When Chocolate Goes Scary: Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

As I noted during my post on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my first viewing of the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory left me, how do we put this? Deeply traumatized for life. In the comments, many of you noted similar experiences. So it was with considerable trepidation that I listened to the Powers That Be at Tor.com and agreed to watch the film, along with a few others based on Roald Dahl books, comforting myself with the knowledge that on this viewing, I would be holding a cat.

So much for that theory. The cat was freaked out too.

In the late 1960s, the Quaker Oats Company was looking for a film as a promotional device for a new candy card. By what was mostly coincidence, a nine-year-old girl had just finished reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and suggested to her relatives in the film industry that they should make a film based on the book, as, er, you do when finishing the book. Synergy.

Years later, the film’s producers happily recalled that their film survived, when the candy bar didn’t. I sense a lesson there. But moving on.

Even with Quaker’s backing, the film’s budget was not particularly extensive, especially given the multiple effects shots and expensive sets that would need to be made. Needing actors capable of singing and dancing, the producers did cast Broadway veteran Jack Albertson, whose distinguished career included a long run on The Jack Benny Show, and chose British thespian Roy Kinnear as Mr. Salt, father of the arguably brattiest kid of group, and comedian Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Otherwise, they cast largely unknown actors. Two of the child actors (playing Augustus Gloop and Charlie Bucket) had never appeared on film before. (And they almost never did again.) Also, to save money, the film was shot largely in Munich, which had, to the producers, the added advantage that “nobody would know where it was.” (That’s a direct quote from the DVD commentary. Sorry, Munich.)

The film more or less follows the plot of the book, changing certain elements that were difficult to film (instead of difficult to train squirrels, for instance, Veruca Salt encounters calmer geese, who with the help of forced perspective could be made to look considerably larger than they were). The filmmakers also eliminated Charlie Bucket’s father (presumably to avoid the entire bit about the toothpaste factory); added various elements to the hunt for the Golden Ticket, including someone in Paraguay attempting to fake a ticket and a small gag about a kidnapping plot; added a plotline with a villain that, as I’ll discuss, really doesn’t work all that well; and several songs. Some of the songs were based on the silly poems Dahl included in the book. Others, perhaps most notably “The Candy Man Can,” (which, in Sammy Davis Jr.’s mellow tones, became a hit song), were composed specifically for the film.

The songs, for the most part, are pretty good, although I did find myself getting impatient with the overly long song with Mrs. Bucket, where I couldn’t help thinking, get on with it. So is the set direction, particularly the bit with the candy garden and the chocolate river and waterfall. The invention room is another delightful set piece, and if the Wonkavision room demonstrates that the producers never considered the contemporary concept of huge widescreen home television sets, it does look alarmingly austere.

And the acting is mostly very good to excellent, although in some cases, the kids weren’t exactly acting. The set of the candy garden was concealed until it came time to film: what you see on the screen is their real reaction shots. Violet and Veruca really are hitting each other (this is beautifully in character for the two and a genuine highlight.) This was not always an entirely positive thing: according to the kids, the filming conditions were frequently awful. Violet really is getting rolled around and around, and since the Oompa Loompas had a terrible time pushing her around in the blueberry suit, she thumped painfully into walls.

That wasn’t the only issue: the actress ended up gaining several calories from the gum chewing, and later, remnants of the purple ink used to color her face returned, causing her to get teased at school. Augustus’s actor was cold and miserable from getting pushed into the river and then stuck in a tube. Charlie’s actor was not told that Gene Wilder was just acting, and not really angry at him. And so on. To somewhat counter this, Gene Wilder notes that Mike Teevee’s actor was a horrible kid, but I’m really not sure that makes me feel much more comfortable, especially since he made no such comments about the other four children, all of whom seem to be perfectly nice adults.

This of course all added to the realism of the film, but also perhaps helps account for the reactions I and others have had to the blueberry scene: it wasn’t all “just television,”; that was a very real little girl getting rolled into walls by people with green hair. No wonder I freaked out. And even now, as a supposed grown-up, I still found myself gulping, and I don’t think I’ll be having gum any time soon.

Adding to the problem: one of the “bad” kids, Augustus, is not really that bad in the movie. Ok, yes, he eats a lot, and says he’s hungry, but that’s about it. Compared to the other three brats, he’s a positive angel. So to have him fall into the river and get sucked up into a pipe for pretty much just doing exactly what Mr. Wonka told him to do, that is, eat stuff from the garden, is also fairly jolting, much worse in the film than in the book. I admit, though, that I was not at all sorry to watch Veruca Salt fall down a garbage chute; what an awful child, probably the most inspired performance of all five kid actors.

But the larger problems come from the changes made to the plot, and in particular, the final scenes and the Mr. Slugworth plot. Dahl reportedly objected strongly. (Dahl is credited with the original screenplay, but was not responsible for most of the songs, the changes to the screenplay that were made to accommodate the songs, or most of the changes to the plot.) He argued that the test for honesty, in particular, changed Mr. Wonka’s entire personality, and watching it now, I have to agree. The final scenes turn Mr. Wonka into a genuinely nasty person who sets Charlie a nearly impossible test, and then screams at the poor kid—this after allowing four children to suffer pretty terrible accidents while not screaming at any of them. And that’s leaving aside his lengthy contract with the very small print, which the adults have a right to object to.

The producers later claimed that Gene Wilder brought a certain “loveability” to the role, so that no one could really be scared (ha, ha) which is what made him great; I would disagree. Gene Wilder is great in the role because leaves us entirely uncertain of what to expect next. It’s difficult to tell exactly how sane or honest Mr. Wonka is. He is not loveable (until the closing lines). He is dangerous. Especially since, in the film, unlike the book, we never do see the other children leave the factory. It’s a brilliant performance that makes the film because it is often terrifying. (And funny—Wilder’s comedic timing is never off.) And, as the Slugworth subplot shows, he’s not above manipulating events.

The more I think about it, though, the less sense the entire Mr. Slugworth plot makes. After all, we are told, repeatedly, that no one gets in and out of the factory. And yet somehow or other Mr. Slugworth is working for Mr. Wonka by running around the country—several countries—and pops up in his office—how? Mr. Slugworth also seems to have some magical travelling abilities—he arrives to each place right after the local media gets there, which is pretty fast. Did he know more or less where each ticket would show up?

Also, although the film shows Mr. Slugworth approaching each child, and although the (then) four remaining children all accept Everlasting Gobstoppers, only one child (Mike Teevee) is later heard to be actively helping out Mr. Slugworth. And notably, that child comes from what is arguably the second poorest family of the group. The Salts, obviously, are well to do; Violet’s family owns a car dealership (the father reminds us of this on a frequent basis); the Gloops appear to be comfortably off; but Mike’s family lives in a home with a small living room and cheap furnishings. They may not be destitute, but money could well be more of a temptation for them than it is for other three families.

Though I suspect that the other three families would be more than willing to give a Gobstopper to Slugworth just out of revenge, notably, the only person to say out loud that Mr. Slugworth will get a Gobstopper is Grandpa Joe—and this only after he and Charlie have witnessed Mr. Wonka’s temper tantrum. It doesn’t help that Mr. Wonka is also yelling at them for violating the very very small print that he gave the kids no time to read, or that this outburst has been brought on by actions that seemed terribly out of character for Charlie and Grandpa Joe—done entirely, it seems, to lead to this scene.

Which leads me to my other issue with the final gobstopper scene: Charlie’s family is poor—so poor that a loaf of bread seems like a special treat, and the family needs his newspaper delivery income not for extras, but for the basic necessities of life. Things may not be quite as awful for him in the film as in the book (in the film he at least gets a scarf as a present, and no one is starving), but asking a ten year old to choose between helping his family and being “honest” with the guy that’s just sent four kids to their doom? Uh huh. The only thing saving that bit is the terrifying appearance of Mr. Slugworth—he looks just like a villain. And he doesn’t have Mr. Wonka’s purple coat.

Since I mentioned Grandpa Joe, let’s talk about his statement that Charlie deserves the Golden Ticket because “he wants it more” and “it means more to him.” This is an argument with two problems. For one, although the film does its best to show this, with a nice song and shots of Charlie crying and looking longingly at the factory and the candy shop and so on, it’s doing this between scenes showing thousands of people wanting the tickets just as much if not more, going to the extent of shutting down factory work to devote time and labor to finding the ticket, falsifying a ticket (something not in the original book), and even kidnapping the spouse of the woman with one of the last unopened boxes of Wonka bars and demanding that as ransom. In other words, lots of people really want this, Grandpa Joe, and I think we can assume that at least some of them are kids just as poor and desperate as Charlie (if perhaps not the kidnappers.)

But second, wanting something doesn’t necessarily mean deserving something, a message emphasized by the film itself with the absolutely awful Veruca, who wants the Golden Ticket desperately but has done absolutely nothing to deserve it, unless throwing tantrums and making her father miserable counts. I’m going with no. It doesn’t even match the end of the film, where Charlie gets the factory not because he wants it or, as in the book, deserves it (as the only surviving kid from the trip) but because of his honesty.

I ended the film willing to hum the Ooompa Loompa song, and quite loving the film’s final, terribly unrealistic message that yes, dreams and wishes really can come true because, well, this is an unrealistic film, and it’s nice to feel that way. But even with that nice touch, and the lovely set direction, and the many genuinely funny moments, I couldn’t find myself warming to the film. It might be lingering childhood trauma talking, I admit, but I did get over my childhood trauma about the Flying Monkeys. A man who can create chewing gum that turns a kid into a blueberry? That seems to be more difficult to get past.


Mari Ness is probably not going to be able to chew gum for months now. Her teeth quietly thank you and the Powers That Be at Tor.com. She lives in central Florida.

20 Comments

Subscribe to this thread