narcissistic man (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Netflix version) who stumbles upon a handwritten notebook in the library of a friend’s country house and has the course of his life drastically rerouted. The story that Henry reads is a first-person account of an encounter with a performer, who in turn relays his own strange biography. Add to this Dahl’s own narration, as Anderson does, and suddenly you’re several layers deep into a grand metafictional mille-feuille.
What transpires over the course of the adaptation’s 40-some minutes is totally fantastical: Henry reads the written testimony of a doctor (Dev Patel) about meeting a man (Ben Kingsley) who learned to see without his eyes; that man then offers the story of the yogi (Richard Ayoade) who taught him to focus the scattered potential of his mind. With painted two-dimensional backdrops—a teeming, Rousseau-like jungle for the yogi, a lifeless Edwardian drawing room for Henry’s London flat—and stagehands assisting with special effects and costume changes, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar lays itself out like a pop-up picture book. The pace is hurried; the performances deliberately muted. What we’re seeing is an analysis of how movies and plays are constructed—all of the elements they contain, the tricks they rely on, the artifice they employ to reel us in.
Henry Sugar, without spoiling too much, is an optimistic tale: A man is irrevocably changed by a book. The other three Dahl stories in the series are much darker. In The Swan, a man played by Rupert Friend recounts how, as a child, he was bullied almost to death one day by two casually cruel older boys (also played by Friend). The Rat Catcher uses Friend and Ayoade again as two men in a village plagued by rats, who have a deeply disturbing encounter with a rodentlike exterminator played by Fiennes. In Poison, Cumberbatch, Patel, and Kingsley reunite for a story about a man threatened by a lethal snake who reveals some of his own venom. Animalistic imagery abounds: People, all three stories suggest, sacrifice something profound when they lose their humanity. Of these, The Swan departs furthest from the source material, which is to say, not very much, because Anderson has characters in each short read the text virtually verbatim. Still, the fact that Friend recounts what happened to his younger self affirms that he does actually survive, a reassurance that Dahl’s original story withholds until the end.
As a teenager, I loved reading Dahl’s short stories for adults. They’re twisted, shocking tales that now remind me more of Black Mirror than anything else for how they resist moral clarity or karmic justice and instead simply unmoor you with unpleasant surprises. In 2021, Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company and the adaptation rights to his archive in a deal worth more than £500 million, a spectacularly expensive acquisition that’s been undermined by recent scrutiny of Dahl’s anti-Semitism and misogyny. (Not to mention some ugly components in his books for children, which Penguin Random House recently decided to excise from new editions, prompting an outcry that led them to continue to publish the “classic” versions.) At first, Anderson’s picks from the Dahl litter seemed so random that I assumed all the others had been earmarked for a new Tales of the Unexpected. Why adapt the grim and inaccessible “The Ratcatcher” when you could claim “Taste” or “Skin” or even “The Great Automatic Grammatizator,” a timely parable about what happens to authors when computers learn to write?
But the more I’ve watched them, the more the Henry Sugar shorts have come to feel like, if not a defense of Dahl exactly, a treatise on how storytelling, by nature, is always morally questionable, even indefensible, and yet utterly vital. To not only adapt Dahl but to also build the series around him—to have the most real setting on-screen be a painstaking reenactment of the room in which he wrote—makes him inextricable from the plots at hand. Across these works, Anderson never lets us lose ourselves in what we’re seeing. Rather, he has us survey it from different angles, observing how things mutate and shift depending on our perspective. These shorts demand active viewing, which in turn leads to curiosity and inquiry. What does this mean? Why did Dahl write it this way? What are we to make of it?
One elongated reading of The Swan, for instance, is that by having Friend play the bullied child, his grown-up self, and his teenage tormentors, Anderson is acknowledging the sadism of Dahl’s boarding-school education (which he wrote about extensively) and considering how that experience might have informed his cruelty and misanthropy as an adult. You could also note that the series begins with Henry Sugar, in which a man is redeemed, and ends with Poison, in which a man is irredeemable—and that it’s Dahl’s clear acknowledgment of the toxicity of racism in that latter story that makes his personal prejudices so hard to accept. But those possible readings aren’t the point. More important is that we question, repeatedly, what we’re engaging with while also being transported by it, in some small way, to a more enlightened, more human place. In Asteroid City, the cast of the play all chant in unison, “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep”—as neat a summation as we’ll ever get of why Anderson loves so much to take us out of his work, to shake us awake. It’s thrilling to be distracted by really good storytelling. But it’s more thrilling to be provoked, or even altered by it.