The great mystery, however, is what Roald Dahl might have made of the best film ever adapted from one of his books, the film that left his work more intact than any other while simultaneously inverting its perspective and retrofitting it to align with one of the most distinctive voices in modern American film—a voice that might appear entirely dissimilar to Dahl’s but may yet be a kindred spirit in the subtlest and most significant of ways.
Virtually the entire plot of Roald Dahl’s 1970 novel Fantastic Mr. Fox is faithfully represented in Wes Anderson’s 2009 cinematic adaptation. At the novel’s outset, three farmers—Boggis, Bunce, and Bean; one fat, one short, one lean—have grown exasperated with the namesake carnivore, who routinely pillages their storehouses in order to bring home food for his family. The farmers execute a vicious mechanical assault on the Fox burrow, driving the family deep underground. All hope seems lost as the Foxes—along with their neighbors, including the Badger, Mole, Rabbit, and Weasel families—begin succumbing to the effects of malnutrition. Regretting that his actions have caused such suffering, Mr. Fox mounts a daring mission, raiding all three farms alongside his children and his friend Badger. In the end, Mr. Fox successfully secures enough food to rescue his community, and in the process creates a network of tunnels that will enable them to live happily, and well-fed, ever after.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is an ideal children’s story, a simple tale of charming heroes bedeviling gruesome villains; at just under 10,000 words (about three times the length of this essay), it can be comfortably cleared in a few nights of bedtime reading. It’s exactly this rail-thin yet sturdy plot—more streamlined than James and the Giant Peach or Matilda yet more conventionally shaped than The Twits, a Dahl novel of similar length that’s struggled through decades of attempted adaptation—that makes Fantastic Mr. Fox an ideal vehicle for free interpretation. And, as anyone familiar with the director’s famously imitable style can immediately identify, it’s exactly this freedom that Wes Anderson took advantage of, using the events of Dahl’s book as a core from which to spin his own web of personal style and thematic concern. “Dahl had [Mr. Fox’s] tail get shot off,” Anderson notes to Matt Zoller Seitz in The Wes Anderson Collection. “We made it into a necktie. That might basically describe the collaboration.”
For as many riffs and flourishes as Anderson adds, his fidelity to Dahl’s story is often surprisingly meticulous. Sequences that might seem at first blush to be pure Anderson are, in fact, taken virtually whole-cloth from Dahl—Badger’s propulsively precise report on the personalities of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean may be in line with similar deadpan-absurd briefings throughout the Anderson oeuvre, but it’s taken essentially word-for-word from the book’s opening pages. Even the specific laconic position in which Anderson’s Rat is found in Bean’s cider cellar—not to mention sartorial choices that fit in seamlessly alongside Anderson’s deceptively simple but instantly iconic costume designs—perfectly mimics original illustrator Donald Chaffin’s depiction of Dahl’s “saucy” rodent.