It’s been a busy year for Wes Anderson. While the acclaimed director’s latest feature film Asteroid City has dominated the conversation around the auteur this year, he actually had five films that debuted in 2023. And the best one isn’t Asteroid City — it’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (let’s call it Henry Sugar for short) is part of a larger project for Netflix where Anderson adapts the works of Roald Dahl. Both Anderson and Netflix have shown interest in Dahl’s works over the years, with Anderson adapting Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009 and the streaming service acquiring the Roald Dahl Story Company for $686 million in 2021.
In fact, according to an interview with IndieWire, Anderson has been wanting to adapt Henry Sugar “for years.” But he struggled with turning it into a feature film, which was the original plan in his mind. Instead, he eventually decided to turn it into a short film similar to a “BBC Play for Today,” and that decision has led to one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen.
Henry Sugar is unlike any movie you’ve seen recently
I had no idea that Anderson intended to do Henry Sugar as a play going into watching the short film, but now that I know that it makes so much sense. When I would describe the show to friends and family, I typically called it a costumed table reading or a play designed to shown be as a movie. This adaptation feels like a play from the onset.
But it works so well, and more adaptations could take this approach. Granted, I think this strategy works best when your source material is a short story or a play — I wouldn’t advocate that Game of Thrones be adapted this way — but by doing Henry Sugar as a play, it allows Anderson to stay incredibly faithful to the source material.
It also allows Anderson to keep the film incredibly tight, in terms of duration, pacing and cast. The Netflix version is only 39 minutes long, and at no point will you be checking your phone. The pacing is so tight and crisp, moving from one scene to the other, that there’s no real fat to trim. You don’t feel like you’re ever getting a filler scene or something inserted by a studio executive. Everything in the film is essential to the story.
The cast is kept small for this reason, but they’re all incredible actors. Well, mostly. Jarvis Cocker from the band Pulp makes multiple cameos to fill scenes. But aside from him, the cast is Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Henry Sugar, Dev Patel as Dr. Chatterjee, Ben Kingsley as Imdad Khan, Richard Ayoade as Dr. Marshall, David Gant as a casino dealer and Ralph Fiennes as Dahl himself. And aside from Gant, all pull double-duty, playing at least two parts in the short film.
Henry Sugar may be different, but it’s one of Anderson’s best films
Keeping the cast small further adds to the feeling that Henry Sugar is a play done as a Wes Anderson film. But it is still a Wes Anderson film — and one of his best.
Compared to Asteroid City from earlier this year, Henry Sugar feels much less meandering than the feature-length Anderson film but with all of the charm and quick, witty dialogue that you come to expect from an Anderson classic. The unexpected format may throw you for a loop at first, but you’ll soon feel comfortable with the acting and aesthetic that is all too familiar to fans of Anderson’s movies.
So go ahead, take a moment to watch The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar on Netflix now. I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better use for 39 minutes, but if I’m wrong, all you did was waste your lunch break. And once you’re done, you can watch Anderson’s other Roald Dahl shorts on Netflix: The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison. They haven’t gotten the same buzz as Henry Sugar, but all three are currently well-regarded by the critics who have seen them.