Roald Dahl famously disliked this musical adaptation of his 1964 book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, this film is now iconic, particularly for the performance of the late Gene Wilder as the eccentric factory owner Willy Wonka. The plot may be aimless and some of the scenes are a bit dodgy, but musical numbers such as ‘The Candy Man’, ‘I’ve Got a Golden Ticket’ and the Oompa-Loompas’ songs are catchy and so well-known that they are often parodied. This film basically follows the book’s plot, with various additions and alterations. The characters are spot-on, except for Wonka himself – although Wilder does capture the odd sense of humour and lax attitude towards child welfare which are present in the book, he also comes across as sinister and angry. There is a dangerous edge to him. Wonka in the book is delightful, not dangerous.
The beginning credits of the film show chocolate being made for real in a factory. This is actually one of my favourite scenes. The Wonka factory itself is not particularly nice to look at, with the chocolate river looking merely like brown water and most of the settings being surprisingly drab. Maybe this is just the film showing its age. I think the closing scene, where the Great Glass Elevator is floating in the sky, has convincing special effects for the time. It does cut the story short – in the book, Willy Wonka crashes the lift through the roof of Charlie’s house so that the rest of the Bucket family (including Charlie’s dad, who’s not included in this film) can be collected.
I ought to mention the Oompa-Loompas. In the book, they’re very small (knee-high) and have willingly come to work in the factory in exchange for their favourite food, cacao beans. They laugh at the visitors and make up rather caustic rhymes about children’s bad habits. Quentin Blake’s illustrations depict them as elf-like and smiley. In the film, the Oompa-Loompas are played by actors with dwarfism, with orange painted skin and bright green hair. I have no idea why. And we’re not given any backstory to them. I suppose this ties into the mysterious and sinister atmosphere. In the more recent adaptation by Tim Burton (2005) the Oompa-Loompas have a South American tribal aspect to them which seems more authentic, plus their backstory is given. Interestingly, Burton’s film sticks more closely to the original book, except that Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Wonka moves even further away from the original character.
Just to be clear, there is nothing sinister in the book. It’s all fun. There are no mentions of millipedes crawling across one’s mouth, the corridors do not get smaller the further you walk down them, there is no scene where Charlie and Grandpa Joe almost get shredded by ceiling fans after gulping the fizzy lifting drink, and at no point does Wonka shout at Charlie Bucket, ‘you leave with NOTHING!’
Image copyright Paramount / Warner Bros.