Mar 21 2013 2:00pm

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 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 She lives in central Florida.

Bob Blough
1. Bob
Terrific article. This is a film that is inspired while at the same time manipulative. Brilliant and misguided in turns. It lasts, I think because it is so...emotionaly complex.
2. Lsana
For the most part, your description of this "charming, family-friendly" movie that traumatized our generation was spot on, but I do have a couple of disagreements:

"He is not loveable (until the closing lines)."

See, I don't think he became loveable at the closing lines. If anything, that last speech to Charlie about why he wanted Charlie to run the factory was even creepier than anything that had come before ("See Charlie, I don't want this factory run by an adult who might be his own person and have his own ideas; I want it to belong to a kid that I can bully into becoming a miniture version of me."). I wanted to tell Charlie to run and never look back.

"only one child (Mike Teevee) is later heard to be actively helping out Mr. Slugworth"

That's not quite true. All three of the remaining brats have their fingers crossed when Wonka makes them promise not to give the Gobstoppers to anyone else. Also, Veruca tries to get a second Gobstopper, the implication being that she wants to be able to give one to Slugworth and still keep one for herself.

Finally, Slughorn's ability to show up just as each kid has found the Golden Ticket actually makes way more sense when you realize he was working for Wonka. Presumably, Wonka knew where he'd shipped the bars containing the Golden Tickets, so Slugworth just had to loiter in the area, and he could easily reach the kids at the same time as the press (though why he always chose to talk to them on camera rather than waiting for a private moment is rather baffling).
JS Bangs
3. jaspax
I saw the movie as a young kid, long before I ever read the book (and it strongly colored my subsequent reading), and I agree that the movie is terrifying. Did the producers really think that Wilder was loveable? He's very, very good in his role, but he's good precisely because he's so capricious and dangerous, like a trickster diety. He'll give you lots of delicious chocolate, but he might also turn you into a blueberry.
4. Herb6
I loved this movie as a child and never found it offputting, but then I grew up a hellfire-and-brimstone Baptist in spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child rural Appalachia in a house with no A/C and questionable indoor plumbing, so maybe I'm not the best judge of how much harshness a child should be exposed to...

(Although I remain a great proponent of serious and harsh children's lit.)
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
5. Lisamarie
Oh, part of the reason I loved and love this movie is partially becuase it is so terrifying! Wonka is kind of fae that old sense of the world - not quite to be trusted, and always with their own interests at heart, not necessarily humanity's.

I totally agree with about Grandpa Joe's speech about 'wanting it more', that always bugged me.

I might be misinterpreting where you were going with it, but I do disagreee with you about the Gobstopper challenge. I don't think it was an unfair test, regardless of how rich or poor the family might be, or even how mean Wonka might be. It would still be wrong to steal it. To me, even having grown up in a poor-ish family myself - I didn't see anything hard about that as a child, or now.
6. A.C. Wise
Let's not forget the scary tunnel that has absolutely nothing to do with candy! I think any grand-prize factory tour that - for no good reason - includes a ride depicting bugs crawling on people's faces and chickens getting their heads cut off is a pretty good indication said factory's owner has a screw loose. Or, at very least, it makes a strong case for Wonka being the kind of chaotic trickster figure who is just as likely to turn you into a blueberry then juice you as he is to leave his entire factory to you in his living will.
yo sil
7. catperson
No mention of the tunnel scene? THAT terrified me as a child, with all its disturbing imagery and Wonka suddenly acting insane with that creepy poem!
8. Shanna Swendson
After my blueberry-induced trauma that required me to be carried out of the theater when I was four, I have become more of a fan of this film. I have problems with some of the issues you've raised (especially the deserving it because of wanting it -- sounds like the kind of thing said repeatedly in every reality competition show ever), but there are strokes of brilliance. Gene Wilder is amazing in always being just slightly off-balance in a way that makes you feel off-balance. He plays "off" very well (see Blazing Saddles), but this is a different kind of "off" that somehow never even comes close to creepy pedophile (unlike the Johnny Depp version). And his singing is surprisingly good.

I hadn't realized that it was filmed in Munich. That explains some of my geographic confusion -- it's very distinctly European-looking, but not quite British, yet Charlie and family and a lot of people local to the factory area are American. I guess they just put it in that storybook "other" place that doesn't map precisely to anywhere in our world.
Fade Manley
9. fadeaccompli
jaspax, "trickster deity" is exactly what the Wonka of that movie reads like to me now. I thought he was a terrible person, if very funny to watch, when I was a child, and that was only partly because I had read the book and knew that he shouldn't be setting things up. (I also thought it rather undercut the "honesty" message to go and pretend to someone that you're angry at them, and yell at them, when you're just testing them. That's not honest at all!)

I still close my eyes during that damn tunnel section. Ugh.
Paul Weimer
10. PrinceJvstin
I always thought Wonka was of Faerie. Later, after playing some White Wolf World of Darkness, I saw him as a "Marauder" (his powers and strange world, except for Slugworth, seem to begin and end in the boundaries of his factory, as if it were a single world of his own where his own rules applied...
11. Angiportus
Agreed 100% about Wonka's apparently turning vicious at the end. Would have disturbed me even more if I hadn't seen it as an adult. But I sure did like that glass elevator!
Jeanette Donato
12. Djinn
My brothers and I adore this movie. I even bought a t-shirt recently with a Wonka quote on it from the film. And your article is spot-on. There's a strange dissonance between the feel-good and the absolutely terrifying, it's like Arkham Asylum except with songs and chocolate. And I love it to pieces, warts and all :)
13. XenaCatolica
I saw this when very little (3?) big screen and have always loved it. The burping scene...allegory, anyone? My fourth grade teacher used this scene to explain what allegory was.

And I think it's good that G'pa Joe says the stupid line about wanting it more, because it's set up from the beginning that he's not a perfect moral guide. G'pa Joe's lack of honesty makes him suddenly getting out of bed look suspicious in retrospect, no?

It's a medieval morality play with a Greek chorus. How could any English major not love it?
Kristoff Bergenholm
14. Magentawolf
Yes, I can't believe that the tunnel scene never even got mentioned!

Personally, I loved it, especially the poem... but the imagery that flashed by was just incredibly weird for the movie.
Ursula L
15. Ursula
fadeaccompli @ 9 wrote:

...because I had read the book and knew that he shouldn't be setting things up.
When I read the book, I figured that Wonka had been setting things up. Candy to tempt both the fat boy and the starving boy. Magic gum to tempt the gum-chewing girl. Endless unique wonders to temp the selfish girl. And magic television to tempt the boy who loved television.

Only Charlie had the self-control and manners to resist the temptation.

Which made the Slughorn subplot in the movie unnecessary. The kids were already facing temptations crafted to their particular weaknesses, and the generic temptation that Slughorn offered was rather boring in comparison.
16. Kora
I'm gonna disagree a little bit;
I think this is a great source of lessons to kids, don't eat so much food, don't be selfish, don't be so proud of yourself, don't watch tv or play video games all the time, go out and do hard work to earn the things you want/need.

I loved this movie as a kid, even as an adult, and I especially love Mr. Wonka. Yeah, he's weird, and stuff but at the end I think he was despairing that his plan hadn't worked and he couldn't give the cholate factory to a kid like Mike TV, or Veruca or Violet because they didn't care. Charlie at least cared enough to give the gobstopper back because he knew that giving it to someone in order to steal the formula and make money off of it was wrong. I also don't think Mr. Wonka cared that Charlie and Grandpa Jo tried the bubble thing, I think that was his excuse to get them to go away. And then he changed his mind when Charlie was selfless and showed that even though Mr. Wonka was horrible to them and the other children - that he didn't deserve someone else making money off of his own invention.

So, on the whole. I disagree. Sorry.
Ian Johnson
17. IanPJohnson
Look, if you weren't traumatized by the tunnel scene as a child, I wonder very much about the state of your mental health.
19. a1ay
it's like Arkham Asylum except with songs and chocolate.

Ha. Yes, Wonka is just a couple of bad days away from being a Batman villain, isn't he?

"Insane grinning person subjects innocents to bizarre and terrifying ordeals as a way of proving some twisted point about morality"? Sounds like SAW as well.
Christopher Davis
20. ckd
it's like Arkham Asylum except with songs and chocolate

Now I want Rocksteady Studios to do a Willy Wonka video game.
21. ericshanower
I love this movie, one of my favorite motion pictures.

I agree that Mrs. Bucket's song is waaaay too long and boring. The Slugworth subplot I find annoying, but easy to ignore since it really doesn't come into the story that much.

As a child I found Gene Wilder as Wonka repellant but fascinating. I was never traumatized by the fates of the first four kids--I think I identified wholly with Charlie and believed he'd at least get out alive.

As an adult I love all the scenes of people desperate to get a golden ticket--they make for a weirdly split p.o.v., but they're entertaining enough to work. I love the early 1970s hair and fashions--so imperfect and so real. My major disappointment as an adult is that I can so easily see how they flew Charlie and Grandpa Joe in the Fizzy Lifting Drinks scene--it looked to me when I was a child that the characters were truly flying.

I still feel light-hearted with joy when Charlie finds the golden ticket. I still laugh at the nose-picking moment--so understated but blatant. I still fill with triumph and justification when that awful, awful Veruca Salt gets dropped into the furnace--love to hate Veruca!

I judge this movie to be better than the book overall, a really rare occurence.

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