The first interpretation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 film entitled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a classic loved by children for the past several generations. As a child, I watched the film over and over with my father, for whom this was a favorite. I remember being uneasy or even scared at parts of the film, but now having read the book I have come to realize that the film takes the harshness of the original text by Dahl and mellows it to a more socially acceptable and main stream level. The songs in this version of the film in particular are much less violent and mean spirited than the songs written by Dahl in the book.
The second film, the 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, reverts back to the original title of the book and also to many of the original features of the book, such as many of the original song lyrics and major story elements, such as the use of squirrels rather than the geese who laid golden eggs from the 1971 version. In doing so, I feel that the 2005 film was much edgier and more closely represented the tone of the book. There are also elements from the 1971 film that were reinterpreted and included in the movie, such as the showiness of Willy Wonka’s initial introduction to the children. Even this, though, was edgier in the newest version. Rather than a tumbling Willy Wonka, we are met with a pyrotechnic show that ends with the disturbing image of melting doll faces.
In reproducing the film in 2005, the filmmakers succeeded in created a more updated take on the original story while infusing it with more elements from the original books. Mike Teavee, for example, is one instance where an update made the movie more relevant to today’s viewers. In the old version, Mike is obsessed with westerns; not exactly something kids most days can connect with. In the new version, Mike is more like the stereotypical gamer: violent, impulsive, and obsessive. Modern day children can more closely relate to this updated version of Mike Teavee than the 1971 version.
While the 2005 film was successful in updating the feel of the film for modern viewers and instilling more original elements from the book, I think that it missed the mark in terms of appropriateness for young children. In the newest version of the film, many of the songs sung by the Oompa-Loompas very closely resemble the original songs from the book. While fidelity to the original is often important to the success of a film, I felt that in this case, it made the Oompa-Loompas come across as mean rather than the fun loving imps they are supposed to be.
The 2005 film also missed the marks in terms of social sensitivity. While I realize that we live in a hyper-sensitive, politically correct world, there are several instances where I feel the filmmakers crossed the line between being edgy and being offensive. One such example is the use of ageism, specifically in the case of Grandma Georgina. While Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are real and common problems, including a character that displays traits of these afflictions for comedic purposes is insensitive. Ageism is also noticeable again when Willy Wonka visits the Bucket house and states to one of the grandparents, “You smell like old people and soap.” Again this is used for humor, but could be considered offensive. At the other end of the spectrum, there is an obvious commentary on youth through the descriptions and film portrayals of the young people in the story. The brashest would probably be in the portrayal of Mike Teavee in the 2005 film. He is portrayed as rude, mean, and self-absorbed. This is exemplified by his language, especially when he says that, “Even a retard could figure it out.”
In addition to ageism, sexism is a possible concern in the book and films. The most glaring is in the peanut factory where only women are working. Why Dahl chose to include this specific detail is not clear to me, but this detail was shown in both versions of the film. The issue of gender is also apparent in both films when considering the Oompa-Loompas. Willy Wonka states that he relocated the entire population to his factory, but you never see female Oompa-Loompas save the one female who works as a secretary for Wonka in the 2005 film.
Throughout the book and both films, the negative attitude towards overweight characters is made evident. In the book, the characters frequently refer to Augustus Gloop as “revolting”, “enormously fat”, “disgusting”, and a “pig”. Close shots in the film only serve to further the opinion that Augustus is an unsavory character. In one description of Augustus, Dahl states,
“The picture showed a nine-year-old boy who was so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump. Great flabby folds of fat bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a monstrous ball of dough with two small greedy curranty eyes peering out upon the world."
This leads Grandma Georgina to refer to him as “repulsive”. The grandparents, and the whole Bucket family for that matter, are seen as pure, kind, and virtuous, so to have even them describe Augustus in this way shows Dahl’s feelings on those that are overweight. In addition to the portrayal of Augustus, there is another overweight character that suffers under Dahl’s descriptions.
“The man behind the counter looked fat and well-fed. He had big lips and fat cheeks and a very fat neck. The fat around his neck bulged out all around the top of his collar like a rubber ring.”
While this description was left out of the films, it does show that Dahl held obvious prejudices against heavy people.
Additionally, Dahl also portrays the wealthy as less idealistic and virtuous than those who are made to suffer in life. This is made evident by Veruca Salt more than any other character. In the book, she is simply described as rich and spoiled, but the films take this sparse description and portray her as the stereotypical rich girl, complete with equestrian outfits, fur coats, and a mother who likes cocktails. In the 2005 film, Charlie also points out the unfairness of Veruca getting the ticket even though she did not find it herself. In fact, other than Charlie, all of the children come from well to-do families.
Perhaps the largest indiscretion of the book and films is the treatment of race and people of color. We are first given a taste of this in the story of the Indian prince. In the 2005 film, as well as the book, the prince is portrayed as stupid. On its own, this story could be seen as a funny anecdote, but when coupled with the treatments of the Oompa-Loompas, it is apparent that Dahl showed prejudices towards nonwhite characters. The Oompa-Loompas who run Willy Wonka’s factory are described as fun-loving and mischievous creatures, but I cannot help but make comparisons to the plight of Africans brought to America as slaves. In the book,
Wonka describes how he saved them from the hot, steamy, and dangerous jungles and brought them to safety, an argument used during the slave trade; the African slaves were thought to be better off as slaves than in their savage and wild homelands. Willy Wonka goes on to explain how he brought the Oompa-Loompas to his factory. In the book, he talks about smuggling them, but in the 2005 film, he goes as far to say that he “imported” them. Typically, when referring to people, you do not “import” them.The use of this word shows that Wonka views the Oompa-Loompas as objects rather than people, just as slaves were treated as property rather than people. Additionally, the Oompa-Loompas are dressed uniformly, making no distinction between individuals other than in their voices (in the films), another tactic used to depersonalize slaves. Wide shots are used in both films to show the uniformity of the Oompa-Loompas and further stress the idea that they are not individuals. Dahl described the assimilated Oompa-Loompas as, “wonderful workers. They all speak English now. They love dancing and music. They are always making up songs.” This is eerily similar to descriptions that could have been used to describe the slaves brought to the Americas, famous for their work songs and traditional dances. In addition, there are several references to the Oompa-Loompas being used as test subjects for Wonka’s wild test trials, such as the three course bubblegum and the fizzy lifting drinks. Historically, slaves have been used as test subjects, fitting with the comparison between the Oompa-Loompas and the African slaves. The most telling image from either film or the book, however, is the image in the 2005 film of the Oompa-Loompas rowing the boat down the chocolate river. In this scene, the Oompa-Loompas are emotionless and bring to mind pictures of slaves rowing the large ships used in the past. The idea that these are “fun loving” creatures is refuted in the stony faces of the rowers. This picture was downplayed in the 1971 version by having two Oompa-Loompas turning a paddle wheel, but the portrayal in the 2005 version only strengthens the case for racial inequality in this story.
Overall, when taken at face value, the book and films, while brash, could be considered suitable for young audiences. The book and 1971 film teach viewers that being well behaved and virtuous is of the utmost importance. The 2005 version, also makes this point, but adds on the idea of the importance of family, exemplified by Willy Wonka’s childhood flashbacks and the changes at the end of the film that include Wonka’s distain for family in general. When taking a deeper look, however, Dahl’s prejudices become evident and paint a story of sexism, ageism, and racism that perpetuates stereotypes and does little to provide readers with a positive message. Do the good messages outweigh the bad? Honestly, I am not sure, but that is what is great about stories like this. They get people talking and cause discussions about the important issues in our world. What was meant to be a simple children’s story has fully grown adults interpreting and reinterpreting the meaning over 50 years after it was first published.
Edie, I am so impressed by your work on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This is a really smart paper, and very insightful. You really push at some of these ideas, and I appreciate your critical exploration of so many aspects of the book and the films. Very well done--thanks.
I'm Edie - wife, mom, teacher, instructional designer, home renovator,
and lover of nature, travel, technology, and vintage campers!