Wes Anderson’s Love Affair with Literature

In Wes Anderson's films, books offer solace and keep a record of people and places past.

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If you saw Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, you may have noticed the nod during the credits to Stefan Zweig, a rather obscure Austrian writer whose work inspired the film. “I had never heard of Zweig,” Anderson told The Telegraph‘s George Prochnik, “I just more or less by chance bought a copy of Beware of Pity . . . I also read The Post-Office Girl. The Grand Budapest Hotel has elements that were sort of stolen from both these books.”

For those familiar with Anderson’s films, it should come as no surprise that the director often looks to literature for inspiration.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is an adaptation of the children’s book by Roald Dahl. When they run away from home, Moonrise Kingdom's Sam and Suzy pack their bags full of heavy hard cover books. Nearly everyone in the Tenenbaum family has published a book (of which a series of fantastic fake books were created for the film) and the movie itself is structured as a storybook. The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel are all narrated. In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, there are not one, not two, but three separate narrators.

Physical books themselves come to represent a fetishization of memory, longing, and often times, loss. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the film begins with a young woman clutching the book version of The Grand Budapest Hotel in her hand, visiting the statue of “our great author.” When Richie comes home from the hospital after a suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums, he goes into his childhood tent and reads Margot’s collection of plays. Edward Appleby’s copy of Diving for Sunken Treasure in Rushmore stands in for him, and Max’s loss of his mother.

In Anderson’s world, physical books offer solace, and more importantly, keep a record of people and places past.

Keep reading for more about the director’s love of literary homage, with recommended reading for each of these fantastic films.


 

Rushmore (1998) 

jacques cousteau letter
Photo: Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

Diving for Sunken Treasure, by Jacques Cousteau

As we can see from the video above, by The A to Z Review, books play an integral part in nearly all of Anderson’s films. And from Rushmore (1998) on, Wes Anderson’s bibliomania is in full view.

In this film, our hero, Max, falls in love with Rosemary Cross, a teacher at Rushmore Academy. When Max checks out a copy of Jacques Cousteau’s Diving for Sunken Treasure in the school library, he notices someone has written this quotation on its pages: “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”

As it turns out, Rosemary’s husband, Edward Appleby, was a student at Rushmore, and the book was dedicated in his name. But Rosemary is a widow—in fact, Appleby died by drowning. The imagery of the sea and the life of Cousteau runs throughout the film, and obviously goes to heavily influence Anderson’s later film The Life Aquatic (2004), in which Bill Murray plays a Jacques Cousteau explorer of sorts.

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The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

tenenbaums books
Photo: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s 2001 film about a family of child geniuses whose absentee father tries to re-enter their lives, has been compared time and time again to the work of J.D. Salinger—and in particular, Franny and Zooey.

In Salinger’s novel, Franny and Zooey are members of the Glass family, whose siblings where once featured on a radio quiz show called It’s a Wise Child, in which they exhibit their precociousness. Like the Tenenbaum children, whose mother Etheline wrote a book entitled “Family of Geniuses” about their upbringing, the Glass family has fallen on hard times. Franny is in the midst of a religious sort of breakdown, and Zooey has entered the acting business. Both are trying to make sense of the suicide of their elder brother, Seymour. Like the Tenenbaum household the Glass house is filled with mementos of the family’s once illustrious past. And like Margot, Zooey spends nearly all of his time in the bathtub, smoking.

Further Reading: 

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

Raise the Roof Beam High, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

grand budapest hotel
Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The Post-Office Girl, by Stefan Zweig

Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig was born to a wealthy Jewish-Austrian family in 1881. He produced an astounding number of novels, many of which have yet to be translated into English. Fleeing the Nazis he and his wife moved to London, then New York, and finally Brazil, where they tragically committed suicide together. His suicide note read, in part: “The world of my own language sank and was lost to me, and my spiritual homeland Europe destroyed itself.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel offers three narrators: the first of which we are introduced to as “our great author” in the opening credits, played by Tom Wikinson. The statue (and the character) are obviously an homage to Zweig. Jude Law plays the younger version of the great author who visits The Grand Budapest Hotel and becomes our second narrator. And finally, F. Murray Abraham, who plays the older version of the Lobby Boy Zero, tells us the story of M. Gustave. This sort of story within a story within a story is also lifted from Zweig. “We see this over and over again in Zweig’s short stories,” Wes Anderson says in the Telegraph interview. “I love that in Zweig—you describe it as confessional … that sort of technique is such an effective way to set the stage, to set a mood. It creates this kind of ‘gather around’ feeling.”

Many of Zweig’s novels take place in grand hotels. In The Post Office Girl, the hardworking and poor Christine is invited to join her aunt and uncle at a fancy hotel in the Swiss Alps. Christina can hardly believe her luck, and of course, it won’t last forever. Zweig wrote The Post Office Girl in the 1930s, and the novel was left uncompleted at his death. “Zweig’s vision of the graceful world that the war would destroy was inspired by his stay at a grand Budapest hotel,” Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker. And The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, is not unlike the real writer Stefan Zweig. “You just see how all the things he invested his life in, the world that he prefers to call the world of security,” Anderson explains, “this life that had been growing more and more refined and free that so meaningful to him, is just obliterated.”

Further reading:

Wes Anderson Collection and Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig