The Wonderful Anthology of Roald Dahl: Wes Anderson’s Take on Four Short Stories in New Netflix Series

Image Description: An open book next to some yellow flowers, sunglasses and a yellow pen

Perfectly incorporating whimsy with the slightly macabre in a typical Roald Dahl blend, Wes Anderson fantastically executes this strange little series with a stellar cast behind it. Released on Netflix one after the other from the 27th to the 30th September, the four short adaptations form their own disconnected anthology series, beginning with The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and continuing through to The SwanThe Rat Catcher, and then finally Poison.

The short films feel less like a typical film project and more like what I can only describe as their own blended medium of narrated tale and cinematography, which very effectively encapsulates the sense of both being read a story and the role of imagination in constructing that story in front of the mind’s eye. The role of the narrator naturally becomes the most crucial part, coming in and out of the diegetic narrative, becoming Dahl himself, or else the main character of the tale, so that the storyteller is never detached but integral.

This style of being told a story rather than shown one is furthered by the meta-acknowledgements to the production of the film itself, as the blue-overalled men silently change out props and shift scenes, a consistent strand in every one of the short films. I love Anderson’s use of practical effects, and there is a particular moment in Poison which I think highlights why it works especially well for these specific adaptations. The set shifts from the outside scene of the bungalow to Harry’s bedroom as Timber Woods walks in, which was particularly effective in conveying the mind’s imagination upon hearing a story, magically transporting characters to the relevant scenes rather than focusing on the details of realism. It is little details like this that add to the general, oddly false atmosphere of the films, which variously engage with painted backdrops, stop motion puppets, and invisible props the viewer must ‘imagine’, really situating the viewer in the role of listener as active participant in the series of tales and perfectly encapsulating the childhood experience of sitting down to hear a story. 

Wes Anderson was a natural choice for Netflix, with the success of his Fantastic Mr. Fox adaptation, but he does something different here, and for my part I am relieved it wasn’t just a carbon copy of the previous Dahl adaptation transferred onto one of his other widely known books. I also have to respect Netflix for not immediately cashing in with all the money-making hits in the likes of The BFG, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they bought the rights to Dahl’s work back in 2021. Rather, for their big debut into this new intellectual property, they’ve gone for something darker, more obscure: shining light on the less well-known short stories, it bodes well for how Netflix plans to handle more Dahl adaptations in the future.

When the first film I watched (The Rat Catcher) began, I had my doubts. It was the classic, stereotyped Wes Anderson treatment: yellow tint; slightly odd-dressed character sat off to the side; wide shot. I thought I knew what I was in for. But as the film, and indeed as the rest of the films in this anthology, proved, Anderson cleverly adapts his style to work with rather than dominate the original stories. The film centres around the grotesque of the Rat Catcher as he disgusts the narrator and Claude with various gruesome tricks. However, the very trick he has been paid for, the killing of the rats in the field by the hayrick, is unsuccessful as they refuse the bait food. We are left to sit with the final line, “There must be something nutritious in the hayrick”, as the film ends on a shot of the hayrick itself as the wind whistles eerily. This alludes horrifyingly to Dahl’s short story ‘Rummins’, in the same ‘Claud’s Dog’ series as The Rat Catcher, where it is revealed exactly what the rats have been feasting on.

The tale most likely to be recognised from the anthology would be Henry Sugar, a story following a man who learns how to read the backs of card to make a fortune. It may be my favourite, and it certainly feels the most ‘complete’ of the narratives, which otherwise foucs on an isolated moment, the character’s worlds beginning and ending within the climactic event. The Swan, for example, follows Peter Watson as he tries to escape two bullies, who attach swan wings to him and force him to climb a tree. The final scene provides a significant ambiguity, in which the narrator becomes Peter, bloodied and fallen in the garden with his swan wings which evoke angelic imagery, whilst Peter plays his own mother. Here, the adaptation brings in ambiguity that clouds the narrative, reinterpreting the original tale where Peter’s survival is more explicit.

Poison is an interesting choice out of all the films to end on, about a man finding a poisonous snake on his bed and the panic that ensues to save his life. But it’s not so isolated as that, as is revealed towards the end of the film with Harry Pope’s jarring outburst of racial slurs. The point is very much that the racism of Harry is a crucial flaw to his character, and plays into his paranoia surrounding the poisonous krait snake that may or may not be on his chest, representing broader racist anxieties. However, it inevitably draws upon the tension of Dahl’s own racism, especially when seen in a modern, 2023 lens, which the film crucially has to be seen in. The question is, do they succeed? It feels like a case of resignation in the characters of Dr. Ganderbai and Timber Woods, a reluctant acceptance of Harry’s racist attitudes as he grows increasingly deluded – and perhaps this is the film’s own reluctant acceptance of Dahl’s character: one that is implicitly critiqued but ultimately still warmly clad in jumpers and cardigans, nestled snugly in a cosy writing shed to tell us stories.

These don’t feel like Dahl’s classic children’s stories, but unsettling tales of a more human nature, distinctly more mature. Dahl has always skirted the line between the whimsical and the macabre, and these short films meet their source material at every turn through the excellently paced interrogations of human cruelty and kindness, the duality always wobbling on an ambiguous knife’s edge.