- Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 1970
Written early in Dahl’s “second career” as a writer of children’s literature, Fantastic Mr. Fox is generally considered one of his more minor works compared to well-known tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. Writing in “Children’s Literature Association Quarterly,” Adrienne Kertzer says “scholarly attention has tended to concentrate upon other Dahl works, possibly because they are regarded as more subversive and/or controversial.”
It’s true that on the surface there seems to be little that is subversive or controversial in this slender volume – approximately 80 pages of text and full of Quentin Blake’s sprawling illustrations. The story introduces Mr. Fox and his wife Mrs. Fox, who have four Small Foxes who, while charmingly capitalized, are never named. The Fox family are at least assigned titles; other animal characters are given no such honor (Badger, Rabbit, Mole). Mr. Fox goes about his fox business, which is presented matter-of-factly: “Every evening as soon as it got dark, Mr. Fox would say to Mrs. Fox, ‘Well my darling, what shall it be this time? A plump chicken from Boggis? A duck or a goose from Bunce? Or a nice turkey from Bean?’ And when Mrs. Fox had told him what she wanted, Mr. Fox would creep down into the valley in the darkness of the night and help himself.” Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are also not afforded the honor of titles; they are the mean and nasty farmers who are the villains of the tale and considered “horrible crooks” by the local children. As Mr. Fox goes about his stated business, it of course alarms and upsets the farmers, who take up a single-minded mission: to destroy Mr. Fox at all costs. Mr. Fox, despite starting the trouble to begin with, winds up saving the day and being declared “fantastic!” repeatedly by Mrs. Fox – and the other local animals agree, as they celebrate the emptying of the greedy farmers’ stores while the farmers themselves were too bent on vengeance to notice.
Regardless of the fact it was not the same level of commercial success as other of Dahl’s works from around the same time, Fantastic Mr. Fox is still well-known and quite well loved by many. It is never given a distinct geographic setting but there is a pervasive and understated English-ness to the whole thing, from the somewhat fussy formal dress of the Fox family to the oh-so-British determined-ness of the farmers (quite to their own detriment; the book ends on them sitting, perpetually, outside the Fox family hole while all the animals feast on their stolen stores). The cunning animals outwit the mean farmers at every turn, and the fable comes out in a way pleasing to children and adults as well.
- Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009
One of the many people loving Dahl’s book was, by all accounts including his own, Wes Anderson. Born a year before it was published, Anderson has fond memories of the book. In his extensive “New Yorker” piece on Anderson, Richard Brody writes “Roald Dahl’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is the first book that Anderson remembers owning. (Owen Wilson told me that he was still talking about Dahl in college.)” And years after college, Anderson chose to make Fantastic Mr. Fox the first novel he adapted for film (he wrote or co-wrote all his prior movies himself).
No matter how much Wes Anderson may love Dahl’s original work, there was no question it would need to be expanded to be made into a feature film. Kertzer discusses “the text’s literal expansion in that Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s script treats Dahl’s short story as the middle chapter of a three-chapter plot.” Brody expands on this observation, “[t]hey amplified the characters’ relationships, as well as their conflicts, invented new characters, and gave names, identities, and backstories to the characters who, in the book, are merely sketched in action. The result is not just a longer narrative but also an expanded emotional spectrum.”
Expanded story and emotional spectrum are joined by the painstaking artistry of stop-motion animation. Anderson has gained a reputation over the years as a somewhat painstaking director himself, and a number of commenters expressed no surprise whatsoever that he chose stop-motion technique for his first animated work. Writing in “New Review of Film and Television Studies,” Tom Dorey observes “One of the most prominent American filmmakers of his generation, Anderson’s films show an increasingly tight control over the cinematic worlds he creates for his characters to populate and over the characters themselves; in this regard, his auteur signature becomes increasingly more visible from film to film.”
The expressive, solid reality of the puppets used in stop-motion animation brought delightful personification to the expanded cast of Anderson’s film. The Fox family is altered slightly, Mr. and Mrs. Fox have only one child, a son who is actually given a name (Ash), and they play host to their visiting nephew Kristofferson while his father recovers from double pneumonia. Badger is now Mr. Fox’s lawyer, advising him on the real-estate market, and Mr. Fox has a new best friend, Kylie, a simple and sweet-minded opossum who joins Mr. Fox on his raiding adventures despite not always understanding what he’s getting into (“Before we go any farther, from now on can you give me some kind of signal once in a while just so that I know any of this is getting through to you?”). There is a fun diversion and plot-point regarding Mr. Fox’s athletic prowess at a fictional game called “whack-bat” (explained by Owen Wilson as Coach Skip in a hilarious scene), and perhaps most importantly, Mrs. Fox is greatly expanded as a character and personality (she is also given a name – Felicity, a tribute to Dahl’s second wife).
While the basic plot does not change – clever animals outwit nasty farmers – the added personalities, complexities, and adventures add up to something quite a bit more than Dahl set out in his slender volume. No longer just about the greed of mean farmers, family relationships come to the forefront and can even be said to overshadow the threats posed by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. If the movie arguably changes the focus of the book, what does that say about the success of the adaptation?
- The Adaptation
Wes Anderson has been linked with a “New Sincerity” movement in film-making, characterized by filmmakers creating worlds and characters that they sincerely wish well for – as opposed to ironic detachment, cynically placing characters in a situation and feeling “above” them. Dorey writes, “What better confirmation of his continued cinematic manifestations of sincerity than revisiting a favoured childhood text with a nostalgic, handmade form of movie-making that has been long eclipsed by other forms of animation, obviously distinct from the hyperrealistic computer-generated images of the Pixar and DreamWorks animation studios that dominate the contemporary box office?”
There is no doubt Anderson’s love for Dahl’s work is front and center in his film. The opening shot is entirely silent, and displays text from the book (“Boggis and Bunce and Bean / One fat / One short / One lean” etc.) before the soundtrack begins and the shot changes to an animated hand holding …a library copy of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. The colors chosen for the shots echo the colors of the book and the colors remain a vivid reminder of the beloved basis for the film throughout.
Kertzer’s essay, however, argues that Anderson “protests too much” – that he makes almost too strong an argument for fidelity to Dahl’s work when in fact he works some changes on the original that are fairly profound. Presenting her own research that there is often a “ferocious” response when it comes to children’s literature particularly when it comes to the fidelity of literary adaptations, she makes an interesting observation about her own response to Anderson’s film: “Not only has the film prompted my return to Dahl, including books that I had never read simply because Anderson’s affection for Dahl’s fiction and his decade-long determination to make the film made me wonder what I had been missing, but it has also driven me from an initial indifference to whether the film is faithful to Dahl to a curiosity about the obsession with fidelity operative within both the discourse of the film and its subsequent marketing.”
There are an elaborate series of marketing videos available on YouTube (search for “fantastic mr fox behind the scenes” or see also link below) that were released prior to the release of the film to pique audience interest. In the very first video we learn that Wes Anderson actually had video taken of himself performing nearly every action that Mr. Fox makes in the film, to show the animators the precise motions – even facial expressions – he had in mind. There is also brief footage of George Clooney being filmed doing this. Considering the time and attention this must have taken, again, it is impossible to argue against Anderson’s devotion to the material.
By the very act of choosing to take a book so well-loved by him and changing it so profoundly – where in Dahl’s original is there room for Mrs. Fox to say “I love you too, but I never should have married you”? – Anderson had to be conscious that his own artistic creation would then have the potential to change others’ perceptions of Dahl’s work. By adding so much to the original, there were always going to be people who had never read the Dahl book who went to it and said, “This? This is it?” (Full disclosure: I had never read the book before this class, and that reaction was mine.) But as Kertzer notes of herself – the film prompted her to revisit Dahl, even his other works.
The act of creation is an act of inspiration. Wes Anderson, so inspired by Roald Dahl’s book that he wouldn’t shut up about it to his college roommate, brought out this film when he was forty years old. Although the book is not much more than the small stiff wire model holding up all the delightful clay of Anderson’s creation, it is arguably one of the most successful adaptations we have seen in the course of this class. Every tiny line and detail was created purely out of love of the story and the joy of imagination making it anew. Rather than parroting the creation of another, it opens up a broad response to “adaptation” that encompasses something beyond mere fidelity.
“Fidelity, Felicity, and Playing Around in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox”
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly
http://literature.proquest.com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/searchFullrec.do?&resultNum=1&entries=1&area=abell&forward=critref_fr&queryId=2873304103572&trailId=14DE4A3D43E (requires UniversityID login)
“Fantastic Mr. Filmmaker: paratexts and the positioning of Wes Anderson as Roald Dahl’s cinematic heir”
New Review of Film and Television Studies
“Songs of Innocence & Experience: Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, and the Post-Boomer”
No date given; issue CS41
“Wild, Wild Wes”
The New Yorker
Nov. 2, 2009
Additional material: “Behind the Scenes: Fantastic Mr. Fox”
series of promotional videos