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.