There appears to be three basic ways to approach adapting a book into a film. As with most things in life, the easiest way to illustrate this is through Stephen King film adaptations… The first, and most obvious method, is that of Frank Darabont with Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption (The Shawshank Redemption) or Rob Reiner with The Body (Stand By Me), which is to take a book and simply try to be as faithful as possible to the source material, leaving the dialogue and set pieces essentially in tact, making only minor changes for cinematic purposes. The second, and probably most sensible when tackling an 700+ page Stephen King novel, is that used by John Carpenter with Christine or David Cronenberg with The Dead Zone, which is to deliver a faithful, but condensed version of the book by building the screenplay around key scenes and concepts of the novel, removing repetitive and non-narrative scenes and sometimes combining characters. The final, and most interesting method, is to pick a few key scenes and ideas from a story and then build something completely new out of this handful of ideas, Stanley Kubrick did this to great success with The Shining (much to the ire of Stephen King who later readapted his novel into a considerably less interesting TV series), Brett Leonard did this to extraordinary WTF-ness with The Lawnmower Man and Stephen King himself did this and vast quantities of cocaine with Trucks (Maximum Overdrive).
Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox definitely falls into the third category. Thankfully. As enjoyable as it is as a book, about half of the 82 pages of my copy are taken up with Quentin Blake’s wonderful illustrations and the book’s noted market of “For younger readers” is reinforced by the rather large print contained within. At a rough guess, a faithful adaptation of the source material, would probably clock in at a mildly amusing and pretty unmemorable 20 minutes.
Roald Dahl’s story as it stands is as follows: There are three farmers (Boggis, Bunce and Bean) and a fox (Fantastic Mr Fox) who routinely steals from these farmers to feed his family. The farmers combine their efforts in an attempt to hunt down and kill the fox. After their initial attempt sees them successful only in shooting off his tail, they increase their efforts, first digging out his hole with shovels and then tractors, until finally surrounding the entire countryside with guns to kill any animal that stirs. As Fantastic Mr Fox, his family and the other animals trapped underground by the farmers begin to starve, he has a plan to save them all… A plan which is essentially digging further underground and making a tunnel to each farm to steal from each farmer while they are distracted waiting for the animals to emerge from the foxhole. The book ends with all of the animals feasting on the spoils purloined from the farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, while the three farmers wait, guns poised over the foxhole… “And so far as I know, they are still waiting”.
And that’s it. Not having read the book since I was about five, I was quite surprised on revisiting it that basically everything I loved about the book was completely misremembered through the filter of the film and not in the book at all. Apart from the very basic premise of a fox stealing from three ornery farmers who are determined to catch him, Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox bears little resemblance to Wes Anderson’s film. In fact, most of what makes the film version of Fantastic Mr. Fox great can be traced back to the creativity of the screenplay produced by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, with the two writers using the basic premise of the book as a foundation to build a much more complex story around that standard of Anderson’s filmography, an eccentric and dysfunctional family.
In the book we are introduced to Mr and Mrs Fox and their four children in the present day with: “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”. The opening scene of the film shows an immediate departure from this as Fantastic Mr Fox and his wife Felicity raid Berk’s squab farm and are captured in a cage where Felicity tells him that she is pregnant and “If we’re still alive in the morning I want you to find another line of work”. After Mr Fox replies “Okay”, we are shown a title card reading “Two years later – 12 fox-years” and see him in a shirt and tie reading the newspaper, while Felicity is in the kitchen making breakfast and their misfit son Ash is throwing a tantrum because he doesn’t want to go to school. This scene is pivotal in the story that Anderson and Baumbach want to tell and not only completely absent from the book, but also somewhat at odds with the source material.
The whimsical decision to introduce a fourth farmer whose name begins with B and a fifth species of bird absent from Dahl’s book creates a separation between his wild past and his more domesticated present, as well as making Fox’s conflict with Boggis, Bunce and Bean a clear result of his decision to move from the fox hole to a tree. Replacing the Foxs’ four children with one awkward son named “Ash”, brings into sharper focus Mr Fox’s struggles with his domesticity. In the book the children serve little purpose other than to be mouths to feed and accomplices in the final raids on the farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, with their character development going little further than the descriptions: “biggest of his four children”, “smaller foxes” and “smallest fox”. Ash, however, is a very complex character struggling with accepting who he is and finding his place in the world. A struggle which is exacerbated by the arrival of his cousin Kristofferson.
The biggest difference, however, is in the characters of Mr and Mrs Fox. As the film opens, we are shown an amusingly and unnecessarily complex Ocean’s Eleven style heist of the squab farm, where Mrs Fox is seen as being equally as capable as Mr Fox in the gathering of food… In fact probably more so, given that it’s Mr Fox’s hubris that finds them caught in a trap. However, two years later we see that she has happily settled into domestic life, preparing what looks suspiciously like vegetarian food and painting watercolours in her spare time. She is Mr Fox’s equal throughout the film, not only given a name (“Felicity”), something that is absent from the book, but at one point lashing out at Mr Fox for endangering their lives. Whereas Dahl’s Mrs Fox is completely one dimensional. Reliant on her husband not only for food, but for protection, becoming “so weak she can’t dig another yard” during their attempt to escape from the tractors. Mr Fox, on the other hand, lacks the confidence of his namesake in the source material, feeling unfulfilled in his work (he constantly questions whether anyone reads his newspaper column) and struggling with what appears to be a midlife crisis (“Honey, I am seven non-fox years old. My father died at seven and a half”).
In this opening, we are introduced to the key themes that Anderson and Baumbach will explore throughout the film. Whereas Dahl’s book was essentially a basic story of animal instinct and the environment, Anderson’s film expands on these themes with animal instinct being viewed through a filter of both domesticity and self-acceptance, whereas the natural environment is compared to a world of artificiality.
Throughout Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, we find Mr Fox grappling with the conflict between the responsibilities of his quiet domestic life and his wild animal instincts. It is made apparent from the opening (and reiterated several times) that Mr and Mrs Fox gave up the dangers (and excitement) of being “wild animals” in order to settle down and raise their son. We also learn from an almost breathless Coach Skip that in his youth Mr Fox was an astonishing athlete (a fact reinforced by his name dominating the whack bat trophy). However, it is apparent that in the past 12 fox-years while Mr Fox has been supporting his family, he has also been unfulfilled, dissatisfied with the lack of recognition and adventure in his work and life. As a result of this midlife crisis and dissatisfaction with his domestic surrounds, Mr Fox moves his family from the safety of a foxhole to the hazardous location of a tree on a hill near a group of dangerous farmers. After learning from Badger of the farmers and their large stores of various species of birds, Mr Fox cannot contain his wild animal instincts and orchestrates a series of heists on the farms, raising the ire of the farmers and bringing considerable danger to not only his community, but his marriage.
As well as his actual life, Mr Fox’s domestic life is threatened in every sense following the raids on the farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Having intentionally lied to his wife about his nightly enterprises, she is not only hurt by his lies and the danger that he has put their family in, but also by the breach of the commitment that he made after he found out about the impending birth of Ash. The resultant lack of trust brings a friction between the two that he tries to repair throughout the rest of the film, with Mrs Fox responding at one stage to Mr Fox’s “I love you” with “I love you, but I should have never married you”. By the end of the film, Mr and Mrs Fox have repaired their marriage and both glow with the news of the imminent arrival of a sibling for Ash.
While on the subject of domesticity, there’s a lot that could be said about the connection between that and the pivotal event (in both the book and the film) of Mr Fox’s tail being shot off as a symbolic castration… Although this is pretty much all I’m going to say about it.
Much is made in the book and the film about animal instincts. In the book, Mr Fox not only saves his family by relying on his instinct to dig, he also saves the community by being able to dig tunnels directly to the stores of Boggis, Bunce and Bean to retrieve food for all of the animals. In the film, animal instincts are balanced between something that needs to be controlled in order to maintain the safety of domestic life and something that needs to be harnessed for survival. Although Mr Fox regularly refers to “wild animals” (“I also see a room full of wild animals”, “That was pure wild animal craziness”) he and the other animals are clearly supressing their wild animal instincts. The animals all wear clothes, hold down jobs, send their kids to school, have hobbies and live in structures to avoid exposure to the outdoors.
However, when their lives are threatened, Mr Fox rallies the assembled animals to use their animal instincts to survive, telling them that they are all “Wild animals, with true natures and pure talents. Wild animals with scientific-sounding Latin names that mean something about our DNA. Wild animals each with his own strengths and weaknesses due to his or her species”, before calling each of them by their Latin names and making a list of their skills to put together a plan (Mr Fox: “Mole! Talpa Europea! What d’you got?” Mole: “I can see in the dark.” Mr Fox: “That’s incredible! We can use that!”). While the animal community are able to combine their natural animal instincts to work together and defeat the farmers, a lot of the success of this plan does seem to hinge on Badger’s natural talents as a “demolitions expert” and a lot of stunt motorcycle riding.
When Mrs Fox asks “Why did you lie to me?”, Mr Fox replies “Because I’m a wild animal”. Yet despite all of Mr Fox’s talk of “wild animals”, there really is only one wild animal in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and that’s the Wolf. Unlike every other animal in the film, the Wolf doesn’t walk upright, wear clothes or even speak English (or French). The moment Mr Fox encounters the Wolf standing out in the open in the middle of the day, unconcerned about predators or man, he is filled with awe. Due to Mr Fox’s separation from the wild, he is unable to communicate with the Wolf and can only show solidarity with a raised paw. Twice before this meeting, Mr Fox amusingly notes that although he isn’t “scared of wolves”, he has “a phobia of them”. His encounter with the Wolf, however, seems to confirm that his phobia is simply of his own “wild” side and after seeing the Wolf, Mr Fox rightly understands that he’s not, in fact, a “wild animal”. Subsequently, when his domesticity is reconfirmed soon after with Mrs Fox’s announcement of their second child, he literally glows.
Although the title of the film is Fantastic Mr. Fox and George Clooney has star billing, Wes Anderson’s film is really Ash’s story. Sure, most of the narrative revolves around Mr Fox and the results of his generally terrible decisions, however, as a character Mr Fox doesn’t appear to grow, change or even remotely learn from his mistakes. Similarly, the other main characters: Mrs Fox, Cousin Kristofferson, Badger and Kylie remain essentially the same from the beginning to the end of the film. Even in death Rat confesses that he was basically incapable of change (Mr Fox: “Would you have told me if I hadn’t killed you first?” Rat: “Never.”). Ash, however, begins the film as a frustrated, awkward misfit filled with jealousy and self-loathing, who by the end of the film is finally comfortable with who he is and happy with his place in the world.
As the film opens, Mrs Fox is pregnant with Ash, which ultimately changes the lives of Mr and Mrs Fox who we then see in all of their domesticated glory 12 fox-years later as parents to the complaining adolescent. The arrival and ongoing presence of Ash’s more intelligent, athletic and attractive cousin Kristofferson adds to his already growing awkwardness and self-loathing. This is exacerbated as everyone from Agnes (the girl Ash is attracted to), to Coach Skip and even his own father heap praise on Kristofferson and invite him to do the very things that Ash dreams of being asked to do. As the film progresses and the comfortable lives of the animals are disturbed by the assault from the farmers, Ash begins to focus less on his own problems and more on how he can contribute to his community.
His first steps are a misguided attempt at heroism (returning his father’s tail) that end in Kristofferson being captured and held to ransom by the farmers. However, following this failure, Ash attempts to make up for his past mistakes. His rescue of Kristofferson is successful, in part from him accepting who he is and using those gifts that he has (“I can fit through there. Want to know why? Because I’m little.”) and in part from him (albeit clumsily) taking the advice of others who are more skilled in how to do something. In the climactic battle, Ash again uses his size, heroically ducking and weaving in order to release the rabid hound onto the farmers guaranteeing the animals’ victory and retrieving Mr Fox’s tail. By the end of the film we see Ash gaining the acceptance of the others, joining Kristofferson and Agnes in meditation, receiving a special bandit hat from his father and ready to welcome a sibling. However, in the final scene, we also see Ash comfortable and confident in his difference, still dressed in his white cape and enjoying his grape juice as every other fox holds a box of apple juice.
Jason Schwartzman’s performance as Ash is flawless, perfectly capturing the petulance, anger, and immaturity of the conflicted adolescent fox at the start of the film and subtly shifting to his happier and more confident persona at the end. His exasperated reading, in particular, of the perceived injustices that Ash most tolerate with the arrival of cousin Kristofferson make for many of my favourite lines in the film (“There’s a lot of attitudes going on around here… Don’t let me get one.”, “Me? Me Have an apology? He gets a bandit hat? He just got here, and he gets a bandit hat? Where’s my bandit hat? Why didn’t I get shot at? It’s because, you… you… you think I’m no good at anything! Well, maybe you’re right. Thanks.”). At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning again that Ash is not actually a character in the book.
Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox can certainly be interpreted as an environmental fable, with nature ultimately defeating Boggis, Bunce and Bean, undeterred by their attempts to conquer it. Despite their factory farms and their brutal attacks on the environment with guns, shovels and eventually tractors, the book ends with the farmers in the rain not knowing that they’ve been bettered by the foxes. Although the film itself is more invested in the themes noted above, Dahl’s environmental concerns are certainly not overlooked and are brought to the forefront most strikingly as The Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter” accompanies the destruction of “The Terrible Tractors”. Anderson also subtly notes the mark the farmers have left on the environment, with their names regularly marked across towers, buildings, banners hanging from the back of airplanes and even the landscape itself.
Against this view of nature and the environment, Anderson’s film regularly compares this world to that of the artificial and often very unnatural. What is most surprising is that this isn’t done in a judgemental or negative way and is, in fact, what ultimately saves the animals. We are shown in the introduction to Boggis, Bunce and Bean, their industrial farming methods and large appetites for rather unnatural foods, most notably Bunce’s machine for forcing his duck liver paste into donuts and Bean’s mutated red apples with stars on them. Mr Fox’s decision, against everybody’s advice, to move his family from the relative safety of a foxhole (the natural home for a fox), to the far less secure tree on top of a hill (a very unnatural home for a fox) is the catalyst for the events in the film.
Interestingly, the animals are eventually saved and are seen to be apparently thriving in the sewers, a decidedly unnatural equivalent to the tunnels and foxholes of their natural environment. In fact Mr Fox’s final speech, in the very artificial man-made world of Boggis, Bunce and Bean’s International Supermarket, praises this unnatural world and the bizarre synthetic foods that have allowed them to survive: “They say all foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum, but it’s cool to the paw – try it. They say my tail needs to be dry cleaned twice a month, but now it’s fully detachable – see? They say our tree may never grow back, but one day, something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose and these giblets come from artificial squab and even these apples look fake – but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes – to our survival”.
One of the more notable differences between the book and the film is in the way the characters are portrayed in each. While Dahl’s book details considerably more about Mr Fox’s motivations than, say, we ever learnt from Fun With Dick And Jane about exactly why it is that Spot is running, it is still a book “For younger readers” and the various animals mentioned in the book are generally little more than crude sketches of characters. In fact, the only characters drawn with any depth by Dahl are Boggis, Bunce and Bean. In contrast, Anderson and Baumbach created a series of detailed and complicated characters, who were either not in the book at all (Cousin Kristofferson, Kylie) or very vague archetypes (Rat, Badger). Obviously, the added complexity of the themes that Anderson explores in the film required considerably more depth of character than the source material provided, however, many of the additional characters, such as Coach Skip and Petey are there primarily for comic effect. It’s interesting that several of these characters created for the film featured prominently in the film’s advertising, differentiating Anderson’s film from Dahl’s book even prior to release.
To successfully adapt any story essentially based around the lives of talking animals, some form of animation is really the only format that is going to work with any level of success. Given Wes Anderson’s distinct visual style, precise framing and repeated use of unreal, stylised objects in his films (think of the cross section view of the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or the luggage in The Darjeeling Limited), it was only a matter of time before he made an entire feature using some form of animation and stop-motion could not be a more perfect format for him.
The method of stop motion that Anderson used for Fantastic Mr. Fox is very different to that of other contemporary animators such as Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas and notably the marine life for Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) or the various Aardman Animations productions (Shaun The Sheep). Rather than the precise plasticine figures and landscapes of these filmmakers, Anderson’s animation contains cruder, but more textured materials, such as a faux fur for all of the animals that moves from frame to frame, cotton wool for puffs of smoke and even a real corduroy suit for Mr Fox.
This form of animation offers a fascinating and often spectacular mix of reality and unreality, particularly with the earthy yellows, oranges and browns which dominate the film’s colour palette. Importantly, this style is not only able to lend itself to comic vignettes, such as the game of whack bat or the heist seen entirely through CCTV monitors, but it can also create some stunningly beautiful images. Probably the two scenes that are the most visually stunning are those where Mr and Mrs Fox separate from the others to speak in private, firstly in front of a mineral deposit and secondly in front of the waterfall created by the sewer system.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Anderson and Baumbach’s screenplay is the humour… Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is a very funny film. While there is a lightheartedness to Dahl’s writing, the only real humour in the book is at the expense of Boggis, Bunce and Bean and it is somewhat telling that the bulk of the dialogue and scenes that are faithfully reproduced in the film involve these characters. The humour in Anderson’s film is drawn from many sources: The stop motion animation is regularly used to create elaborate sight gags, the actors’ performances and often personas are used to great comic effect and many of the scenes and characters are absurd or exaggerated to the point of hilarity. However, it is the sheer wit of the dialogue which makes for the biggest laughs.
Probably the most ingenious piece of screenwriting is the repeated use of the all purpose swear word “cuss”. The brilliance of this is not only in the obvious humour of the word and its use throughout, but in its surprising faithfulness to the spirit of the book. Obviously a children’s book and its subsequent film adaptation would be unlikely to be filled with a stream of expletives, however, in the book Boggis, Bunce and Bean regularly take to cursing their lot in general and Mr Fox in particular. One escalating exchange between the three in the book goes from “dingbat” to “dang and blast that filthy stinking fox” to “Bean’s face was purple with rage. Bunce was cursing the fox with dirty words that cannot be printed” in the space of a page… It is easy to see these “dirty words that cannot be printed” transforming into “cuss” and this word then finding its way further and further integrated into the script. The use of “cuss”, is a wonderful turn of phrase that allows both adults and children to watch the film and each extrapolate their own meaning onto each “cuss”, or simply just enjoy the ludicrousness of exchanges like this:
Mr Fox: “I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable, but I’m gonna ignore your advice.”
Badger: “The cuss you are.”
Mr Fox: “The cuss am I? Are you cussing with me?”
Badger: “No, you cussing with me?”
Mr Fox: “Don’t cussing point at me!”
Badger: “If you’re gonna cuss with somebody, you’re not gonna cuss with me, you little cuss!”
Mr Fox: “You’re not gonna cuss with me!”
Further to its common usage in conversation throughout the film, the omnipresence of “cuss” in the world of Fantastic Mr. Fox is wonderfully reinforced by its use in Jarvis Cocker’s “Petey’s Song” (“Shot the tail off the cuss with a fox-shootin’ gun”) and even as graffiti painted on a building in the village.
Cussing aside, the dialogue for Fantastic Mr. Fox is consistently, well… “Quote, unquote: Fantastic”. The film is filled with so many quotable lines… From Bean’s pithy put down of Petey (Bean: “What are you singing, Petey?” Petey: “Erm… I just kind of made it up as I went along, really.” Bean: “That’s just weak songwriting! You wrote a bad song, Petey!”), to Mole’s frustrated, if somewhat misguided outburst (Mole: “I just want to see… a little sunshine.” Mr Fox: “But you’re nocturnal, Phil. Your eyes barely open on a good day.” Mole: “I’m sick of your double talk, we have rights!”), to the downright absurd: “Redemption? Sure. But in the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.”
A lot of this dialogue is greatly enhanced by not only the performances by the voice actors, but in many cases simply by the personas of these actors. George’s Clooney’s ability to portray a particular combination of charm and arrogance works perfectly to personify Mr Fox’s clueless confidence. The overly elaborate heists that Mr Fox choreographs are a clear nod to those of Danny Ocean in the Ocean’s Eleven series of films, while his use of his charm and good looks without any understanding of the consequence of his actions calls back to pretty much every role that Clooney has played for the Coen Brothers. Michael Gambon’s Bean is certainly one of the standout performances in the film and a large part of this can be put down to him channeling the menacing gangster Albert Spica that he portrayed in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. Bringing the sensibilities of this murderous thief to what is essentially a comic children’s film, gives Bean an ominousness that brings an edge to Fantastic Mr. Fox. Bill Murray as Badger also reliably brings the same world-weariness married to an immaculate comic timing that has become an essential ingredient of pretty much every Wes Anderson film since Murray’s career changing performance as Herman J. Blume in Rushmore.
In adapting Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach managed to successfully take a much loved, but very basic children’s book and create an intricate world in which to explore several complex ideas. What’s more, they did this in a way that was not only very funny, but able to appeal equally to both children and adults… Quite the cussing achievement.