Almost 20 years ago writer-director Wes Anderson was inspired to adapt Roald Dahl’s story The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. “ The story completely hooked me as a child, but if you take away his words, well, I guess, it’s not a movie I felt compelled to do. It’s a great Dahl story, but if I do it using his words, his descriptions, then maybe I know how to do it.”
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is a beloved Roald Dahl story about a rich man who learns about a guru who can see without using his eyes and then sets out to master the skill in order to cheat at gambling.
When the idea to adapt Dahl’s story two decades ago, Anderson was staying at Gipsy House (which is Dahl’s family house in Buckinghamshire), he didn’t know how to tackle the adaptation. “Over the years, the Dahl family — Felicity Dahl and Dahl’s grandson Luke Kelly — kept the rights to the story set aside for me. I was equally interested in the way Dahl tells the story as I am in the story itself.”
Pictured above: (L to R) Benedict Cumberbatch as Henry Sugar, Sir Ben Kingsley as Croupier, and Wes Anderson (Director) in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Cr. Roger Do Minh/Netflix ©2023
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Wes Anderson had three other short films based on Roald Dahl’s work.
Watch these short films on Netflix: The Swan, The Ratcatcher and Poison
A Conversation with Writer / Director Wes Anderson
Dahl uses the construct of having his narrator tell the story of a man who finds a journal written by another man. The plot is filtered through the recollections of many voices.
I think of that in relation to Joseph Conrad (novelist and short story writer), and Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig, which is one of the things that led to The Grand Budapest Hotel, but maybe Henry Sugar was one of the books I was thinking of, too, when we set to work on that movie, as well.
You not only use Dahl’s words, the characters address the audience. You are being told the story directly. That’s why Dahl is in it because he is the storyteller, not just the author. And the actors are both playing the scene and reciting Dahl’s words.
What does Dahl’s work mean to you and do you remember when you first started reading him?
I think I came to Dahl right at the moment when he reached the peak of his popularity, which he maintained after that, but at that moment the interest in his work was pretty spectacular and international. Among children, I mean. We loved our school book fair, which was filled with new books and old books, and Dahl was always a big presence. We loved these books, and we knew his picture from the back, we knew the guy telling us the story, and his voice was so strong that you sort of felt like you knew him. And there is something about that — about feeling that you have a personal relationship to the author telling the story.
Some authors deliver that more than others. Dahl was full of plots. When we were doing Mr. Fox, we spent some time perusing his archives, which were then mostly at Gipsy House. Luke showed us
how many, many, many story ideas there were, and how frequently he had new ideas for stories and scribbled a sentence and set it aside. So many, too many, he never even began to dig into. It was just natural to him.
The plot and the details of the stories become impossible for the reader to forget. This is part of the thing for people who know Henry Sugar: they very likely have tried to look through the back of a playing card, or stare at a candle flame to develop this power, to do the thing in the story. It’s got that kind of hook.
How did you come to the idea of having the actors playing multiple characters?
I like the idea, right off the bat, of having a little company play the whole film. Benedict Cumberbatch was a key figure and someone I had been wanting to work with. I have a little history with Ralph Fiennes, and having Ralph play Dahl: was something that made me kind of want to do it. I hadn’t worked with Richard Ayoade, but have known him for years and years. Rupert I have worked with, of course. He is
dazzling in The Swan. Dev, I also love and have tried to work with once before. This time he said ‘Yes.’ Ben Kingsley is crucial. We loved him. It’s nice to have somebody new and legendary at once. It was a great experience with the whole gang from start to finish.
More so than your other work — from the plays of Max Fischer in Rushmore through the Belafonte ship in The Life Aquatic and the backstage of Asteroid City — this film is all stagecraft, I daresay sleight-of-hand.
In this case, one film I thought of in relation to it was Swimming to Cambodia, Jonathan Demme’s film of Spalding Gray’s stage show. Demme keeps it a stage show, essentially, with Spalding Gray talking to the camera, and it’s somewhere in between a feature and a documentary. The way the transitions happen between parts, and the way the story is told, it is all done with theatrical effects and sounds. I think
I thought, “Let’s make this sort of an ‘art movie’.”
You have Ralph Fiennes, as Dahl, in his writer’s hut at Gipsy House. How faithfully did you recreate it?
We did the real one — we tried to recreate it exactly. We used some things that the Dahl Museum loaned us (though mostly we tried not to borrow because we didn’t want to lose or damage something). We did this before in The Fantastic Mr. Fox when we recreated the workspace in miniature.
You have the actors working with incredibly long monologues.
They took it and did it. You hand it to them, and then you step back and watch. ♠