Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the children’s book by Roald Dahl, has sold 13.7 million copies since it was published in Britain in 1964. Its first Chinese printing alone was 2 million copies, a number so big one could easily imagine the books rolling out on conveyor belts like brightly wrapped Wonka bars. My mother read it to my siblings and me when I was seven, and we were captivated by the tale of a reclusive candy inventor who hides five Golden Tickets inside ordinary chocolate bars, tickets inviting the children who find them to take a guided tour of his mysterious factory and receive a lifetime supply of candy. Wonka is an irresistible character, a peculiarly British combination of eccentricity, whimsy, moral hauteur, and nonchalant cruelty. Annoyed by one of the parent chaperones, he snipes, “My dear old fish, go and boil your head.” He could have come from Evelyn Waugh or Oscar Wilde. Like those authors, Dahl was writing a comedy of manners, though he was more specifically concerned with children minding theirs.
Reading the book again recently I was surprised at how much of the story turns on money. Charlie, the main character, is desperately poor, living with his parents and four grandparents in a ramshackle house on the edge of town and subsisting on cabbage, potatoes, and bread. These circumstances are duly noted in the 1971 movie adaptation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and in the new version directed by Tim Burton. But neither captures the effects of hunger on a child as piteously as the book does. After Charlie’s father loses his job the family begins to starve and Charlie grows pinched and skeletal, his thinness underscored by Joseph Schindelman’s spidery illustrations in the first edition. “With that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship,” writes Dahl, “[Charlie] began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength. In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run.”
Wonka’s lottery allows Dahl to draw a thick line between the haves and the have-nots as Charlie watches his classmates buy stacks and stacks of Wonka bars in search of a Golden Ticket. As Charlie’s grandfather points out, Wonka is a marketing genius: the search for Wonka bars becomes an international obsession, and sales skyrocket. Privileged children are the first to find the tickets—the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, who devours chocolate bars, and the spoiled Veruca Salt, whose father buys truckloads of Wonka bars and directs workers from his factory to open them. In the book’s most electric moment Charlie, creeping home from school, finds a dollar bill in the snow. Ravenously hungry, he slips into a corner shop and buys himself a Wonka bar, which incredibly yields the fifth and last Golden Ticket.
Readers of the original will recall that Wonka demonstrates his business acumen in a sort of colonialist masterstroke. After corporate espionage forces him to fire all his workers, he recruits African pygmies—the Oompa-Loompas—to live and work in the bowels of his factory. “I discovered them myself,” he tells Charlie. “I brought them over from Africa myself—the whole tribe of them, three thousand in all. I found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before.” The pygmies are so dark Charlie thinks they must be made of chocolate, a particularly Sambo-like notion. This image of Wonka as a kind of subterranean plantation owner proved so inflammatory in the U.S. that the 1971 Hollywood movie turned the Oompa-Loompas into little orange men with green hair. By the mid-70s Dahl was persuaded to revise the book, which now describes the Oompa-Loompas as having rosy white skin and long brown hair.
In the movie, which became a psychedelic cult favorite, Gene Wilder is marvelous as Wonka, encompassing not only the character’s warmth and gentleness but his cruel wit and sudden rages. Aside from him, the movie is awful, with bad acting, phony-looking sets, and sappy songs (“The Candy Man”). Dahl, who’d already adapted to the screen Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and You Only Live Twice, wrote the clunky script, adding another layer of corporate espionage with a subplot about a rival candy maker, who asks the five children to steal candy-making secrets from Wonka. Tim Burton, Hollywood’s reigning master of the weird and fantastic, is no fan of the 1971 movie, and when he landed the assignment to direct a big-budget remake he vowed to do the story right. He sent screenwriter John August straight to Dahl’s book.
Their version is much more faithful, staging such anecdotes as Wonka’s creation of a domed chocolate palace for an Indian prince (in a spectacular scene, it melts to the ground one hot day). They trust in the simplicity of the story, as four of the children visiting the factory fall prey to their vices and are punished in a series of diabolical yet comic mishaps. Charlie, played by Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland, is plain and ordinary and deprived; Burton told Premiere magazine he wanted to “make the grandparents look old, make the family look undernourished, make Charlie thin, not some blond-haired kid that looks like he’s just had a nice lunch at the commissary.” In keeping with the book, Charlie survives the tour by virtue of his simple kindness and decency, and Wonka, revealing the true purpose of the Golden Tickets, invites Charlie to become heir to his candy-making empire.
Burton has restored Charlie’s name to the title, but he’s clearly more interested in Wonka, whose elaborate backstory is the movie’s biggest departure from Dahl. As a boy, Willy is forbidden to eat candy and forced to wear a hideous orthodontic brace around his head by his pitiless dentist father (played by Christopher Lee, God bless him). Highmore doesn’t stand a chance next to Johnny Depp, who plays Wonka as a glassy, tittering, socially retarded, sexually ambiguous man-child—Michael Jackson without the sleepovers. It’s an off-putting performance, mannered and unconvincing, and it robs Wonka of the acid that makes him so entertaining in the book. The little tale of healing between Wonka and his father may be pleasing to parents, but it’s inimical to the book’s healthy mistrust of adults in general and parents in particular. It also steals the spotlight from Dahl’s real hero, a boy whose familiarity with cabbage makes him appreciate chocolate even more than his mentor does.