Thursday, March 04, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 29 (3/4) -- Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

I've wanted to read the book Fantastic Mr. Fox since I saw Wes Anderson's wonderful movie last fall, and I finally caught up with it on Monday. It's a very short book, aimed at middle-grade (or possibly even younger) readers; it's could plausibly be a lot of kids' first book with chapters.

(The edition I read was a movie tie-in; I like the movie a lot, but I decided to put a book-only cover here, just because.)

Many of the things that are great about the Anderson film are in Dahl's novel in embryo -- the joyous energy of Mr. Fox himself, the nastiness of the three farmers, much of the plot -- but Anderson also brought a lot to his retelling of this slim, straightforward story. Dahl's Mr. Fox has no real acts or setbacks, and his Fox is always debonair, always in command (even as he's getting his tail shot off). Dahl's plot runs straight as a rail: the fox steals from the farmers, the farmers attempt to kill the fox, the fox and his family dig ever further on to get away from the farmers, and finally break through to the farmer's storehouses, to live boisterously happy, underground for the rest of their days, while the farmers sit in the rain and wait for them to emerge.

Dahl gets only a little scope for his usual wit and semi-jaundiced outlook on life; his sentences and chapters have to be short here for this young audience. But it still reads like a Dahl book, even if the cruelty is almost entirely kept at bay.

The edition I read -- and, I think, nearly every edition of Fantastic Mr. Fox for the last decade -- had illustrations by Quentin Blake, who is not only the perfect counterpoint to Dahl (exuberant where Dahl is cramped, loose where Dahl is controlled), but one of the very finest illustrators of the past half-century. If I could find any fault in Blake's work, it would be that even Dahl's nastiest, grumpiest, most depressive characters seem to have a sly smile in Blake's drawings, as if no one could ever be unhappy living in a Blake illustration.

I wouldn't consider Fantastic Mr. Fox a major Dahl book -- which may be another illustration of the old law that the best movies are made from mediocre books -- but it's a good story from a fine writer for children (and adults), that most of us could knock off in much less than an hour.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Bark Hide and Horn - Trumpeter Swan
via FoxyTunes

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