Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

Although Roald Dahl delighted in twisting the minds of children, his marvelously unwholesome stories cannot be called immoral. Probably his most famous book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is nothing if not a moral tale. Even though it’s about children getting to tour a candy factory, its underlying message is one of moderation and balance in all things. Those who stray from this path are harshly punished, and the fact that they are just kids gains them little sympathy from the author.

The hero of the yarn, first published in 1964, is Charlie Bucket, a poor-but-honest paragon who lives in a shack with his parents—his father has a factory job screwing the caps on tubes of toothpaste—and his four grandparents, all of whom are bedridden invalids.

Charlie loves chocolate, and would love to be one of the five lucky children to find “Golden Tickets” in their Wonka bars, entitling them to take a tour of Wonka’s factory. But since Charlie gets a Wonka bar only once a year, on his birthday, this is unlikely.

Needless to say, Charlie ends up with a Golden Ticket, and, accompanied by his Grandpa Joe, meets the ebullient Wonka and is shown around his haywire factory, staffed entirely by Oompa-Loompas, diminutive (and apparently not unionized) workers with a gift for Skeltonic rhyme.

It’s from the fates of Charlie’s four fellow Golden-Ticket-holders, however, that the book gains its hard-edged moralistic tone.

Each of the other contest winners symbolizes some sort of excessive lifestyle—Augustus Gloop is a spherical glutton, Violet Beauregarde is a chewing-gum junkie, Veruca Salt is a spoiled brat, and Mike Teavee watches television nonstop.

In the course of the tour, the obnoxious obsessions of these kids lead each of them to some grim, uncertain fate or other, about which Wonka seems airily unconcerned. Each of these disasters is commemorated by the Oompa-Loompas in a lengthy, nasty song (“Veruca Salt, the little brute/Has just gone down the garbage chute...”). 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was filmed once before, in 1971, as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though Dahl is credited with the adaptation, that film doesn’t seem, somehow, much in his spirit—it’s too virtuous and treacly.

Only the classic performance of Gene Wilder, as the whimsical, enigmatic Wonka, rescues the film from kiddy-show obscurity.

Part of the ’71 movie’s problem, perhaps, is that it used saccharine songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, instead of Dahl’s fierce verses. The new film version, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Wonka, avoids this mistake, anyway—the songs of the Oompa-Loompas are spiky, undiluted Dahl.

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory is inexpensively available in several paperback editions, including a movie tie-in and a nice compact volume from Puffin Modern Classics, complete with Quentin Blake’s droll illustrations.

Also available from Puffin is Dahl's lesser-known sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, in which Wonka takes Charlie and his family into outer space, among other marvelous destinations. If the new film is a hit, maybe Burton and Depp will use Glass Elevator as their next tool for twisting young minds.