Roald Dahl, illustrated by Jill Bennett, Fantastic Mr Fox (1970, Puffin 1974)
I came out of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox wondering if I oughtn’t reconsider my devotion to the cinema. The film is brilliant, witty, beautifully performed all round, and – for me – a totally pointless experience. Was this like the moment when a 12 month old child decides that the breast is history? (That moment in the life of one of our sons, incidentally, happened in the cinema: he wouldn’t accept his mother’s breast and insisted on crying loudly. The movie was The Turning Point. True.) Then I remembered my last five outings to the pictures, and I’m looking forward to the next sip of mother’s milk. I did, however, feel the need to read Roald Dahl’s book on which the film was based.
Though in my days as a young parent I was a Dahl fan, I hadn’t read Fantastic Mr Fox, but we have a copy stashed away. I dug it out. Sure enough, it seems to me that Wes Anderson kept the story outline, elaborated it with myriad Hollywood tropes, and missed the point. Specifically, the movie completely missed that Dahl’s story is deeply and deliciously ironic. It takes place in rural England, and depends on the reader knowing that farmers are generally decent people who work hard to provide food for our tables: farms are benign places, and foxes are pests who savagely murder poultry that’s meant for us to eat. With that basic assumption in mind, underlined in this Puffin edition by Jill Bennett’s drawings of a classic idyllic countryside, Dahl opens his narrative with pen portraits of three physically grotesque, gluttonous and generally vile farmers, and a fox whose nightly depredations are portrayed as the behaviour of a responsible, loving husband and father. He draws on the folk tradition of the fox as clever, and uses the sneaking sympathy for foxes that is all through children’s literature as a lever to turn the moral order on its head. The book is subversive, shocking in a delicious way and, as the farmers become more murderous and the fox cleverer in outwitting them, it’s also jolly good fun. It’s like a vulpine Peter Rabbit.
Maybe in these days of vast chicken factories it just doesn’t make sense to demonise small farmers, even as ironically. or maybe that irritating commonplace that Americans don’t do irony (that link is to a particularly irritating example) has some truth to it after all, given that I would have thought Wes Anderson was one of the best counter-examples. Whatever the explanation, the farmers in the movie are not only grotesque, gluttonous and generally vile, they are immediately recognisable as representing rapacious industrial capitalism: their ‘farms’ look like combination gasworks and concentration camps. These are awfully familiar villains. Dahl’s fox talks and wears clothes, but his behaviour is fox-like – he lives in a hole, has four barely differentiated cubs – so that there’s an appeal to the (young and other) reader’s knowledge about actual foxes and their actual status as pests. Anderson’s fox lives in a tree with all mod cons, writes a newspaper column, has to deal with a ‘different’ adolescent son. He’s as much as fox as Mickey is a mouse.
All this doesn’t necessarily matter in itself. If Fox and his underground friends are trapped in a sewer with archways and electric light rather than a deep hole they’ve dug themselves, and find their salvation in a vast supermarket filled with frozen and canned food rather than among the living or freshly killed poultry on the farms themselves, it’s just a different story, isn’t it? Well, yes. Different, and duller. Much of the original text survives, but in my opinion it loses everything, its ironic lifeblood drained out and replaced by clever-dick formaldehyde.
If you’re planning to go to this movie, and especially if you’re planning to take a young person to see it, I urge you to read the book, or read the book to the young person, first.