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A perfect artistic union: Wes Anderson adapts Roald Dahl's singularly strange visions

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Netflix has rolled out four short adaptations of equally short stories by Roald Dahl, the author of such well-known longer stories as "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory," "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "The Witches." Adapting these short stories for television and directing them is Wes Anderson, whose own longer works include "Asteroid City," "Rushmore" and a stop animation version of Dahl's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." Our TV critic David Bianculli says that, once again, the joining of Anderson's and Dahl's singularly strange visions makes for a perfect artistic union. Here's David's review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In addition to all the movie adaptations of Roald Dahl's works, from "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory" to "The BFG," he's been no stranger to television. In the 1950s and '60s, Alfred Hitchcock used his TV anthology series to present classic versions of some of Dahl's creepier short stories. One was "Lamb To The Slaughter," where a pregnant wife killed her unfaithful husband by clubbing him with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasting the murder weapon and serving it to the investigating detectives. Another was the "Man From The South," which starred Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen as gamblers who entertained a fairly horrifying bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: MAN FROM THE SOUTH")

PETER LORRE: (As Carlos) Look. I'm devoted to gambling, but I have never asked anybody to put up more than he can afford to lose.

STEVE MCQUEEN: (As Gambler) Yeah? What, for instance?

LORRE: (As Carlos) Oh, I'm going to make it easy for you, easy for you to win a car, I mean. Is that all right?

MCQUEEN: (As Gambler) I'm listening. I like the easy part.

LORRE: (As Carlos) Well, I'm thinking of some small thing that you could afford to give away and if you lose, well, you won't have to feel so bad, such as the little finger on your left hand.

MCQUEEN: (As Gambler) My what?

LORRE: (As Carlos) Is that so strange? He wins, he takes the car. I win, I take his finger. Is that so strange?

BIANCULLI: Then, in the '70s and '80s, Roald Dahl himself appeared as the TV host of another anthology series, serving up new but inferior versions of those two stories of his, along with many others. That British series was called "Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected" and began, like Hitchcock's show, with a personal, on-camera intro.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROALD DAHL'S TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED")

ROALD DAHL: I ought to warn you, if you haven't read any of my stories, that you may be a little disturbed by some of the things that happen in them. When I'm writing a short story, I'm haunted by the thought that I've got to hold the reader's attention for literally every second. Otherwise, I'm dead.

BIANCULLI: And now on Netflix come new adaptations of four Roald Dahl short stories, all of them written for the screen and directed by Wes Anderson and all of them featuring his dazzling, fairytale-book visuals. The longest of these, "The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar," is under 40 minutes. Others are half that length. But all of them are gorgeously filmed, wonderfully acted and astoundingly faithful to the text and tone of the original prose. In addition to the unique look of these adaptations, Anderson takes a unique approach as well. He makes two brilliant artistic decisions. The first one is that he has a small repertory company playing all the major parts. So Ralph Fiennes, for example, plays not only a creepy, rat-like exterminator in "The Rat Catcher," among other roles. He also plays a version of Roald Dahl himself, providing occasional introductions and other observations, as in the opening scene setting up this series.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RAT CATCHER")

RALPH FIENNES: (As Roald Dahl) Well, here we are now in the hut where I write. I've been in this hut for 30 years now. Well, it's important. Before I start, I like to make sure I have everything around me that I'm going to need - cigarettes, of course, some coffee, chocolates. And I always make sure I have a sharp pencil before I start.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENCIL SHARPENER WHIRRING)

FIENNES: (As Roald Dahl) I have six pencils, and then I like to clean my writing board - so many bits of rubber.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUBBER SCRAPING)

FIENNES: (As Roald Dahl) There. And then finally, one starts.

BIANCULLI: But the other brilliant approach in Anderson's telling of these tales is that he lets the various characters serve, on occasion, as their own narrators, looking at the camera directly and spouting descriptive passages and stage directions, breaking the fourth wall while still playing the scene. It's daring, but it works. And it has them doing it at warp speed, talking so rapidly it's almost hypnotizing. In "The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar," there are four different levels of narrative flashbacks or digressions, each with its own storyteller. One of them is Benedict Cumberbatch, who tells of Henry Sugar finding a book in a library while, at the same time, playing the role of Henry Sugar.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WONDERFUL STORY OF HENRY SUGAR")

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Henry Sugar) He was about to leave when his eye was caught and held by something quite different. It was so slim, he never would have noticed it if it hadn't been sticking out a little from the books on the other side. He pulled it from the shelf. It was actually nothing more than a cardboard exercise book of the kind that children use at school. The cover was dark blue, but there was nothing written on it.

BIANCULLI: Then, as Henry opens the pamphlet to read it, the story is taken over by another rep company member, Dev Patel. He's a doctor telling his story - and also acting it out - of being visited by a man with an outrageous extrasensory claim. That man is played by yet another rep company member of this talented troupe, Ben Kingsley.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WONDERFUL STORY OF HENRY SUGAR")

DEV PATEL: (As Z.Z. Chatterjee) My name is Z.Z. Chatterjee, head surgeon at Lords and Ladies Hospital, Calcutta. On the morning of the 2 of December 1935, I was in the doctor's restroom, having a cup of tea. Three other doctors were present with me - Dr. Marshall (ph), Dr. Mitra (ph) and Dr. McFarland (ph). There was a knock on the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIST KNOCKING)

PATEL: (As Z.Z. Chatterjee) Come in, I said.

BEN KINGSLEY: (As Imdad Khan) Excuse me, please. May I ask you gentlemen a favor?

PATEL: (As Z.Z. Chatterjee) This is a private room, I said.

KINGSLEY: (As Imdad Khan) Yes, I know. And I'm very sorry to burst in like this, but I have a most, I think, interesting thing to show you.

PATEL: (As Z.Z. Chatterjee) All four of us were pretty annoyed, and we didn't say anything.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Imdad Khan) Gentlemen, I'm a man who can see without using his eyes.

BIANCULLI: In addition to "The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar" and "The Rat Catcher," the other stories presented by Anderson on Netflix are "The Swan" and "Poison," which was adapted by Dahl's own TV series but terribly. Every one of these new TV offerings is spellbinding. And even if Netflix or Wes Anderson might not think of them as a modern TV anthology series right up there with "Black Mirror," I sure do.

GROSS: David Bianculli is professor of television studies at Rowan University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the history of Hamas and how it got to the point that it could launch such a shocking and devastating attack on Israel. Our guest will be Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW POKE'S "THE SATURDAY OPTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.