When Netflix bought the rights to the Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC) in 2021, it promised to continue to bring to the world his stories of “surprise and kindness … while also sprinkling some fresh magic into the mix” on the big screen.
Dahl’s books have been translated into 63 languages and sold more than 300 million copies around the world and delivered characters like Matilda, The BFG, Fantastic Mr Fox, Willy Wonka and The Twits.
The stories produced great spin-off live action feature films and now it’s time for the global streaming giant to pivot to the shorter of Dahl’s catalogue, launching the extraordinary not-so-true, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.
It’s a 39-minute short, and is followed by the British author’s anthology of The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison.
With Asteroid City filmmaker Wes Anderson in charge – and his second Netflix original after the stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr Fox – each film stars a rotating cast of actors taking on double roles, with direct-to-camera narration, incredible moving sets akin to a stage-play production, elaborate costumes and … above all … stories about power and possibility.
Starring Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Dev Patel (The Green Knight), and Ben Kingsley (Hugo), and with Anderson at the wheel, they bring this magical little story to life.
“I like the idea, right off the bat, of having a little company play the whole film,” Anderson told Netflix.
“They took it and did it. You hand it to them, and then you step back and watch.”
For the uninitiated, what’s the Henry Sugar story? Who was he? Is any of the story based on fact? Can you really tell his story in 39 minutes?
Cumberbatch plays Henry Sugar, a 41-year-old unmarried rich man and “a dishonest gambler” who stumbles across a plain exercise book in a library about the story of Imdad Khan (Kingsley), who can see without his eyes.
Henry sets out to learn the same skill in order to cheat at cards and win more money. There are consequences to his actions, guilt comes quickly, and he ends up giving over a billion dolllars to 21 children’s hospitals and orphanages around the world. A heartwarming, happy ending.
Collaborating with Netflix ‘out of necessity’
In a recent interview with IndieWire, Anderson was asked about Henry Sugar not getting a big screen cinema audience and partnering with Netflix.
“In my case it’s a little bit of a weird thing.
“I knew Roald Dahl since before we made Fantastic Mr Fox … I met Lindsay Dahl, his widow, when we were shooting The Royal Tenenbaums like 20 years ago.
“For years I wanted to do Henry Sugar [and] they set this story aside for me because I was friends with them. Lindsay kind of handed the torch to Luke, Dahl’s grandson.
“So I had this waiting for me. But I really couldn’t figure out the approach. I knew what I liked in the story was the writing of it, Dahl’s words. I couldn’t find the answer, and then suddenly I did.
“It’s not a feature film. It’s like 37 minutes or something. But by the time I was ready to do it, the Dahl family no longer had the rights at all. They had sold the whole deal to Netflix.
“Suddenly, in essence, there was nowhere else you could do it since they own it. But beyond it, because it’s a 37-minute movie, it was the perfect place to do it because it’s not really a movie.”
A true story?
Dahl’s short story, among his 1977 anthology aimed at older teens, is seeped in moral dilemma and eventual redemption.
It’s mostly fiction, because, in reality, no-one can see without using their eyes. It’s a medical impossibility.
However, the first 15 minutes of the short film are devoted to Kingsley’s character, Imdad Khan, which was inspired by the true story of Pakistani mystic Kuda Bux, known as The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.
Born as Khudah Bukhsh in 1905 in Kashmir, he became famous for being able to see without using his eyes, a skill he mastered for years under the tutelage of a yogi.
“Bux demonstrated his talents by blindfolding himself with surgical bandages, tape, cotton wool, a mask, and dough covering his eye sockets,” reads an account on weirdhistorian.com
“His face was completely covered, except for his nose. He then proceeded to read anything put in front of him [and rode] a bicycle through the busy streets of London with his blindfolding method in place.”
Dev Patel as Dr Chatterjee, Sir Ben Kingsley as Imdad Khan and Richard Ayoade as Dr Marshall. The one aspect of The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar inspired by reality is the character of Kuda Bux, the first man claiming to “see without his eyes”. Photo: Netflix
Dahl captivated by mystic
Dahl was captivated by Kuda Bux (who died in 1981), according to digitalspy, which says the two met in person at one stage, and the author listened to his story.
It was reproduced in Dahl’s 1953 essay, The Amazing Eyes of Kuda Bux.
“Maybe we have Roald Dahl to thank for [revealing his secrets], since he was captivated by … Bux. The essay ended up being partly fictional, so Dahl changed the mystic’s name to Imhrat Khan and added extra characters to the story.
The essay became a first draft for The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and included the same character, renamed again as Imdad Khan.
His “peculiar story made its way once again to a global audience thanks to Wes Anderson,” reports digitalspy, pointing out that the talented director and scriptwriter are “as obsessed with Roald Dahl as Dahl was with Bux”.
And what was Henry Sugar’s eventual fate in all this?
His x-ray vision in the story spotted a clot in one of his main arteries, and he died aged 63 of a pulmonary embolism.
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