Every time there is a movie or a series based on a book, we must perform the compulsory exercise of comparing it with its source material to judge whether it has done justice to it or not. Our latest such outing is Netflix’s film The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, based on a short stort written by one of the most profilic writer, Roald Dahl.
Wes Anderson’s film is presented as a narration of the short story, with many of the same lines used as dialogues. But there are some minute differences that we would like to discuss. First of all, Roald Dahl does not make an appearance in the short story except at the end. It is simply Henry Sugar’s show throughout. Secondly, when describing Henry Sugar’s appearance, a detail that was missed was that his front teeth were yellow, so they had been capped, and he had visited a plastic surgeon for the removal of a mole on his face. He was also a fan of a hand cream made with turtle oil. We suppose these details are important because it is possible to consider the part until the manicure as acceptable vanity. Everything beyond that, save the hand cream because it is skincare, shows just how self-obsessed the man was. Something else that must be noted is the actual extent to which Henry Sugar would go to avoid working. That was the motto of his life: a slight taunt or rebuke is preferable to a task that requires any effort. These details show that Henry Sugar never took the time to be a master of anything or to learn any skill in-depth, but like it is said in the film, he still wanted to earn money, so he used to cheat. The short story tells us of one of the times when Henry put much effort into cheating when he bet that once his dog was let out of the house, it would soil the tree, and that is what it did.
When Henry discovered the book in the library, he was not just wandering aimlessly. He had already lost a few card games, and that is why he was so driven to find a permanent way to cheat on them. On that note, that book was written by John Cartwright in 1934, in Bombay, and not by Dr. Z.Z. Chatterjee in 1935, Calcutta. And the report was not on Imdad Khan but on Imhrat Khan. The man who could see without his eyes was clearly an Indian, and while we know that Ben Kingsley has a Gujarati father, Imhrat Khan was supposed to be brown-skinned. In Imdad/Imhrat’s story, there is a Professor Moor, who is the one he initially runs away with before the other parts of his journey.
Imhrat Khan also talks about the reason for his ambition, why he wants to learn magic so badly, and how he thinks differently about its commercialization. The yogi that Imhrat was seeking had a name: Banerjee. Also, Banerjee is not the one to instruct Imhrat, and neither does he feel guilty about throwing the brick. But due to Imhrat’s insistence, he directs him to another yogi who is the one to teach him the skills. After Imhrat learns a few things from him, he has another teacher, or rather, a person he meets a few years later who is a fire walker, and it is because of him that Imhrat adds the candle to his practice.
There are a lot more details to the man’s story, including his explanation of inner and outer sight and why the way he sees the cards is different from the rest. It’s a little detail, but it is very important to understand why Henry Sugar decided that this was a practical thing to learn. The plot from then is very much true to the short story, including that Henry Sugar does not actually have a blood clot racing to kill him. Though the film said that it was an imaginary scenario, it felt like it wasn’t because that was the only scenario presented. In the story, there is an entire supporting explanation for the fake scenario, which is that there was a violation of the code of conduct of the yogis, and this was punishment. Of course, there is no such explanation in the film, and Henry is not faced with his mortality. Henry Sugar is fine, though disillusioned as said, by the easy wins, and he proceeds with his madness of throwing money off the balcony.
The next difference is that Henry puts on a show for his accountant, John Winston, to convince him of the plan, and that’s when things start moving. There is also a bit about how Henry Sugar started taking around a makeup artist for his disguises. That is just mentioned as an afterthought in the film, but there is a lot more significance to it. Since Henry kept winning the way he did, he ran into trouble with some mob bosses and had to escape from the hotel with the help of a bellhop, by wearing his disguise. That is what made him contact Max Engelman, who used to work in Hollywood and was the second person to know Henry Sugar’s secret. While the film has Benedict Cumberbatch play Max Engelman as well, the story describes him as a black man who is somewhat short. Together, with their dress-ups, they escaped many mob bosses and other troublesome people who would have otherwise made things hard for Henry Sugar.
When Henry Sugar passed away, Max wanted to write the stories of their travels, but he did not want to write how it all started, and that is where Roald Dahl stepped in. There is also a bit about Henry’s generosity and how he kept none of the money for himself and always spent it on the cause he had taken up. As always, there is a lot more richness to the written story than what we saw on screen, but that is made up for by Wes Anderson’s style of cinema. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and if you have read the short story before, it just makes the experience richer for you.