Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Rum Diary Trailer

September 3, 2011

Long-time readers of this blog will remember that a couple of years back, I wrote a review of the Hunter S. Thompson novel “The Rum Diary,” a novel originally started by the famed gonzo journalist in 1959 and published almost 40 years later. At the time I showered it with a great deal of praise, comparing it favorably to early Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and it’s aged quite well over time. It paints a vivid portrait of the city of San Juan, is full of stories of drinking and journalism (the latter almost always affected by the former) and generally sits on all of my reading pleasure zones.

My enjoyment of the book has been tempered somewhat in recent years however, by the fact that a film adaptation has been lingering in development hell since before Thompson’s death – at one point becoming so gnarled that the Doctor himself termed the project a “waterhead fuckaround.” Nick Nolte, Benicio del Toro and Josh Hartnett all were signed at various points, but dropped off as the film went through multiple rewrites and two producers. Over time, this film has taken on the reputation of a Duke Nukem Forever or Daikatana to me, the project that seemed to have promise but lingered so long that all anticipation had long since atrophied to a stub capable of feeling only echoes of its previous joy.

The last time it came up in the news – around the same time as another Hunter S. Thompson project, the feature article “Prisoner of Denver,” had been optioned as a film – it came up the film was supposed to come out in September of 2010. That obviously did not happen, but I wasn’t expecting it to given the years of disappointment. At the time, I said something along the lines of: “I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.”

Well? They’ve finally shown me a trailer:

So let’s talk more. Leaving aside the fact that there’s still no date given for release beyond the vague promise of “this year,” I’d say that the trailer hasn’t restored my anticipation completely but it does make me feel much better about the finished product. The atmosphere of the trailer captures the vibrancy of San Juan life which made the book such a vivid read, and also presents the right scenes: news rooms, carnival, ratty apartments, parties with big money. There’s a few more hallucinatory aspects (likely to appeal to the Fear and Loathing audience) than expected, but that can’t be faulted as “The Rum Diary” novel was full of moments of borderline madness via late-night rum binges.

Cast-wise, I can’t find too much to dock it for at first glance, mostly because in all its versions the film has retained Johnny Depp playing the Thompson doppelganger Paul Kemp. Between the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film and readings in the Gonzo documentary, Depp has a grasp of Thompson’s voice honed through a long-time friendship, and there’s no other man* I trust to play the Doctor or his alter egos. On the topic of extras, Amber Heard (soon to appear on NBC as the female lead of The Playboy Club) certainly seems to have the sultriness and raw appeal that Chenault exuded in the novel, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Rispoli have the degenerate scruffiness of Moberg and Salas respectively and the always dependable Aaron Eckhardt looks the part of consummate fixer Sanderson.

*Apologies to Bill Murray, but Where the Buffalo Roam has not aged well at all.

It’s story-wise that I have some concerns though, as the tone of the trailer appears to be going for something more overtly adventurous than the source material. It seems to have an almost caper-like atmosphere, putting Kemp and the San Juan Star staff in a position to bring down the real estate deals of Sanderson and his cronies, rather than the sense of pending disaster and near-existential crisis the book centered around. And of course, the omission of Dr. Gonzo-esque Fritz Yeamon is a decision whose impact is impossible to predict – reportedly he wasn’t in Thompson’s original draft of the book, but he was such a vibrant, destructive force in the finished product that absence will color everything.

But of course, you cannot judge the film based on the snippets of the trailer, so I’ll say in summary that it makes the film look very entertaining with at least some grasp on the source material, and I’m certainly going to be first in line to see this when it eventually premieres. And as to that premiere, I’ll quote the Doctor’s own words as to its continual delay: “If you don’t Do Something QUICK you’re going to Destroy a very good idea. I’m in the mood to chop yr. fucking hands off.”

More on this story once we get an actual release date.

Advertisements

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Capturing the Voice

April 14, 2010

As I assume I’ve made apparent in this series of articles, there are a lot of problems inherent in adapting a book to film. Beyond the critical issue of immersion – books require a connection that a flash on a screen can never provide, no matter how much James Cameron might try to convince audiences otherwise – there are questions of detail, the decision on which characters and subplots to cut out, how closely you want to work with the author in developing the film’s storyboard, etc etc. This mix of concerns tends to complicate a lot of releases, either turning them into mediocre offerings that send purists to the streets with torches or creating films that many people have no idea are based on books.

One of the most critical sticking points to getting an adaptation right is the issue of narration, particularly in novels told from a first-person perspective. When the majority of a book is depicted as an inner monologue, reflecting only one character’s reactions and views of the setting around him, the screenwriter adapting it is faced with a particularly difficult choice. Do you change the format to depict other characters, thus moving further and further away from the original version’s story, or do you work that voice in and risk alienating your audience with one voice droning on?

There are plenty of examples of both in film, but in my experience I’ve found that the best adaptations of first-person novels are ones that go for the latter – chiefly on the strength of the actors they’ve selected for that voice. If you want viewers to invest in one character talking through the majority of the film, you need someone who can sell that character, convey in his actions and tone the personality that made the source material such a compelling read.

So with that in mind, please take a moment and review my personal picks for the best actors who perfectly capture the tone of a book’s original narration and perform that wonderful trick of making you hear their voice in your head every time you go back to the source material. I allow that this is based on favorites of mine rather than a broad general view of things, but I stand by each of my arguments.

1. Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Considering this is my favorite film and favorite book, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to start off this list, but from a professional standpoint it’s absolutely essential. Depp’s performance here is the main reason to watch this film – described as “a master of moving as though someone just pulled the plug on his power source” by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, his Raoul Duke is a character soaked in intensity and paranoia. It’s a character that fits the gonzo label, one that can go in any direction, enjoying an anti-authoritarian rant one moment and slouching over a bar stool mumbling the next.

Depp’s tone is noticeably different from recordings of Thompson himself – much more jacked-up with less of the quiet “ho ho” tone – but he’s doing the right thing by varying it. His job wasn’t to match Thompson but the author’s alter ego of Duke, reflecting the strain of no sleep and continual ill-advised self-medicating. Each of the book’s immortal lines on golf shoes and devil ether are nailed, either filled with snap observations or the wisdom of a true dope fiend. In the scenes where he is alone and typing in the hell his hotel suite has become, the tone becomes sagelike, almost omniscient: someone who has fallen over the Edge but miraculously made it back with a report.

Off-screen, Depp’s performance earns bonus points for the level of immersion he took into preparing for the role. A long-time friend of Thompson, he lived in the basement of the Owl Farm compound for a few months to prepare for the role (as chronicled in his excellent obituary “A Pair of Deviant Bookends,” later adapted as the introduction for the oral history “Gonzo”), spending endless hours talking with him and reviewing the original manuscripts. In fact, his outfits in the film were mostly lifted straight from Thompson’s closet, the originals worn by Thompson as he was living the book in 1971. Depp was afforded a rare opportunity to literally step into the shoes of the character, and he took advantage of it in a way only a very talented actor could.

There was a very good reason why 2008’s “Gonzo” documentary featured Depp reading from Thompson’s books, and why the (hopefully) upcoming “The Rum Diary” film has him once again playing a Thompson doppelganger. No other actor inhabits the Doctor or his alter ego so completely.

2. Edward Norton as the Narrator (Jack), “Fight Club”

I could technically call this award a split between Norton and Brad Pitt for obvious reasons, but it’s Norton’s everyman who sells this film for me each time I watch it. A man trapped in a thankless job that quantifies death (automotive safety), he is unable to sleep and unable to cry, nullified by the washed-out mass-consumer world that surrounds him. In every one of his scenes, Norton portrays a caged helplessness, an anger and despair he doesn’t even know how to express anymore.

The insomnia and resignation all match the narrator’s tone, but what particularly sells Norton’s performance is how perfectly suited his style is to the style of the author who wrote his lines. Palahniuk’s writing has always depended on a spartan, borderline nihilstic economy with words, which he described in an intro to “Fight Club”:

Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just – cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.

There is nothing extraneous in Norton’s character, no wasted gestures or extra tangents in his mumblings – we receive instead an excellent focus that seems determined to shut out all the distractions surrounding him, matter-of fact details and observations. When he eventually does snap, such as when he coldly explains to his boss how a hypothetical someone could go postal in the office if pushed too far, you don’t feel like he’s been waiting for this or the tension’s been building, but that some invisible switch has been flipped without warning, setting off the next core moment.

Sam Rockwell made a good effort as another Palahniuk narrator in “Choke,” but Norton set the bar so high he was destined to be compared unfavorably. If the “Survivor” movie ever finds its way out of development hell, the star would do well to study Norton as much as the source material.

3. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, “A Clockwork Orange”


Sigh. Whatever happened to Malcolm McDowell, o my brothers? From a promising start to his career in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Caligula” he seemed to vanish from the right roles, showing up in throwaway films like “Tank Girl” or “Star Trek Generations” where he’s cashing in on his wonderfully creepy voice and evil genius looks. His most memorable roles have been the one where his voice is king, video game roles, be they Admiral Tolwyn in “Wing Commander” or John Henry Eden in “Fallout 3.”

But while his career has gone through what most people would term a decline, he began it with a truly memorable turn as Anthony Burgess’ psychopathic teenager Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” While the most memorable images of him are silently staring out under false eyelashes as electronic classical plays, when he speaks the performance gets its hooks out. His voice had a distinctive lilt, youthful and yet dangerously jittery, as if you could never tell when he would take a knife to you – an almost joyful disregard for truth and consequence matching the book’s rapid Nadsat phrasing. He was skipping towards hell to the tune of the Ninth, and loving every moment of it.

And once the Ludovico technique forced his eyes open to the horror of violence, his performance betrayed the loss of control it delivered. In an ill-fitting suit, arms pulled in clutching his belongings, he had an almost Luke Skywalker-esque expression of dumbness at how the world moved on without him. He becomes almost sickly, his smile even more plastic than the fake sympathy he put on for his parents or his latest rape victim – a performance in many ways harder to watch than the scenes of ultraviolence.

The hiccup in matching this to the book however comes in with the long-debated 21st chapter, excised from the book’s American release and the film script. This chapter sees Alex grow up in a sense, disillusioned from his raping and beating and deciding it’s time to settle down with a nice girl. Stanley Kubrick hadn’t read this version and never considered it for the film, and it’s hard to see McDowell agreeing that “Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.” His character comes across as so irredeemable that such a change is beyond his abilities.

But then again, I’m of the school of thought that the book’s better without that chapter, and honestly McDowell’s performance here makes for a supporting argument. The joyous abandon and manipulative actions he takes here fit the 20 chapters adapted in a most horrorshow way.

4. Mickey Rourke as Marv, “Sin City”


When “Sin City” first hit theaters, what made the posters distinctive – beyond the black-and-white noir shading style – was the alteration of one word in the description of the main characters: the change from “as” to “is.” It was a declarative shift, proclaiming that actors such as Bruce Willis and Clive Owen weren’t just portraying the roles but filling them completely, filling Robert Rodriguez’s vision of “a translation, not an adaptation” of Frank Miller’s neo-noir graphic novels And no actor contributed to that vision as much as Rourke, portraying the nigh-indestructible brawler and gunman Marv.

Willis and Owen were certainly at home in their roles, but it was Rourke who defined the film in “The Hard Goodbye,” the film’s first and best story. Rourke’s Marv had a graveled weariness that spoke of taking a lot of beatings and giving as well as he got, a tone most noir writers would kill to capture on the page. Unlike the nauseating adaptation of “The Spirit” where every line seemed soaked in self-parodied cliché, Rourke made his lines believable, packed with pure investment in his actions:

Hell? You don’t know what hell is. None of you people do. Hell isn’t getting beat up or cut up or hauled in front of some faggot jury. Hell is waking up every god damn morning and not knowing why you’re even here. Why you’re even breathing.

The other aspect so key to this character was the almost amused acceptance he has of his circumstances. Defined early on as a man who’d “be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face,” Rourke displayed no reluctance at dragging someone’s face on the street while driving a car or leaving a quadruple amputee to be chewed up by a wolf. He didn’t revel in it as some of the film’s other violent types, but he was clearly a man who knew his place and enjoyed what he did. Consequences seemed to mean nothing to him – he smirked his way through every beating and smirked even harder as obstacles presented themselves to be knocked down.

“Sin City” remains a testament to faithful adaptations – Rodriguez used the original graphic novels as the storyboards – and its sequels ever come to be, Rourke’s participation will make or break their legitimacy. Luckily despite his electrocution in the first film, Marv still has a role to play.

5. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, “Dexter”


When a TV show makes unethical actions its central plot point, it seems to be a requirement that an incredibly strong actor or actress serve as the main character to win audiences over. James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos,” Michael Chiklis in “The Shield” and Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” all dominate this field of antiheroes, and Michael C. Hall has carved out a place just below them as the titular lead of Showtime’s “Dexter.” As a serial killer with a strict moral code, Hall keeps his show afloat despite a string of hit-or-miss side sideplots.

What makes Hall so compelling in this role is the fact that he manages to inhabit all the aspects of “Dexter” that Jeff Lindsay writes about. His voiceovers – like many others in the list, a neutral monotone slightly humming with menace – are key to the show, coldly scientific in their analysis of his targets and his sociopathy but also betraying his nervousness at the cracking of his mask. When interacting with friends his character’s openness is convincing but visibly fake to an audience in the know, and when interacting with his targets there is a relaxed savoring of the bloodshed to come.

There’s also some great dark humor that results, as like in the book the audience is privy to knowledge no character beyond Dexter knows, and Hall manages to straightforwardly deliver some wonderful lines that would be throwaway without the context (such as this one with his girlfriend Rita):

Rita: Deb must be a mess. I mean, falling for a serial killer?

Dexter: What are the odds?

It’s a hard combination to be funny and scary in equal doses, but Hall pulls it off with a shark smile and an inner voice both analytical and poetic. You don’t see a lot of books making their way to the small screen, but if they had actors like Hall backing them it’d make for an easier transition.

Honorable Mentions

Ewan McGregor as Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton, “Trainspotting”

While the book is split between a variety of characters and perspectives, Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton is as close to a protagonist as Irvine Welsh’s Scottish drug novel can provide, the most normal one in the group and the one who comes out on top in the end. McGregor has the thick Scottish brogue and the twitching empty junkie look, and his delivery of the “Choose life” monologue is the hook that defines both the film and the book irrevocably.

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, “No Country for Old Men”

Again, while not a first-person novel, Sheriff Bell’s speeches open and close the book’s chapters, and are imbued with the language that has made Cormac McCarthy one of our finest living writers. Jones has precisely the right inflection in his tone, and whenever he speaks to a character or to himself you can feel the world-weariness in each sentence: a dry aged quality that tightens the throat in response.

Viggo Mortensen as Everett Hitch, “Appaloosa”

I’ve talked at length about this in my Text-to-Screen review of “Appaloosa,” so I’ll avoid too much detail. What I will emphasize is that Mortensen sets a very solid bar in all of his characters, and his Hitch has the terse attitude necessary to be a Robert B. Parker protagonist. The graveled voice that made him so convincing in “The Road,” matched with the inner reserve of the son of Arathorn, give him a lawman’s bearing even Seth Bullock could take a lesson from.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, “Jeeves and Wooster”

Anyone who only knows Laurie from “House” is missing out on the fact that he built his career on the absurdities of British comedy, and his role as the idly rich Wooster was a key part of it. While the show doesn’t capture the majority of the brilliant text that makes Wodehouse a joy to immerse oneself in, Laurie still conveys Wooster’s dimwitted nature in a very enduring way, nailing the foppishness, goofiness and good nature in turn.

Peter Weller as William Lee, “Naked Lunch”

Again, please refer to my original Text-to-Screen on “Naked Lunch” for the pertinent details on this performance. Briefly, Weller’s poise fits the possession and vision that led Rolling Stone to eulogize Burroughs as “anarchy’s double agent,” and readings of routines like “The Talking Asshole” come very close to the inimitable drawl Burroughs set in his live recordings.


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.