Book Review: Inherent Vice

February 26, 2010

Inherent Vice: A Novel

By Thomas Pynchon

Published August 4, 2009

The Penguin Press

384 pp.

ISBN 1-594-20224-9

Reviewed February 26, 2010

Despite my position as a nigh-infallible authority on the world of literature, I’m willing to admit that there are a few gaps in my lexicon of readings. Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, the recently departed J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn – if someone made a list they could stock a small town library. As I’ve written before, I make no apologies for these omissions, preferring to come to these authors when the mood strikes me rather than giving into the same mass hysteria that tends to turn me off popular trends. (I’m looking at you, “Lost.”)

However, these gaps in my reading history do occasionally offer me some interesting opportunities, and such is the case with Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” Having never read any of Pynchon’s groundbreaking tomes (with the exception of browsing through the phenomenally splendid illustrated version of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Zak Smith) his latest work affords me an entry into an authorial canon differently than the way most readers approach him traditionally. It also frees me up from the need to compare it to the epics that have defined his career as other reviewers have done, and judge it on its own merits as a mystery/work of historical fiction. And on its own merits, it’s a work that can certainly stand up on its own, despite its tendency to stumble and occasionally giggle randomly.

“Inherent Vice” takes place in the surfer’s paradise of southern California, as the 1960s are preparing to give way to a much more repressive decade but the culture of free love and free drugs still has some life left. Larry “Doc” Sportello, a part-time PI/full-time pothead, is happy to get as much of both as he can – until his old girlfriend Shasta walks into his apartment after a year’s absence. With barely a hello, Doc finds a series of cases (almost) snapping him out of his haze: a land developer surrounded by neo-Nazi bodyguards, a yacht that may be smuggling counterfeit bills or heroin or dental tax dollars, and a junkie saxophone player who shows up a lot of places for someone who is supposed to be dead.

And those cases are just the start of the path Doc steps on, with a road map that feels like it’s been tie-dyed one too many times. The book has a massive cast of characters with esoteric names – Fabian Fazzo, Amethyst Harligen, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Puck Beaverton to name a few – and the action takes Doc from Los Angeles to Santa Monica to North Vegas. Plot points are abandoned only to be picked up about fifty pages later, and for a book that tips the scales at 350-plus, it’s hard to tell which threads and characters are supposed to matter. It also doesn’t help that Doc’s a third-person unreliable narrator, an investigator who’s surprisingly good at disguises and bullshitting but whose investigative tactics and smoking habits owe more to the Dude than Philip Marlowe.

But in many ways, the fact that the book so regularly gets lost in its own story helps it achieve the atmosphere a novel with this subject matter needs. This book is rooted in the counterculture of the Sixties – a fact Pynchon regularly reminds readers of, throwing out film titles and television shows and even the lyrics of songs popular at the time – and most of its residents are happy just to go with the flow. As such, a reader is encouraged to do the same, taking events for what they are and trying to make sense of it later.

It also helps that while the book’s mind might be a little shaky, its body is constructed of iron in how well it uses words. The language is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s journalistic features on the psychedelic world, with long and winding sentences that go into countless details on the cast and climate. Sharp metaphors are mixed in with the long random dope fiend conversations on TV shows, giving a lot of weight to what you’d normally think of as throwaway. And just when things seem totally fragmented, a truly masterful passage like this one comes along:

“Offshore winds had been too strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpoint to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds and heat and relentlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies.”

Sentences like that give you a contact high with how well they’re done, and the fact that so many of them are tied to actual drug experiences only exacerbates the mood. A friend of Doc’s comments that “PIs should really stay away from drugs, all ’em alternative universes just make the job that much more complicated,” and more than once the cases seem to shift dimension. An acid trip where he learns he is an interstellar being named Xqq who can pass through drywall without problems (except for the wall studs) is a fine example, as is a later instance where a joint laced with PCP splits his body and mind into two parts and creates a giant wolf to the tune of the score from “The Big Bounce.”

Yet for all the fun and games the cast undertakes, the book is also aware of the unpleasant turn history is about to take. The world of “Inherent Vice” is fast approaching the crash of the 1960s, its energies “all wired into a survival trip now… aggressively dissipated by the rush to self preservation” as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Pynchon is no less prescient on what that means for the hippies, with Charles Manson’s rampage still fresh in everyone’s memory and the specter of surveillance rearing its head in the ARPANET prototype one of Doc’s sources is fooling around with.

Even Doc, for all his distractable nature, can see real unsmiling men in the gray wool suits in the party’s background, and while they may or may not be keeping tabs on him he knows what their presence means: “If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.”

Again, I am unable to comment how Pynchon’s fans will perceive this book, but from my separate perspective I can recommend “Inherent Vice.” If you have the patience to wade through a plot that not even the main character seems too terribly focused on, the fluid language and eccentric cast all come together to create a fairly remarkable reading experience. You feel good but loopy after reading, and won’t be sure if you learned anything but you’ll know it was worth the ride.

Despite my position as a nigh-infallible authority on the world of literature, I’m willing to admit that there are a few gaps in my lexicon of readings. Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, the recently departed J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn – if someone made a list they could stock a small town library. As I’ve written before, I make no apologies for these omissions, preferring to come to these authors when the mood strikes me rather than giving into the same mass hysteria that tends to turn me off popular trends. (I’m looking at you, “Lost.”)

However, these gaps in my reading history do occasionally offer me some interesting opportunities, and such is the case with Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” Having never read any of Pynchon’s groundbreaking tomes (with the exception of browsing through the phenomenally splendid illustrated version of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Zak Smith) his latest work affords me an entry into an authorial canon differently than the way most readers approach him traditionally. It also frees me up from the need to compare it to the epics that have defined his career as other reviewers have done, and judge it on its own merits as a mystery/work of historical fiction. And on its own merits, it’s a work that can certainly stand up on its own, despite its tendency to stumble and occasionally giggle randomly.

Inherent Vice” takes place in the surfer’s paradise of southern California, as the 1960s are preparing to give way to a much more repressive decade but the culture of free love and free drugs is still going strong. Larry “Doc” Sportello, a part-time PI/full-time pothead, is happy to get as much of both as he can – until his old girlfriend Shasta walks into his apartment after a year’s absence. With barely a hello, Doc finds a series of cases (almost) snapping him out of his haze: a land developer surrounded by neo-Nazi bodyguards, a yacht that may be smuggling counterfeit bills or heroin or dental tax dollars, and a junkie saxophone player who shows up a lot of places for someone who is supposed to be dead.

And those cases are just the start of the path Doc steps on, with a road map that feels like it’s been tie-dyed one too many times. The book has a massive cast of characters with esoteric names – Fabian Fazzo, Amethyst Harligen, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Puck Beaverton to name a few – and the action takes Doc from Los Angeles to Santa Monica to North Vegas. Plot points are abandoned only to be picked up about fifty pages later, and for a book that tips the scales at 350-plus, it’s hard to tell which threads and characters are supposed to matter. It also doesn’t help that Doc’s a third-person unreliable narrator, an investigator who’s surprisingly good at disguises and bullshitting but whose investigative tactics and smoking habits owe more to the Dude than Philip Marlowe.

But in many ways, the fact that the book so regularly gets lost in its own story helps it achieve the atmosphere a novel with this subject matter needs. This book is rooted in the counterculture of the Sixties – a fact Pynchon regularly reminds readers of, throwing out film titles and television shows and even the lyrics of songs popular at the time – and most of its residents are happy just to go with the flow. As such, a reader is encouraged to do the same, taking events for what they are and trying to make sense of it later.

It also helps that while the book’s mind might be a little shaky, its body is constructed of iron in how well it uses words. The language is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s journalistic features on the psychedelic world, with long and winding sentences that go into countless details on the cast and climate. Sharp metaphors are mixed in with the long random dope fiend conversations on TV shows, giving a lot of weight to what you’d normally think of as throwaway. And just when things seem totally fragmented, a truly heavy passage like this one comes along:

Offshore winds had been too strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpoint to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds and heat and relentlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies.”

Sentences like that give you a contact high with how well they’re done, and the fact that so many of them are tied to actual drug experiences only exacerbates the mood. A friend of Doc’s comments that

PIs should really stay away from drugs, all ’em alternative universes just make the job that much more complicated,” and more than once the cases seem to shift dimension. An acid trip where he learns he is an interstellar being named Xqq who can pass through drywall without problems (except for the wall studs) is a fine example, as is a later instance where a joint laced with PCP splits his body and mind into two parts and creates a giant wolf to the tune of the score from “The Big Bounce.”

Yet for all the fun and games the cast undertakes, the book is also aware of the unpleasant turn history is about to take. The world of “Inherent Vice” is fast approaching the crash of the 1960s, its energies “all wired into a survival trip now… aggressively dissipated by the rush to self preservation” as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Pynchon is no less prescient on what that means for the hippies, with Charles Manson’s rampage still fresh in everyone’s memory and the specter of surveillance rearing its head in the ARPANET prototype one of Doc’s sources is fooling around with.

Even Doc, for all his distractable nature, can see real unsmiling men in the gray wool suits in the party’s background, and while they may or may not be keeping tabs on him he knows what their presence means: “If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.”

Again, I am unable to comment how Pynchon’s fans will perceive this book, but from my separate perspective I can recommend “Inherent Vice.” If you have the patience to wade through a plot that not even the main character seems too terribly focused on, the fluid language and eccentric cast all come together to create a fairly remarkable reading experience. You feel good but loopy after reading, and won’t be sure if you learned anything but it was worth the ride.


Back Shelf Review: Robert B. Parker, In Memoriam

February 23, 2010

Since I started working as a book critic, one of the sadder impacts it’s had on me is that I tend to notice when a well-established writer finally inks their last page and heads off to the great literary salon beyond. To name a few I have witnessed the obituaries of Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Gilbert Sorrentino, William F. Buckley Jr., J.G. Ballard, Frank McCourt, Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger – all authors considered masters in the field, with works destined to last longer than their natural lifespan. I’ve offered a eulogy here and there on the site, but with the exception of Thompson and Vonnegut I’ve found it hard to really go into detail since I’ve either not read their work or had minimal exposure to it.

However, one writer who has passed on left me in a shattered state of mourning – even moreso because I found out only recently, a month after it happened, strolling through the shelves at Powell’s to see if his newest book was out yet and seeing a notice. On January 18, 2010, acclaimed mystery novelist Robert B. Parker was found dead in his home in Boston, the victim of a heart attack at his desk while working on his next novel. He died at the age of 77, leaving his wife Joan and two grown sons.

But that’s not the only thing he left behind. Parker may well be the most prolific mystery novelist in American history, responsible for the creation of Spenser, the private investigator with the unflinching moral code masked with a perfect sense of humor. He is the most reread author in my entire collection, I can name more of his titles than any other writer and he could probably take both Thompson and William S. Burroughs in a duel for the role of my favorite author.

Certainly a lot of pretty strong statements in that sentence, but I don’t say any of them lightly. Having read Parker’s novels for close to a decade now, I’ve grown up with them as I transitioned from casual reader to literary analyst and think I’ve learned a bit about what makes his style resonate – thoughts I’d like to take the time to share with you now. I’ve had this piece on the back burner, but with Parker’s unfortunate demise going under the radar I would feel remiss as a critic and a fan if I didn’t give the master the tribute he deserves.

“Ninety percent of writers who do P. I. admit Parker was a major influence. The other ten percent lie.”
– Harlan Coben

Parker was rather understated when asked about his success in the Boston Globe, saying that the secret was “You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them.” And interesting characters certainly make up the first part of why Parker’s books are so readable, headed by the alpha male of Boston’s investigative world Spenser “with an S, like the poet.” A Korean War veteran and former D.A. investigator, Spenser became a P.I after being summarily dismissed from the cops for an independent streak that no chain of command could stand.

Spenser has many strong character traits that set him aside from other mystery protagonists – a former boxer, an accomplished cook, well-read, comfortable with being a smart-ass – but that streak of independence is what puts him at the head of the class. His career is one that puts him through many tough events and confronted many dangerous people, and he has survived it by adhering to a strict code of honor: no killing unless in self-defense, no harming of the innocent, pursuit of the truth at all costs. In many ways it’s essentially noble virtues, and on many occasions characters comment Spenser thinks he is Lancelot or Galahad – a virtue he encourages by claiming his strength as “the strength of ten.”

And his strength never seems to fail him, even when everyone including his clients would prefer it to. The majority of the Spenser books aren’t motivated by money, or even legal rights – they’re about the simple fact that he agreed to take a case and wants to see it through to the end. Spenser may be the only P.I who solves cases for the same reason men climb mountains, and while his motivations seem limited to “Because I can’t sing or dance” in many of the books, it somehow makes him stronger rather than one-dimensional.

Spenser may rely on himself more than anyone else, though it is in the interaction with two other main characters that the story comes to life. The first is Susan Silverman, his long-time love, a Cambridge psychiatrist and self-described “well-bred Jewess.” She not only offers him a professional opinion on the cases he handles, but also understands his quest for self and provides him an anchor when he needs it. Susan and Spenser have been together since the second book in the series (1974’s “God Save the Child”) and despite “a little gap in the middle” in Spenser’s words, they have weathered adultery and cohabitation and continually come out stronger – and even gotten a dog they spoil unceasingly.

The other side of Spenser comes with Hawk, an African-American solider of fortune and unquestionably the greatest badass ever created in crime novels. A man with a taste for finely crafted clothes, expensive champagne and a chrome-plated .44 Magnum that could take down a jet, Hawk is charming and self-amusing, seamlessly segueing between impressions of David Niven and Uncle Remus. Spenser and Hawk’s banter is classic tough-guy prose, the sort of conversations by friends who have known each other for years and can’t take offense at anything the other says.

But all of Hawk’s charm comes with an unsettling quality, “impassive and hard as an obsidian carving,” as is evident every time he offers to kill people in the way and Spenser turns him down because he knows he means it. Not sociopathic but pragmatic, Hawk simply doesn’t care about who he has to kill, comfortable in the life he has chosen and the knowledge “the games I play nobody can play as good.” Spenser’s world is full of these confident amoral rogues: Vinnie Morris, a shooter with almost-clockwork movements; Chollo, a self-mocking Chicano gunman; and Tedy Sapp, an unflinchingly tough bleach-blonde gay bouncer. Anytime they enter the book, you not only get excellent banter between Spenser and his rogues’ gallery, but a real sense of the decency behind the man: he could take their way, but to be true to himself he never will.

The relationships between the characters are stellar, and the main reason is that Parker’s prose is perfectly tailored for the world he creates – I have always made the comparison that if Ernest Hemingway wrote mystery novels, they would be the closest thing to Parker’s series. Parker rarely uses too many words in his sentences, his action progressing at an even clip and incorporating only the details and thoughts that his protagonists consider important. And while I mentioned it above, it bears repeating – the dialogue is the best in mystery or even mainstream novels, back-and-forth repartee that I’ve quoted back and forth with my dad hundreds of times.

But what really makes the book stand out for me is the overwhelming grasp of literature evinced in the books, a truly rare thing in mainstream mystery. Parker held a doctorate in English literature (writing his dissertation on the protagonists of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) and taught at Northeastern University, and it peppers every novel he writes. Titles are taken from Robert Browning to John Keats to Robert Frost, and Spenser may be the only private eye who can mention the Red Sox and Shakespeare on the same page.

It’s a “large but literate” quality, really said best in Parker’s “Bad Business”:

“And your conclusion?”

“Sort of a big John Keats,” Susan said.

“That would be me,” I said. “Silence and slow time.”

I’ve spent the majority of this piece on the Spenser series, but while that would be enough for any writer Parker wasn’t content to stop there. Surprisingly late in his career, Parker started writing two new series based on new characters, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall. Both are set in Spenser’s world – Spenser even partners with Stone in “Back Story” – but the two don’t come from the same hardened core he does. Stone, an ex-LAPD detective turned chief of police in a Massachusetts harbor town, is recovering alcoholic with an ex-wife he can’t let go of. Randall, a female Boston P.I from a background of cops and criminals, also has a troubled relationship with her ex and has to fight off the typical prejudice that a woman can’t do the kind of work she does.

He also expanded genres into Westerns with his trilogy on lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, containing “Appaloosa,” “Resolution” and “Brimstone.” I’ve talked about these briefly in my Text-to-Screen of “Appaloosa,” but to reiterate his style and moral code pair perfectly with the unforgiving world of the Wild West, and proves that whether they have six-shooters or Browning nine-mils his shooters never fail to disappoint.

So, where to start reading? When an author has more than sixty books to their name, starting out is certainly a tall order, even for an author whose prose and plots can be consumed very quickly. Thankfully, Parker’s books are easy to find – being the alpha males of the paperback mystery, I’ve built my collection on a mix of used bookstores and airport kiosks, and Goodwill stores will almost certainly have at least one.

A_Catskill_EagleOut of all his work, I feel “A Catskill Eagle” is the best – a letter tells Spenser that Susan in trouble and Hawk is in jail, and from there it’s a foregone conclusion on hell breaking loose. The bonds between the three are never stronger, the story has never been more intense and the action has never been so defined. It’s a masterfully written book that could easily stand alone, not as minimalist as later Spensers or as hard-boiled as earlier ones, transitional both in terms of his style and the way the characters develop. However, I think that to really appreciate it, more familiarity with the world is necessary.

Chronologically, it doesn’t really matter where to start. “Sudden Mischief” is the first of his books I ever read, and it was enough to propel me to continue exploring the canon – and also probably the best depiction outside of “A Catskill Eagle” of the relationship Susan and Spenser share. Other later favorites include “Thin Air,” “Small Vices,” “Widow’s Walk,” “Back Story” and “Now and Then.” In the earlier books, “The Judas Goat” and “Early Autumn” are the most indispensable to the storyline, with the former really establishing the importance of the Spenser-Susan-Hawk trinity and the latter showing Spenser’s humanity as he takes on an unofficial fifteen-year-old foster son.

In his other series, some of the quality and interest varies but in each case it’s hard to pick one that goes wrong. The Stone and Randall books both get better with later installments such as “Night and Day” and “Spare Change” as Parker manages to really split the characters’ voices from the more established franchise – Stone comes out stronger after each case as he makes the town his own, and Randall becomes a strong female character without being a bitch or a cliché. His last book (I can’t even type that phrase without having to blink rapidly), “Split Image,” released this week, will continue a crossover between the two that began in “Blue Screen” and I’m hopeful for a happy ending for both.

Really though, when it comes to Parker’s books, a happy ending isn’t necessary in the broad sense because the world he created will always be there, his Boston as eternal as Doyle’s London. Spenser’s office will always be at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston. A German shorthaired pointer will be sleeping on the sofa, and a massive black man will be sitting next to it reading Simon Schama with a sawed-off shotgun on the end table. A picture of a beautiful brunette will sit on the file cabinet, a .357 Magnum in an open desk drawer, and at the desk will be a man with a quick wit and a slightly flattened nose willing to work for any client who can put up with him.

That world remains alive for me and thousands of others, in the collection of lovingly battered paperbacks that will never lose their spot of honor on the shelf. Rest in peace, Mr. Parker.

“I don’t think of myself as a genre novelist. I think of myself as a person writing novels about people involved with crime. I go through the same process that Updike went through, but he may have gone through it a little better. It’s all about the limits of your imagination and the limit of your skill.”

– Robert B. Parker, Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2009


Text-to-Screen Versus: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

February 10, 2010
Image by Marobot, reprinted courtesy of That Guy With The Glasses

Image by Marobot, reprinted courtesy of That Guy With The Glasses.

(Editor’s note: Welcome to an alternate version of Text-to-Screen Ratio, the Text-to-Screen Versus. These articles will be longer studies, where I take two filmed adaptations of one book and compare them one after the other to see which one gets closest to the book. Again, this will not serve as a comparison to find which is the better or personal favorite film, but a reasoned assessment of which one captures its source material best, based on my interpretations. Expect spoilers though.)

As the Onion A.V. Club pointed out and I reprinted last year, the reactions of authors when their books are made into movies frequently fall into the negative spectrum. With the range of decisions that can be made for filming – rewritten stories, dropped plot lines, characters out of character – it’s certainly easier to offend an author than it is to please them. And if the right contracts aren’t signed and the author feels particularly insulted, they can make a lot of trouble for directors.

A somewhat surprising example of this is Roald Dahl’s reaction to the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” an adaptation of his beloved children’s book. Despite the fact that Dahl wrote the original screenplay he disliked the film intensely, so much so in fact that he withheld the rights to make any sequels. What makes it surprising is that the film was well-received at release and has since reached cult classic status, particularly due to Gene Wilder’s performance as the titular character.

Dahl’s estate continued to hold onto the story’s rights for decades, only releasing in 2005 to Tim Burton to remake it as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” With the inimitable visual style of Burton and his long-time partner Johnny Depp in the role of Wonka, the film had the promise of doing so much with the concept and what seemed like a genuine commitment to getting the story right. Dahl’s widow Felicity actually declared prior to the film’s release: “Roald Dahl, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, absolutely unbeatable and completely in sync.”

But does it come out that way? Let’s take a look at each film in chronological order and see just what they do correctly, and see which one earns the Golden Ticket of Source Faithfulness.

1971: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”

Had I never seen “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and only knew about its history, it would be surprisingly simple to be cynical about it, since it’s really a film that came to life as a promotional tool. According to “Pure Imagination,” a companion book detailing the film’s completion, the film was financed chiefly because producer David L. Wolper was in talks with the Quaker Oats Company to help market their Breaker Confections candy company, and they were persuaded to buy the book and change the name to The Willy Wonka Candy Company (which still exists today, keeping kids and sleep-deprived writers on a sugar rush of Nerds and Sweetarts).

So it seems in theory like a fairly easy project to botch: neglect plot in favor of product placement, turn the main characters into commercial puppets and throw in a few lousy one-liners designed to be printed on the candy labels. Which makes it all the more surprising that it has turned into the classic itself, and even more surprising that it it is also one of the more faithful adaptations produced.

For the uninitiated, a brief synopsis of the story: a genius candy manufacturer named Willy Wonka opens up his long-sealed factory to five lucky children, offering them a tour of how he makes his most famous creations. After a series of events removes four cartoonishly dislikable members, only a kind boy named Charlie Bucket is left. At this point, Wonka reveals the tour was a test, to find the right person to succeed him in the factory – and Charlie has passed with flying colors. “Willy Wonka” keeps to this structure, moving in order through the whole factory and not cutting out any of the major scenes – unveiling of the contest winners, the finding of the ticket, the Chocolate Room, the Inventing Room, the Television Room and the Great Glass Elevator are all there.

There are several side details that do get in the way of the story, the most noticeable being the expansion of the character Slugworth, a rival candy manufacturer the book mentions in passing. He is portrayed as conspiring against Wonka, trying to hire the children to steal Wonka’s latest invention. It’s a plot thread that mostly exists to set up a twist ending, but the twist it sets up doesn’t pull the film away from its narrative structure, and serves to accentuate Charlie’s own goodness and the selfishness of the other children. Minor details, like the death of Charlie’s father and the fact that Charlie works as a paperboy, are neutral ones that neither add nor detract to the way the story plays out.

But even more than the plot, true faithfulness to the film depends on one thing: the candy man. There’s a reason why the title was changed to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” beyond marketing reasons – because everyone realized that the driving force of the story isn’t Charlie’s rise from poverty but the eccentric genius who made it possible, the mad energy that pushed everyone along. Dahl gets right to it at his first appearance in the book:

“And his eyes – his eyes were most marvelously bright. They seemed to be sparkling and twinkling at you all the time. The whole face, in fact, was alight with fun and laughter. And oh, how clever he looked! How quick and sharp and full of life!”

And if you’re looking for marvelously bright eyes and energy, it’s hard to go wrong with Gene Wilder, whose performances seem subdued (see “Blazing Saddles”) but never conceal the energy in his bright blue eyes. Wilder insisted on his character’s very first moment, limping down a red carpet and ending in a somersault flourish “because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth” – and that edge defines the Wonka character perfectly. Yes, he was eccentric from being holed up in a factory for years, but he was also bubbling with excitement at the chance to show his world off to visitors, and liked playing with people who didn’t have the patience to go along with it.

Wilder doesn’t have the pixielike sugar high that Wonka carried in the book, but the essence of the character is fused to his performance. You have the feeling that he is laughing up his sleeve at his visitors but is always in control of events, cloaking it in cryptic morals and quotes ranging from Oscar Wilde to William Shakespeare. He’s convinced that everything will work out in the end and nothing truly horrible can happen in his wonderland, and can easily dismiss anyone who thinks otherwise.

Other cast members continue this trend, their performances chiefly faithful to the book but with some minor deviations that can be easily forgiven. Peter Ostrum plays a more independent Charlie Bucket than the original, but still conveys the fact that he is the only one of the children who really appreciates the world Wonka has created. Jack Albertson’s Grandpa Joe is a little less convincing, more gruff and opinionated than the book’s version, which felt more like a storyteller with a child’s heart. The other children and parents fit the unlikeable nature, greedy and spoiled and shrill at all the right places – especially Roy Kinnear as Veruca Salt’s father.

Visually the film is more hit and miss, doing as much as it can with the special effects available in 1971. Mostly shot in Munich, the village the film is set in was chosen for ambiguity, but it lacks any character and fails to make the desperate condition of the Bucket family believable – and its “Sound of Music” appearance always made me suspect the Nazis would be storming through at any minute. About the only convincing element was the factory, based on the Munich Gaswerks, which had the look of a long-shuttered factory where nobody ever comes out or in.

Though, once they do get inside the factory, the technical limitations of 1970s special effects catches up to them. Many of the key scenes have to be scaled back or completely reinvented – Glass Elevator replaced with Wonkamobile, grand pipe-like tunnels replaced with hallucinatory images, visual tricks rather than great hallways to make the factory larger. Overall it feels far more constrained than it did in the book, which had rooms the size of football fields hollowed out under the ground and needed a flying elevator plastered with buttons to get anywhere. Even the Chocolate Room feels more like a decorated park, without the scale it needs to produce the endless confections the factory churns out.

The film tries to add some extra fantasy elements with the Oompa-Loompa songs, though those clash with the original for two reasons: orange-skinned green-haired Munchkins look nothing like the tropical natives Wonka recruited, and the songs are original creations rather than the book’s verse. Yes, some like “Pure Imagination” are undeniable classics (and some like “Cheer Up Charlie” are not), but they’re not original content and sadly cannot be counted as such.

For all its differences though, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” turns out to be a rather surprisingly faithful take on its source material. Partially it’s Wilder’s performance, partially its the avoidance of major narrative deviations, but mostly it’s the heart the film presents. It creates the factory as a place of whimsy, a place where “a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men,” where accidents can happen but also a slice of something magical.

2005: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

When Tim Burton chose to adapt “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” for modern audiences, he was working less against the limitations of the book and more the reputation of the film that had come before it. The directors and writers publicly stated that they were going to go straight from the book and pretend that “Willy Wonka” didn’t exist, even getting a scriptwriter who had never seen the original. This is certainly a wise move for any team working on an adaptation that has already been adapted – if the original is used as inspiration, it only gets further away from the source material, fading like a copy of a copy.

Despite my purism on adaptations I’m always leery of a film that sells itself heavily on being faithful to its source material, as it always reads to me like the filmmakers are compensating for something. However, in the case of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” at first glance it seems like they were living up to their word. Once again the majority of the book’s plot survives intact, and all major characters and plot points are presented in order.

A great part of this effect is because the film looks so much like the world it is trying to capture. Burton’s vision has always been saturated in fantasy, full of Gothic angled images and very stark colors, and it goes very well with the dark, often grotesque humor Dahl mastered in stories like “George’s Marvelous Medicine” and “Matilda.” Wonka’s factory is a tall monochromatic edifice, all smokestacks and slanted roofs, looming over a snow-covered city of identical buildings and the Bucket’s shack. He builds the excitement around the the finding of the tickets with beautifully rendered scenes, showing markets in Japan and Morocco selling candy bars like hot Christmas toys.

But it’s once they get inside the factory that things really come to life, casting set pieces in a way that not only shows the vastness of Wonka’s world but also clearly bear the influence of Joseph Schindelman’s classic illustrations. From the vast cathedral-like pipes in the Chocolate Room to the Inventing Room’s endless chemistry sets to the great pink candy Viking boat, this is Dahl’s world where around every corner something truly magical could happen. That magic could be either light or dark, and Burton presents both – there might be lights and swirls around, but it doesn’t take long to see the garbage chutes and Fudge Room pipes you can disappear into.

The film certainly resembles Dahl’s original visions for it, but while the film presents itself with a shiny wrapper it can’t disguise the fact that it made the bizarre choice to fill its chocolate treat with sour cream. That filling is Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Willy Wonka, a performance that’s the inverse of his masterful adaptation role in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Gone is Wonka’s sense of being in control of the situation, his grand speeches and excited explanations; instead there is choking on the word “parents,” painfully awkward tangents on beatniks and ugly forced laughter.

The chief indictment of his performance however is his interaction with the other characters. Depp’s Wonka seemed to treat the visit as an obligation rather than an opportunity, and his efforts to connect with them came across as stilted and uncomfortable. Everything he was doing in the film seemed geared to his self-interest first, less excited about their reactions and more like a spoiled child asking to be told how great he was – and saying it in the prissiest of tones to boot.

It also leads the film to commit one of the deadliest adaptation sins, creating a new back story for an existing character. The film tries to explore Wonka’s childhood, portraying him as the headgear-imprisoned son of an anti-candy dentist (Christopher Lee, in a role even more superfluous than his tragically abbreviated ending in “Return of the King”). The new story is designed to explain the changes in his character, but because the changes are so offensive all it does is make things worse, further divorcing Wonka from his original spirit. Wonka is supposed to be a figure of mystery, less the center of the story and more a catalyst to trigger the right reactions – it’s like seeing Gandalf’s high school years before visiting Bilbo at the Shire.

The other characters try to help, but wind up dragging the film down further. Freddie Highmore (whom Depp personally recommended for the film after collaborating with him on “Finding Neverland”) doesn’t have to do much with Charlie beyond making him a generally good person, but he takes it too far into the realm of self-sacrificing. Charlie’s willingness to throw the factory away for the good of his family is clearly met as a contrast to Wonka’s anti-parent attitude, but his beatific attitude is as out of character as Wonka’s social disconnect. His family remains appropriately in the background, save David Kelly’s Grandpa Joe, who does capture the puckishness his frail form couldn’t hold back.

The four competing children keep to this format, presented in very visually arresting ways but worse the longer you dwell on them. Two in particular go heavily against the book’s nature by committing another adaptation sin, modernizing pieces of the content: Mike Teavee is turned into a surly video game addict, and Violet Beauregarde is an overly competitive poster child for mothers living vicariously through their offspring. By definition they were supposed to be unlikable, but this crosses the line from stereotype to ugly high-gloss caricature.

Another aspect that modernization chisels away at from the original is what it does to the Oompa-Loompas. While the film does present their jungle home of Loompa-Land, it makes the bizarre choice to cast Deep Roy as every single Oompa-Loompa, giving the feeling of an army of clones in jumpsuits rather than the pygmies of the book. The film does earn points for using the original songs from the book and presenting them in the context of different muscial genres (psychedelia and disco for example), but the final choice of hair metal couldn’t be farther from Dahl’s world.

When it comes down to it, that is the sum total of the film: a project that obeyed its source material but tried to do something new with it, and in the process got farther and farther away from what it was supposed to do. If they’d slashed Wonka’s childhood, toned down the musical numbers and left the other children as is it could have been great, but as it stands only the candy shell is worth viewing. Burton and Depp have collaborated on some truly wonderful adaptations, but this is not one of them – save your enthusiasm for “Alice in Wonderland.”

Winner: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” 1971

When it comes down to the two, each one has its pros and cons. The 1971 film certainly seems to get to the core of the story with stronger characters and storyline, while the 2005 version has far more compelling visuals, really capturing the scope of what Wonka was able to build free of social restraint. Each film also comes to the book’s conclusion but takes a few fairly major turns to get there – Charlie can’t simply be given the factory, he has to either pass Wonka’s test or convince him of the merits of family, a move that takes the story longer to conclude but adds the tension film audiences demand.

But when all is said and done, the 2005 film cannot survive the overall sense of wrongness that both Depp’s performance and the changes in storyline create. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a childhood fable, a story dependent on its atmosphere and the sense of wonder that Wonka’s world creates. Yes, it has its moments of darkness (the winding dark tunnel of the chocolate river, the cautionary tales of the Oompa-Loompas) but it’s always a thrill to be a part of them. You’re appreciating a world beyond the normal, one that can twist you but also one that can reward you beyond your wildest dreams.

I do feel strange in passing a judgment against the way an author viewed an adaptation, but the 1971 film is truly the one that gets closest to its source material. All the actors manage to make their characters feel both like their source material and like real people – particularly Wilder, who has the heart to balance the mad genius – and the overall mood created as the story flows is enough to balance out its technical limitations. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” has both the up and down sides of the factory’s genius, and it creates a world of pure imagination – a phrase Dahl may have never used but one that deserves to be forever fused to his classic story.

Extra Credit:

  • For a comparison of the films based on their cinematic merits rather than a straight literary analysis, check out Willy Wonka vs Charlie, part of the “Old vs. New” portion of the Nostalgia Critic on That Guy with the Glasses. A special thanks to TGWTG and the artist Marobot for allowing me to reprint their custom opening image.
  • And follow this link for a curious essay that takes the literary value of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to a whole new level.