Willy Wonka: Then and now

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came in a dismal 54th in box office returns when it was released in 1971,  but thanks to television, video and DVD sales, it has become a beloved classic to three decades of candy-loving children.  Because it was based on Roald Dahl’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I watched the “making of” documentary on the DVD, searching for a glimpse of the famed author.  I’m glad I wasn’t blinking much that day, otherwise I might have missed it: Dahl was hardly mentioned at all.  Why didn’t he provide filming rights to his sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator to the producers of Willy Wonka?  It doesn’t take brain science, but here goes.

After acquiring the book rights to Willy Wonka (the film’s title so changed because production money had come from Quaker Oats who was trying to promote a new candy bar) producer Dave Wolper and director Mel Stuart became very excited about the project, which quickly became their project.  They ignored Dahl’s request to cast British comedian Spike Milligan in the lead role, instead casting the relatively new Gene Wilder, who wouldn’t even take the part unless he could have his own way in a key, initial scene. 

Stuart also hired inexperienced (and uncredited) screenwriter, David Seltzer, to assist Dahl in transforming his book to the screen.  It’s painful and difficult to imagine what was going on behind the scenes as change after change was made to Dahl’s story.  I can almost picture the unfortunate author sitting at his desk with a thug pointing a gun at his head, whispering threats: “you better make dis film a meaningless musical bud, or you’ll be sorry.”   Perhaps the real scenerio wasn’t quite as dramatic: it seems that the production team simply ignored Dahl.

Dahl’s Charlie is literally starving to death in the middle of winter when he finds the golden ticket after buying two Wonka bars with a stray dollar.  The screenplay, on the other hand,  introduces Charlie as a well-fed child gazing forlornly into the window of the candy store, watching all the other kids eat the candy for free.  Why couldn’t Charlie get free candy too? Didn’t the cheery “candy man” like cute little blond kids?  And why does the audience want Charlie to get the golden ticket that will supply him with a tour of the famed factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate?  Well, Dahl’s Charlie was about to starve; the film’s Charlie really, really wants the ticket.  If fact, “ he wants it more than anyone else.”   I think a few of the story’s characters would beg to differ: chubby Augustus Gloop, whose favorite pastime was eating, and Veruca Salt, whose daddy forced his factory workers to shell candy bars instead of peanuts to find a golden ticket for his bratty daughter,.

Young Seltzer trumped Dahl, most notably, in the last line of the film; Stuart didn’t like Dahl’s ending, so he called a vacationing Seltzer to come up with a different one.  He did: “do you know what happened to the man who got what he wanted?  He lived happily ever after.”   A rather incongruous final line for a film where all the grabby kids in the film were punished severely.

Wilder plays Wonka with a certain charming pizzazz but he occasionally appears quite sadistic. The “naughty” children in the book do get punished, yes, but it’s always because they fling themselves headlong against obvious barriers and adult advice.  The celluloid Wonka not only punishes willfull children but torments everyone else at random.  In one scene, Wilder’s Wonka allows his guests, inexplicably, to be covered with white foam.  In another scene, he speeds them along his chocolate river while the walls flash creepy pictures of chickens being decapitated, centipedes crawling over human faces and other weird things that generally give the impression of a bad drug trip.  During this psychedelic ride, Wilder stares into the eyes of his victims, his eyes growing wider as his crescendoing, incomprehensible speech becomes more and more frightening.   Not only is everything in the scene completely unrelated to the goings on of a candy factory, it grossly misrepresents Willy Wonka’s persona.<!--page-->

Dahl’s Wonka is a Peter Pan figure, a boy who has been forced to grow up but has not totally accepted the mantle of adulthood.  He is careless and even heartless at times, but never malicious.  While sailing along the chocolate river with his guests,, he is not flashing disgusting images on the walls, but simply enjoying the exhilarating ride: “he clapped his hands and laughed and kept glancing at his passengers to see if they were enjoying it as much as he.”  When his guests enter the mysterious “inventing room,” the heart of Wonka’s enterprise, Charlie notices that “Mr. Wonka had suddenly become even more excited than usual . . . he was hopping about among the saucepans and the machines like a child among his Christmas presents, not knowing which thing to look at first.”  Clearly, Dahl’s Wonka is a child, not a sadist.

Why the golden tickets?  What was Wonka looking for?  A child – a self-controlled child mind you, but a child, nonetheless – who would love his factory like Wonka himself.  Perhaps in selling away the film rights to his book, Dahl was doing the same thing: looking for someone who would love his story the way he did, someone who would see it brought to the screen faithfully  He was sadly disappointed. 

Flash forward to the present: director Tim Burton, a huge fan of Dahl’s books, managed to secure film rights for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from Dahl’s widow because he wanted to make a film as close to the book as possible.  To write the screenplay, he sought out another Dahl fan, John August, who, as a child, had a short correspondence with Dahl himself.  Johnny Depp, a great fan of Gene Wilder’s and quite familiar with the 1971 film, wasn’t sure how he would break free from Wilder’s shadow.  What to do?  He decided to go back to Dahl’s book to search for the original Willy Wonka. 

The new film will probably not erase fond memories of children who loved the Gene Wilder Wonka.  But it promises to be a great posthumous tribute to the author who could write entertainingly about eccentric adults, naughty children and a poor boy who loved chocolate.

You can read more about the new movie in our database.

Read a review on this page and view premiere photos in this article.

Further Reading on M&C