Something Dramatic and Unusual

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023)

Netflix

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar does not exist. It is a story of a story of a story of a story, a devised manifestation of feelings adapted from fictions. It is given utterance by liars, illusionists, and obfuscators who spin a careful nothing out of the air itself, activating it by effort and desire and sleight of gesture. They move about in a designed world telling the biggest lie of all: we exist.

To utter “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is to ferry a gobstopper of fictions around in your mouth, layers of adaptation melting off. Roald Dahl published The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More in 1977. The volume constitutes seven stories, some more made up then others, but all humming with Dahl’s authorial presence. Dahl himself—or rather, a Dahl avatar—turns up as an actor in the descending frame narrative of the title story: while summarizing the narrative fallout, Dahl (the author) reveals Dahl (the character) as the first-person writer-narrator, jolting the remove of artifice with the sudden shock of ‘I.’ The prose turns, and like a camera wheeling 180 degrees, a teller emerges: “But how do I, who am neither Max Engelman nor John Winston, happen to know all this? And how did I come to write the story in the first place?”

A certain credit card commercial dalliance aside, the work of Wes Anderson is typically free from such meta-authorial winks. Even when their subject matter turns to territory adjacent to Anderson’s world—fussy lit mag writers needling through their pet interests, curatorial obsessives managing the emotional architecture of a denizen’s stay—the films hum most when restricted to themselves. These worlds are containers, caringly tended, carefully manicured. They are directed to forsake ego for effort, two distinct modes too often mistaken for the same gesture in criticism and art-making. Curious then, that Anderson appears throughout the whole forty minutes of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023), not merely as an authorial hand, but a palpable presence with the slightest of hands—we don’t see him once.

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The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar begins with the black of house-lights down. And then the author’s voice starts the play: “Well, here we are now in the hut where I write.” Lights come up on a writing desk, cluttered but warmly curated. We cut to a profile view of the author seated in a plush armchair, a writing desk on his lap. Here, we will learn, is the writer-teller of Dahl’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” He looks a bit like Ralph Fiennes but today he is “Roald Dahl.” He sharpens a pencil, putters aloud about the writing process. “And then, finally, one starts,” he says to the page in front of him. He circles something, crosses another thing out. He is, as many a wretched soul among you might recognize, performing the damned and only-occasionally beautiful ballet of ‘writing something.’ 

And then the movie changes. Breaks? “Roald Dahl” turns his head and looks directly into the camera. He begins to tell the story of Henry Sugar, speaking almost verbatim the words Roald Dahl wrote in 1977. Who is he talking to? We cut again, this angle flush and straight on with the writer, who continues to introduce the story to us, his voice no longer tentative and muttered but supple. An actor’s. There is a lighting shift. We see the lights shift, which is to say, we realize that someone, some body beyond our field of vision, must have changed the lights. “Roald Dahl” begins clearing his writing desk and pencil pile from his lap, striking his props.

After clearing downstage of his armchair, “Roald Dahl” walks towards the camera. As he passes, nearly on top of the lens, the blur of his scratchy cardigan masks a cut to a medium shot of the cottage set, clearly a set, cleanly designed. “Roald Dahl” leans against the front wall, and the lights shift again, outlining him in a soft spot. How do we know the cottage is a set? Because it soon leaves the playing space altogether, pulled up into the fly system above the stage and frame. A low stone-wall is pushed on from stage/frame right. 

At approximately 3:05 in the onscreen action, the camera pans (house right, stage left), and we see the seams and scope of Anderson’s project: Dahl’s Gipsy House Cottage has been erected on a platform in a studio. We see the rigging and the wood frame, the made-ness. And as the camera pans, we see the set constructed just next to the cottage, where Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch) reclines against a window. Once the camera hits its mark, the frame perfectly articulates a unified reality, backstage once again hidden, even as the bald theatricality continues. And then “Roald Dahl” pokes his head into a window next to Henry’s head. Henry—or maybe it’s more accurate to say “the actor playing Henry”—looks on as “Roald Dahl” finishes his lines. And then Henry picks up the story. He speaks his lines, again a near-verbatim facsimile of Dahl’s original text, as seen here:

The story of Henry Sugar, as written by Dahl and adapted by Anderson, unfurls in a playful nest of frames. The louche Henry Sugar finds a mysterious blue exercise book in the library of some manse he’s bored to be wandering through. The book, A Report On An Interview With Imdad Khan, The Man Who Sees Without His Eyes,, is a journal written by Doctor Z.Z. Chatterjee (Dev Patel), a surgeon’s account of his experience with Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), a man who can see the world even when his eyes are covered, bandaged, and shut tight. Chatterjee includes the verbatim testimony of Khan. For Anderson and his actors, this means that, essentially, a sequence of direct addresses communicates the story to the spectator. While not without intention, panache, or inquisition, the character-actors speak their lines at a swift patter, especially Patel’s Chatterjee, who throws his head quickly around to the camera-audience to cooly yelp lines before plunging back into the scene proper. Of these deliveries, the cinematographer and writer Devan Scott writes “I strongly suspect the entire cast is reading off of cue cards. This is not a criticism.” 

(Scott indicates here the particularly mannerized way in which this story is being performed. Some viewers, I suppose, might enlist any number of pejorative adjectives to refer to this manner—among which you might encounter: whimsical, precious, stylized, twee, unrealistic, removed, flat—though indicating how “people are supposed to sound and talk” is a surefire way to limit not only the possibilities for communication, but the vast disparity that exists within which people find ways to express themselves.)

Like Fiennes’s “Roald Dahl,” each actor looks to the camera and performs the text directly to the audience, while the practically-devised world—which is to say, stage-handed, pulleyed, and made—moves around them. It’s a little Our Town, a little Neil Simon. Shakespeare, of course, depended upon direct address. The film sits atop artifice. When Imdad Khan encounters the yogi who teaches him how to see without his eyes, the mystic is levitating in the air. Anderson and his crew achieve this effect entirely in-camera, placing the actor (Richard Ayoade, doubling as one of Dr. Chatterjee’s associates) on a box labeled “Property Department.” As in the earlier sequence where we first encounter Henry Sugar, we see the border of the box jutting out against the backdrop until the camera finishes its slow zoom into place.  We see the seam until we don’t, the camera itself a new approach to animating the story..

There is a certain treachery in discussing and describing film using theatrical terms. At the same time, similar tendencies in performance between the forms are so frequently similar-enough that the bleed warrants a kind of grouping together. Plenty of actors and directors move between mediums, albeit to mixed results. While the finished cultural objects (a locked reel of film, an afternoon or evening in front of a live audience) are largely dissimilar and impact a spectator’s experience in dramatically different ways, the strategies of composition—from writers to directors to actors and set designers and any craftsperson moving objects around offstage—emerge from common terrain. Here is a world that doesn’t exist, these storytellers all utter. And then they tell us that it does.

Direct address in theater is an open engagement with the gathered collective. “I know you all,” Prince Hal demurs early in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, left alone onstage. From the audience, we hear ‘you’ include the other characters in the play itself as well as us, the gathered mass without whose gathering the play could not commence. Onscreen, direct address is slipperier, unfolding sometimes (like in voiceover) as a way to exploit the intimacies of the medium to hammer home thematic or narrative details. That’s not the case in Anderson’s Henry Sugar, which performs theatrical direct address in a real space for a camera, mixing a filmic apparatus with the workings of theater for an audience of one. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar finds Anderson at his most rigorously experimental. It commits to Anderson’s curational ‘style as form’ strategy not as a means of ferrying feeling but as its very manifestation. This devised world isn’t merely theoretically imagined, it is deeply felt and managed in the language of another human’s brain. The film manifests Dahl’s buried-author in an onscreen Ralph Fiennes performance to show us Anderson himself, as personal and moving a gesture in the grand Rolodex of expression, a brand new kind of direct address.

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Dahl wrote often for children, if with a frankness less bound up in the crinoline of careful disclosure that other childrens’ authors trade in. His are sweet and sour stories positioning adolescence as a weigh station between the abject comfort of the womb and the speculative stab of adult life. In Henry Sugar, the Englishman is unable to resist folding death into this unknown terrain. After enduring a demolishing wave of bullying, a jerry-rigged boy-swan falls out of the sky, an act suspended between metaphoric sadness and very real mortality. A man who sees without his eyes fails to wake up after going to sleep one night. There is, in Dahl’s work, a certain preoccupation with bad events happening to good people, almost as if this moral calculus is the rule of the natural universe. Occasionally, a narrative flourish intervenes to save some part of the day. And then: ‘THE END.’

This worldview is perhaps a side-effect of seeing the world as a fiction writer; to cajole a universe into being and propel life through this devised set, something bad must occur. It is also, perhaps just as likely, a product of going off to war. Anxiety sweetened into artifice. A chocolatier offers a candy future to an impoverished boy. A girl with magical powers effects comeuppance for her school/parental torturers and reaps the narrative-magic of a happy ending. A lonely boy is transformed into a mouse! And by uncovering a coven of child-murdering witches, the mouse-boy prevents not only the attempted extinction of adolescence as a whole, but also of his own potential loneliness: as a mouse, his grandmother tells him, he probably won’t live longer than nine years. He feels a certain relief at this disclosure.

Ask Anderson: whimsy is sometimes read as “cold-temperatured.” With neither the cutting heat of the erotic nor the emotive turbulence of melodrama, it depends upon performance to prevent its chilly remove from becoming the form itself. Unsurprising, then, that successful adaptors of Dahl’s work often opt for a theatrical element to both highlight the depth of feeling (sad, outraged, grief) and keep the object itself aloft. Think of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka see-saws, the bad-trip boat freakout of children dropping like fruit snack flies. To make Matilda (1996), Danny DeVito had to bury honey in a monster movie, his Trunchbull an anabolics-stuffed Thatcher. Nicolas Roeg, making The Witches (1990) and dealing first-hand with some of Dahl’s crank-sadism, could only imagine the novel’s black-hole narrative payoff—that life might be more tenable if it were less human and shorter—with the felt aid of Jim Henson and the camp-glamor of Anjelica Huston. Even Anderson himself had to find a new medium in adapting Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), moving for the first time into a fully stop-motioned world—the fur had to move differently from both the crinkled passages in Dahl’s book as well as Anderson’s growing corona of rendering the world a certain way.

In one sense, these adaptations work by avoiding the frank despair of Dahl’s prose. They maintain the grisly acts (children still get chuted into incinerators, vaulted into Iron Maidens) but reorient their narrative dispensation to one of passionate detachment rather than Dahl’s dispassionate attaching. They elide despair for something like a moral universe: Charlie and Matilda and Bruno and every critter in Mr. Fox are the heroes of their films, inherently opposing the wicked people they encounter. They receive narrative and filmic treatment to reward that goodness. These are their films. ‘THE END’ means their stories have meaning, both for themselves and their spectators.

A certain facet of despair is the fascination with the end. When, how, why does it come? 

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If The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar doesn’t exist, it is only because we hold the word ‘exist’ to too strict a standard. A feeling and a meaning can manifest in more than one way. Nothing has to ‘exist’ as only itself. It’s not that fiction isn’t real, it’s that it considers an imagined solution to a real problem. And adaptation is a means of moving through the world.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar forms a nucleus at the center of an uncollected set of Roald Dahl adaptations directed by Wes Anderson. The film played out-of-competition at the Venice Film Festival in September of 2023 before being (unceremoniously?) released on Netflix on September 27th. The three subsequent short films—shorter, at 17 minutes apiece rather than the title story’s 39 minutes—were released on subsequent days: The Swan on the 28th, The Rat Catcher on the 29th, then Poison on the 30th. Henry Sugar played for a few nights at the Paris Theater in New York City, then a few more nights amid a program of selected Anderson shorts. Did the three shorter adaptations play theatrically at all? That’s part rhetorical snort, part sincere ask.

I am belaboring the release history of this particular constellation of Anderson’s work because I don’t know where it exists. I confess this is only partly a frustration: Wes Anderson is one of the most distinctive and instinctual filmmakers working today. I’d like to see his movies on a screen as big as their imagined world. He’s one of the few making art on a certain scale—which is to say, in the starlit adjacence of firmament luminaries like Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johansson—that keeps an eye on the physical relationship between the camera and the actors, films with a sense of vertical movement in both frame and blocking. He can always seemingly get the resources to manifest exactly the movie he and his collaborators dream to make. 

illustration by Brianna Ashby

With Asteroid City (2023), he leveraged those resources into a piece at once totemic in its attention to theatrical-device-as-dream-creation-myth as well as liberated from pedantic meaning-making. What could ‘Asteroid City’—the name for the (real) film about the (fake) dramatic work named after a (fake) town that (fake) people know to be made-up—mean other than the way it lets us move our eyeballs around in front of it? His most pleasurable film to date, Asteroid City saw rust and cyan crinkle in the dapple of light, and let sex and panic and abandon become the animated roadrunners of our searching, yearning, yodeling conscience. Here was a different way to see the world. Isn’t that the only sacred promise of the moving image project?

Early-period Anderson was dominated by loving collaborations between the solitary actor (Gene Hackman, Bill Murray, Ralph Fiennes) and the boys who searched for gravity, no boy more rapt than Anderson himself. The French Dispatch (2021) cracked through the veneer of singularity—a phrase I invoke a polite re-articulation for the solipsistic fussiness of Isle of Dogs (2018)—with a shocking degree of image manipulation, full of rangy animations and mid-sequence shifts in aspect ratio, color, and format. Coupled with the film’s bound-anthology narrative engine (and the first-time characters who were scripted to be talented writers actually acting like talented writers act), any hope of it merely being a pat tribute to the literati culture of a bygone era was subsumed under its larger offering: inscrutably liberated and always in need of an edit, movies are writers too.

Asteroid City was accorded the status of major gesture. I saw it at the same movie theater where I watched The Beekeeper (2023). The four films that make up Anderson’s most recent Dahl adaptations can only be viewed on Netflix, a company that continues to tighten its grip on shared accounts like a puritan parent adding censorious child-locks to an adolescent’s search engines. Anderson told IndieWire in early 2023 that Dahl’s grandson, Luke, helped Anderson get permission to adapt the title story. “But by the time I was ready to do it, the Dahl family no longer had the rights at all. They had sold the whole deal to Netflix.”

This isn’t a story about the current filmic ecosystem’s failure in handling The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and three others). Far more filmmakers are far more negatively impacted by how movies get made and exhibited, bought and ignored, than Wes Anderson is. What do I have to complain about? I saw The Beekeeper. Filmgoers both casual and devoted overfetishize “cinema,” turning it into a thing that happens to us instead of a thing we do. Without discounting the pleasure I might take in seeing Rupert Friend’s face projected on as large and bright a surface as possible, the less we know for certain what cinema ‘is’, the more likely it is that the images in front of us might write new language. As the critic Esther Rosenfield reminds, “TV and movies are not meaningfully separate mediums but distinct expressions of a single medium we call ‘the moving image.” She adds, “And that’s why video games should also be on letterboxd.” Rosenfield’s words were trying to remind folks not to restrict their admiration for the Fielder-Safdie-Stone collab The Curse to the terms of “actually it’s cinema”—that show, in particular, seems to this writer to depend upon a certain familiarity, revulsion, and grave attraction to established real/fake dynamics in a particular strain of modern television. But her framing is vital: what’s this persistent desire to parse movieness from non-movieness? 

In that same IndieWire interview, Anderson demurs, “It [Netflix] was the perfect place to do it because it’s not really a movie,” an aside that film culture took great glee in reading as a jab at a certain lack of quality filmmaking emerging from the streamer’s house style and production process. As usual, context is helpful, as the director confessed that ‘not really a movie’ was a formal storytelling decision: “You know they used to do these BBC things called ‘Play For Today’ directed by people like Steven Frears and John Schlesinger and Alan Clarke. They were one hour programs or even less. I kind of envisioned something like that.”

There is such pleasure in the turbulence of where and how Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison exist. They are not only performed at blatantly theatrical endeavors (a camera is an audience too), but troupe-like: during the longer Henry Sugar, actors trade parts in the course of the run, while the other films all feature some combination of Friend, Fiennes, Ayoade, Patel, and Cumberbatch; no body exists only as its self. And are they meant to be watched in any particular sequence? Does sequence enter into it at all? What is their end? Not a prescribed treatment of anything, the quartet form a kind of raw material for amateur programmers: screen them in whatever order feels right! Reorder them, smush them around. In essence, choose your own adventure and edit your experience. Adapt the material to your needs.

It’s easy to overlook that “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is nominally the story of people trying to see differently. Imdad Khan first encounters Z.Z. Chatterjee in hopes that the surgeon will help bandage his eyes: he performs in a circus, and his act is seeing without the use of his eyes. “There are other ways of sending an image to the brain,” he says, an explanation without an explanation. “The seeing is done by another part of the body.” This is the skill that Henry Sugar himself comes to covet, first as a means of exploiting for colossal wealth and then as a means of affecting some kind of positive change in the world.

A vulgarian might point to this narrative hinge as something like a stand-in for the state of cinema in 2023; there is simply no shortage of hucksters aping strategies of seeing to make a buck. Outside of a certain credit card commercial though, Anderson’s a more interesting figurer of the image. His interest in this narrative device feels more like a personal-manifesto, even a forthright autobiographical gesture accounting for his evolving relationship to personal expression in his images. The showboat preen Max Fischer is adenoidal, but he still breaks along a plotline of emotional outburst. Years later, the same body (Jason Schwartzman) is a nested set of obfuscations: why does Auggie burn his hand on the Quickie Griddle? Why does Brooks clomp off in the middle of the play? Who are these performers performing Henry Sugar for? Do they even have feelings that might crack through?

The metatheatrical tendencies in Henry Sugar ping Asteroid City in a way that make it tempting to forsake the coached fussiness of the former for the grand humanism of the latter. And while Asteroid City roundly confirms Shakespeare’s dictum about worlds, stages, and players, it also neatly closes its speculative loop. Asteroid City exists on a soundstage for a studio audience (us) as much as in the dreams of its characters (also, provocatively, us). Who does Henry Sugar exist for?

There is a boy behind the camera that we cannot see. He’s there past its half-life of ending and existence. There is no one answer to life or love and words don’t need to be spoken with a certain timbre in order for the feeling behind them to tell its story. There are so many other ways of seeing and speaking. There is no single answer to despair. People go to sleep and don’t wake up. These things happen. Sometimes we make movies. This fact doesn’t change the sleeping or waking up—it’s just another way of seeing the world move. Sometimes we watch movies. And that is what I have done.

THE END