Knit to This: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Because it was my favorite story when I was a child—I read it again and again, and to this day have whole swaths of it memorized word for word—I approached Wes Anderson’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” with my hands covering my face. Could I even watch it? Well, I really shouldn’t have worried. My only complaint about it is that since the word “wonderful” is in its title, I have to come up with other words to use to talk about it.
The original story remains perfectly intact—a story within a story within a story, each in turn narrated (in sort-of reverse order) by Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes (it’s quite a cast for a 37-minute movie, and I haven’t even mentioned Dev Patel or Richard Ayoade). It’s about a wealthy wastrel, a ne’er do well looking for an easy way to make even more money by perfecting a technique that allows him to cheat at gambling by “seeing with his eyes closed.” There’s studying, and time passing (lots of stopwatching!) and a guru and bandages and a transformation, all presented in front of gorgeous quick-change analog sets and rear projections and, well, just about every stage trick in the book. It’s never not being made in front of your very eyes—you see makeup people and stagehands every now and then—but it still feels as if it just showed up fully formed out of nowhere, a product of … magic?
Despite all that typical Andersonia when it comes to the visuals, you can almost enjoy it just as a radio play—knit to it without ever looking up and see how it goes! It’s very very very talky—almost nothing happens that isn’t told directly to you by a character looking right into the camera (enormous chunks of it are word-for-word from the original source, some of it alarmingly trenchant, even now—“All of them, all wealthy people of this type, have one peculiarity in common: they have a terrific urge to make themselves still wealthier than they already are.”)
The end result feels like a story that’s been told to you rather than shown to you. I suppose it does break the old “show, don’t tell” storytelling rule in that regard, but you know … maybe someone who wasn’t very good at telling made that rule up out of thin air in the first place.
It all adds up to a surprisingly faithful version of Dahl’s original. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose; Anderson’’s “Fantastic Mr Fox,” his other Dahl adaptation, remains his best movie, and the reason for that is starting to get clearer: Anderson and Dahl are a perfect match. Anderson’s visual touch and tone lighten up Dahl’s occasional sourness and Dahl’s dry-as-dust, almost completely undecorated text counterbalances Anderson’s frequent dips into twee territory.
In addition to Henry Sugar, Anderson has flooded the market with three more short films adapted from other Dahl stories: “The Rat Catcher,” “Poison” and “The Swan.” Let me repeat: I will approach them with my hands covering my face. Can he get it right again? I’m less nervous than I was, that’s all I know. Sorry, but I can’t resist: “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is, well, wonderful
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