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.
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.
Mr. Fox tries to listen, but for the rest of the movie, despite a respectable job as a newspaper man, his attempts at reforming himself tend to flag when it comes to food and thievery. Perhaps the movie's approach to food says more about our time than the era in which the book was written: it does not end with the feast that finishes the book, but rather in a supermarket full of goods with artificial flavorings, where the animals are grateful to be together and to have any food at all.
On the other hand, the delight of the book lies in the sheer trickery of the foxes outwitting the humans, which they manage not because they are "wild animals," as the Fox of the movie suggests, but because they are actually more civilized, less beastly, and more thoughtful than the horrid farmers. The animals in the book are, plainly, able to appreciate a good meal and good conversation. When Fox's starving gang cleverly tunnels from their hole to the three farms, he selects their entrees like a gourmand. Of a scene in Bunce's storehouse, Dahl writes:
"Stop!" ordered Mr. Fox. "This is my party, so I shall do the choosing." The others fell back, licking their chops. Mr. Fox began prowling around the storehouse examining the glorious display with an expert eye. A thread of saliva slid down one side of his jaw and hung suspended in midair, then snapped.
"We mustn't overdo it... We must be neat and tidy and take just a few of the choicest morsels."
There's a nod to vegetarianism, too; when one Small Fox tells his father they should lift some carrots, he responds:
"Don't be a twerp. ...You know we never eat things like that." "It's not for us, Dad. It's for the Rabbits. They only eat vegetables."... "What a thoughtful little fellow you are!"
One must, after all, be considerate of one's guests, and they have invited all the other animals to their party, which goes from "feast" to "banquet" with the addition of Bean cider--which is said to be "like drinking sunbeams and rainbows."
Still, this isn't gluttony; it's survival. As Fox says to his comrade Badger, he pursues these methods driven not by pleasure, but necessity:
[D]o you know anyone in the whole world who wouldn't swipe a few chickens if their children were starving to death? ... But we're not going to stoop to their level... We shall simply take a little food here and there to keep us and our families alive.... If they want to be horrible, let them... We down here are decent peace-loving creatures.
At the end of the book, the animals pool the loot plundered from the three farms and set up an extravagant, decadent, civilized party. When the table is covered with chicken and ducks and geese and hams and bacon, and "everyone [is] tucking in to the lovely food," the animals at last let themselves go. Fox "let[s] fly a tremendous belch," raising his cider glass to "this delicious meal."
From now on, Fox promises, "every day we will eat like kings." Above ground, the farmers shriek and flail ineffectively, waving guns and yelling oaths of revenge; underground, the beasts wish each other long lives and happy bellies. These animals don't long for the trappings of humanity--they're already more cultured than we could ever be, and the table groans with the evidence.
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