Close to the beginning of the recent Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, the eponymous animal is shown getting ready for work. He dons his office ensemble and sits down at the kitchen table, where his wife hands him a plate of toast. Ravenous, he moves his paws so swiftly while eating that they become a blur--and for a brief moment all the audience can hear is the sound of something wild, something unmannerly, scarfing down its food. You can give this fox a plate of toast, the scene announces, but he's still an animal. No one civilized eats like that.
This is not the fox I know. It's not the same character from the slim and shabby Roald Dahl book I bought at a used book sale for a quarter when I was a kid. I cherished that book so much at bedtime, I insisted on role reversal: my mother had to listen to me read it aloud to her. Sometimes, while waiting on my pink-canopied bed, I would get so hungry just thinking about Fox that I would start reading aloud to myself. She would come into the room to find me hunched over the pages, my mouth already watering.
The story is about a family of foxes who make delicious meals from goods they purloin from a trio of nasty farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. The nastiness of the farmers itself manifests in, among other ways, the nastiness of their meals: one eats endless chickens, another drinks only alcoholic cider, and a third subsists on doughnuts stuffed with goose liver paste. The foxes make better use of the farmers' bounty than they do.
The animals in the book are very civilized creatures. The story makes this apparent in how they appreciate food.
When the book opens, the farmers are blasting Mr. Fox's tail off because he has tried, as usual, to go shopping on their farms. Then they attempt to starve him out of the hole where he lives with his family. They are mean, small-souled people with terrible palates. They eat the same disgusting meals every day and single-mindedly want the same cruel things. Reading the story as a child, I would think to myself, I am an adventurous eater. I do not want to eat the same things every day either. How uncivilized.
The animals in the book are very civilized creatures. The story makes this apparent in how they appreciate food. The food of Fantastic Mr. Fox is not the little-kid wonderland of Dahl's best-known book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the pure, innocent perfect stone fruit of James and the Giant Peach. This is a feast, and one with a very grown-up menu. The book is studded with descriptions of carnivorous delights--chicken, ducks, geese, turkey, and ham. Even today, as a borderline vegetarian, I find myself lingering over these descriptions.
The film version takes a slightly different approach to food than the book. While many scenes are the same, food is a less central pleasure because the animals struggle not only against the humans, but also each other and their own natures. The film begins with a heist scene, as Mrs. Fox accompanies her husband on a daredevil mission to raid a farm. When they are caught, in a move that would be very out of character for her literary counterpart, she makes her husband promise that if they get out alive, he will never put himself in danger by stealing again.