Charlie Bucket lives with his family and both sets of grandparents in a small, very uncomfortable house. They are very poor, and the family experience hunger and poverty. Charlie daily sees other children at school take out chocolate bars to munch on while he has none, which is “pure torture”. Even worse, he can see an enormous chocolate factory from his house. This is owned by Mr Willy Wonka, and as his bedridden grandad tells stories about the chocolate factory to the young Charlie, it takes on a mystery and wonder in his imagination. Then one day Mr Wonka advertises that five lucky children will be allowed to visit his factory with a personal tour and a behind the scenes look at the magical factory. Five golden tickets are to be found hidden inside the ordinary wrapping paper of five ordinary bars of chocolate. The lucky child will also be granted a lifetime supply of chocolates and sweets.
The story was originally inspired by Roald Dahl’s experience of chocolate companies during his schooldays. The two largest chocolate companies of the 1920s used to try to steal trade secrets from each other by sending into the other’s factories employees who were in reality undercover spies. This atmosphere of secrecy and huge elaborate machines can be seen in the story.
Many children’s books today are re-written adaptations, so far changed from the author’s original book that an effort has to be made to seek out a version which in some way resembles the original spirit of the story. Originals of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory now sell for thousands on eBay. Fortunately there are many modern book adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory freely available in bookshops, libraries or e-readers. These versions haven’t really destroyed the bones of the original story first written in 1964 by the late, great Roald Dahl.
However, such is not the case with movie versions. Recent film versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, such as the 2005 movie starring Johnny Depp, have created quite a different, dark and sinister version leading many to suppose Dahl was “creepy” and sinister himself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dahl was a wonderful author and person with a philanthropic personality and a love of sharing his stories with children.
Children themselves find the straightforward, child-like and eccentric character of Wonka in the book very funny, including the Oompa Loompa celebatory songs after the spoiled, misbehaving children get their comeuppance. There was no need to change this or soften it in any way. That being said, a good children’s movie can be relaxing and bring the characters to life with great songs and music. If you are going to watch the movie with your children, I would recommend the 1971 version adapted by David Seltzer and entitled, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”.
Interestingly however, even this movie differs remarkably from the book. Roald Dahl was asked to write the screenplay for the Quaker Oats company’s adaptation of the book, but his version was deemed unacceptable by the studio executives. David Seltzer was then asked to write an “improved” version of Dahl’s script. This version is full of Shakespearean quotes issuing forth from Wonka’s mouth. In some ways this is not such a bad thing. However it shows that the movie market must alter the book in order to sell to parents. These days the world has become so used to viewing the various movie adaptations of Charlie that we may confuse the movie with the book. For example we may recognise Mr Wonka’s Shakespearean quote, “So shines a good deed in a weary world,” and yet this is not in the book, but rather comes (slightly changed once again!) from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Act v, scene 1.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has numerous admirable qualities such as enterprise and eccentricity. Wonka’s concern to hand over his business to someone who is trustworthy and dependable is admirable. Charlie is from a poor family who are starving – there is no sugar sprinkling over this fact in the story. Charlie differs from the spoiled other children who win a golden ticket in that he is not part of the “spoon-fed” establishment. Everything he does he has to struggle to do and in fact is stronger because of this. His parents and grandparents don’t actively employ workers to open hundreds of tickets on a picket line until the prize winning ticket is found. Instead, Charlie’s grandfather spends his last savings on a chocolate bar. And even then nothing is found.
Roald Dahl never gives in to prevailing political correctness – this is why he is one of my favourite authors. Adults will continue to read politics into the stories, but in the end, it is just a book about a poor boy who becomes lucky. Dahl never wrote for publishers, never for Hollywood, never for film producers, script writers nor for any cause or idea. Yet his books have continued to be read and loved by millions of children and adults the world over for more than half a century.
A former children’s librarian, Jane Fagan is currently a full-time wife and mother of two.