Uncovering the sinister side of Willy Wonka. Mystery and Dark Humor in Film Adaptations of Roald Dahl’s "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

Term Paper, 2012

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Adaptation Studies
2.1. Introducing Theories of Adaptation
2.2. Classifying Charlie’s Film Versions as Adaptations

3. Willy Wonka’s Mystery and Dark Humor in Adaptions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
3.1. “Mr. Willy Wonka”
3.2. “Augustus Gloop Goes up the Pipe”
3.3. “Down the Chocolate River”
3.4. “Charlie’s Chocolate Factory”

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited

1. Introduction

Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been voted “the most popular children’s book of all time” (Warren 9). The story of a poor boy getting to partake in a fast paced tour through a chocolate factory which is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination is still able to capture young readers’ attention across the globe and has a loyal following. The appeal of the novel lies in its balance between fantasy and reality as “magic becomes a viable option in the real world in which his readers live” (Schober 31). Furthermore, Dahl is known for his fondness of overstatement, of fantastic exaggeration, and of the “vigorous play of languages” containing witty puns, rhymes, exclamations as well as the “eccentric use of nonsense” (34). Yet, the plot is said to have “had disturbing undertones ever since it first appeared” since “nasty and frightening things happen to the children inside the factory” and bad deeds are immediately punished (Ebert 97). Film critic Scott states: “There is pleasure, but also a shadow of menace.” Julie Cross stresses Dahl’s “Gothic-inspired humor” and the use of “grotesque caricature,” a technique which picks up one dominant trait of an otherwise flat character and exaggerating it (qtd. in Schober 34). The sometimes violently imposed morality and thereby suitability for children has been a matter of debate amongst disapproving critics for a long time. Others simply see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a cautionary tale depicting children’s errors ought to be prevented. With the exception of Charlie Bucket, “all of the children … are monstrous brats who deserve their unpleasant fates” and the “moral of politeness and humility triumphing over gluttony, arrogance, greed, and TV obsession” is seen as essential (Warren 68-69). Dahl himself justifies his writing as such: “children love to be spooked, to be made to giggle. They like a touch of the macabre as long as it’s funny, too. They don’t relate it to life. They enjoy the fantasy. And my nastiness is never gratuitous. It’s retribution. Beastly people must be punished” (qtd. in Warren 21).

It did not take long for the first attempt to adapt Dahl’s tale to the big screen. In 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Mel Stuart and starring Gene Wilder as Wonka, opened in theaters. Although lacking immediate success, the children’s musical has evolved into a cult classic over the years. In 2005, director Tim Burton took his turn transforming the novel into a movie choosing Johnny Depp for the role as Wonka. Whereas the first movie is said to win over audiences with “Gene Wilder’s twinkling air of mystery,” Burton’s movie is regarded as much darker, capturing the novel’s mood due to the affinity with the Gothic, as well as fairytale motifs which Dahl and Burton share (Ebert 97; Schober 36).

When examining both movies with regard to Dahl’s source material, it is advisable to employ strategic measures of adaptation theories. This paper will attempt to do so and focuses on the interpretation of the character of Wonka, especially concerning his darker side, in both films. The following thesis will then be examined: The joyful and fantastic world described in Dahl’s novel has an underlying sinister and mysterious side to it and is associated with the character of Willy Wonka and the setting of his chocolate factory. These dark elements are adapted in a different manner by the two movies. While the 1971 version reduces Wonka’s overt rudeness and evil nature, it succeeds in keeping up the mystery surrounding his character and the factory. Tim Burton’s version seems to focus more on recreating Dahl’s sharp wit and sarcasm, yet demystifies Wonka in that he is being ridiculed by means of insecurity and a supplementary origin story. The differences in the process of adapting the novel’s character are caused by economic motives and a target audience consisting of children on the part of Stuart’s movie, and the emphasis on the auteur Tim Burton and his trademark style on the part of the later movie.

In order to discuss this thesis, the field of adaptation theory and its strategic approach to analyzing movies will first be introduced. Furthermore, it will be argued in how far both films can be regarded as adaptations of Dahl’s novel. The subsequent chapter will then consist of thorough analyses of significant chapters of the novel and corresponding scenes from the two movies according to adaptation studies’ criteria. A conclusion will later summarize the main findings.

2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Adaptation Studies

DeWitt Bodeen is quoted saying: “Adapting literary works to film is, without a doubt, a creative undertaking but the task requires a kind of selective interpretation, along with the ability to recreate and sustain an established mood” (McFarlane 7). In this chapter, this specific task is introduced in the context of adaptation theory and then applied to the filmic interpretation of Roald Dahl’s novel.

2.1. Introducing Theories of Adaptation

To put it broadly, a film adaptation can be seen as “the transfer of a printed text in a literary genre to film” (Desmond 1). Adaptations have “an overt and defining relationship to prior texts,” thereby acknowledging that aspects like plot, characters, and setting are not invented anew but taken from elsewhere (Hutcheon 3). Literary sources may encompass poems, essays, short stories, etc., but about half of all film adaptations are based on novels (Desmond 84). Although some scholars also include the transfer “of other textualized materials” such as songs, this paper will focus on the “move from telling to showing,” in particular from novel to film (Verevis 81; Hutcheon 40). Since film is a distinct medium with its own conventions, values and techniques, “an adaptation is an interpretation, involving at least one person‘s reading of the text, choices about what elements to transfer, and decisions about how to actualize these elements in a medium of image and sound” (2). To pinpoint an exact definition of the term adaptation is difficult as it is not only used to describe the product which is often called a “translation,” or a “paraphrase,” but also the production process (Hutcheon 16-17). This process turns adapters into “interpreters and then creators” for the reason that they may alter the source material in countless ways, e.g. by adding or cutting elements, speeding up the action, and so forth (18). In that way, an adaptation of a novel can evidently be seen as a creative process. Additionally, adaptation can be seen from “the perspective of its process of reception,” as a form of intertextuality since audiences recognize repetitions and innovations in adapted works from knowing the source text (Hutcheon 8).

A much debated issue within the field of adaptation studies is the preoccupation with the aspect of fidelity stressing the degree of faithfulness to the text inherent in the adaptation. This degree of fidelity is often attributed a decisive role in establishing the quality of a particular adaptation and is often discussed in the context of “canonical works” (Hutcheon 7). Yet not only were reviewers and scholars occupied with the fidelity issue, but also audiences familiar with the literary source. Since they have created individual mental images of the scenarios in a novel, “they are interested in comparing their images with those created by the film-maker” (McFarlane 7), thus judging the quality of the film based on its faithfulness towards the novel and reinforcing the dominance of the term fidelity. However, recent studies have forcefully rejected this evaluative approach, emphasizing the “indefinite number of interpretations” of a text and accordingly, the impossibility of grasping one standard meaning on which a profound judgment can be based (Desmond 40). Leitch proposes the following: “Instead of constantly seeking answers to the question, `Why are so many adaptations unfaithful to perfectly good sources?´ adaptation studies would be better advised to ask the question, `Why does this particular adaptation aim to be faithful?´” (127). A further aspect in rejecting the focus on fidelity is its language which “suggests a hierarchy,” setting the source material as the “original” and the adaptation as a somewhat inferior copy, fueling the already strong critique of regarding adaptations as “secondary, [and] derivative” by academic and journalistic criticism (Desmond 41, Hutcheon 2). As a greater quality of the literary text in contrast to the adaptation cannot be guaranteed, such a bias on the former should be prevented in adaptation studies. Moreover, Linda Hutcheon discards the implication of `fidelity criticism´ which presupposes the adapter’s desire to simply “reproduce” the source material (7). The motivation behind fidelity is then of great importance. While Leitch claims the primary motive to be of a “financial, not aesthetic” nature as the use of an existing plot which has proven to be a success with audiences in its literary form may be more convenient than inventing new storylines, a personal interest and passion about the material can just as well prompt filmmakers to faithfully adapt it (128).

Nevertheless, Desmond and Hawkes propose to use the concept of fidelity as a “descriptive” term allowing for a comparison of source text and adaptation (3). In essence, they suggest categorizing adaptations according to their degree of faithfulness into “close, loose, or intermediate interpretation[s].” Whereas most elements of the source text are kept in the close adaptation, the loose one omits most of them. An intermediate interpretation keeps some of the story elements of the source while significantly changing other parts (3). A systematic procedure of listing elements of the source material which have been kept, dropped or added in the film version provides a starting point for identifying the type of adaptation and, most interestingly, for analyzing the motives for, and consequences of, the changes made by the adapter. Inquiries in the context of adapters’ decisions on what to adapt and how to do so could include advanced technological alternatives, the impact of stars or industrial production practices (3). This strategic analysis can be done in a “microcosmic,” or a “macrocosmic” way. While the former focuses only on the relationship between literary source and film in one particular chapter/scene, the latter investigates the whole literary text, part for part, and its adaptation (80).

2.2. Classifying Charlie ’s Film Versions as Adaptations

Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was adapted as a movie by director Mel Stuart in 1971 and renamed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In this case, the adaptation is a demonstration of a classic “from telling to showing” phenomenon including the common practice of `translating´ canonical works (Hutcheon 40; 7): A popular novel has been adapted to the screen not long after its release, starring a famous Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, being fueled by a great marketing campaign which includes the distribution of Wonka sweets produced by Quaker Oats financing part of the movie (Burton 223), and encouraging the assumption that economic reasons, at least partly, stood behind this project. Although the film evolved into a cult classic over the years, a bitter and dissatisfied Roald Dahl who had been involved in the writing but had been replaced by other writers seems to share this assumption as he is quoted saying: “Commercial directors are the writer’s curse” (Warren 22). In this particular adaptation, the genre of children’s literature has been translated accordingly. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory can be classified as a family movie/ musical. Yet, as the ongoing success shows, “it offers something for everyone,” appealing to children and adults alike, which Stuart attributed to the tone being “more realistic than fantastical” (x; 3). In addition to an economic viewpoint including the movie reinforcing book sales, “[a]daptations of books, however, are often considered educationally important for children, for an entertaining film … might give them a taste for reading the book on which it is based” (Hutcheon 118). The above mentioned concerns with the `fidelity issue´ discussed by reviewers and audiences alike can be found in abundance as comments vary from praise to the accusation of the film as “[lacking] the charm of the original story” (Warren 95).

Tim Burton’s 2005 attempt at bringing the tale of Charlie Bucket back into movie theaters is explicit in its “overt and defining relationship” to the literary text due to the adoption of the novel’s title (Hutcheon 3), yet it becomes clear early on that Burton took a different approach to the material than Stuart did. Hutcheon argues that “[t]he move from a telling to showing mode may also mean a change in genre as well as medium, and with that too comes a shift in the expectations of the audience” (45). This fits the second movie very well as the genre is no longer equivalent to that of a children’s film but evidently targets older audiences. Pulliam confirms that this version “is clearly aware of its adult audience whose members derive enjoyment from the novel’s surreal qualities and deeper understanding of the enigmatic candy maker” (103). Verevis picks up Timothy Corrigan’s emphasis on “auteurs ¾`star directors´,” serving as a “` commercial strategy for organizing [a type of] audience reception´” (9-10). Without doubt, this phenomenon is also apparent in the case of Tim Burton whose unique style established over the course of many movies secured a significant part of the audience through his name alone.

When looking at the fact that there are two movies based on the same literary source, the relationships between these three elements need to be addressed. Thus, one can include a look at the films in the broader context of the term `remake.´ Robert Eberwein defines remakes as “a kind of reading or rereading of the original” which seems similar to the process of `adaptation´ (15). Likewise, it is a creative process by filmmakers who decide on the degree of faithfulness towards the earlier version, `translate´ it in a new fashion or adopt elements to their liking. According to Hutcheon, another similarity between remakes and adaptations lies in the way they create pleasure in the viewers deriving “from repetition with variation... Recognition and remembrance are part of the pleasure (and risk) of experiencing an adaptation” (4).

However, there is an essential difference between remaking and adapting. Verevis argues that the term remake refers to “a remake of another film,” i.e. a revision within the same medium, whereas adaptation describes the transfer between “different semiotic registers” (82). It then has to be debated whether the second movie is an attempt to remake the first movie or a new interpretation of Dahl’s novel. In order to classify the movie by Burton, it can be helpful to look at statements of said director regarding his motivation for making this movie. Burton is quoted saying e, “[t]he goal of the readaptation, like that of the literary translation, is fidelity (however defined) to the original text, which it undertakes to translate as scrupulously as possible (presumably more scrupulously than earlier versions) into the film medium” (45). Hence, the readaptation sets out to translate the novel more accurately than any previous film, an undertaking Burton was evidently committed to. It is the aim of this paper then, to identify the way he translated the novel which may or may not differ from the adaptation by Mel Stuart.

3. Willy Wonka’s Mystery and Dark Humor in Adaptions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The following subchapters will first introduce and analyze the representation of Willy Wonka and significant elements of his factory in the novel and then demonstrate ways of transforming the literary source into filmic material. Special emphasis will be put on Wonka’s outer appearance, his interaction with the children, his mysterious behavior during the tour, as well as the resolution of his quest.

3.1. “Mr. Willy Wonka”

The very first time Wonka appears in Dahl’s novel is in Chapter 14. In this particular chapter, Wonka’s outer appearance as well as his treatment of, and attitude towards, the children visiting his factory is described, therefore giving first glimpses of his mysterious behavior. On the morning of the factory tour, “[t]he sun was shining brightly…, but the ground was still white with snow and the air was very cold,” an ambiguity almost perfectly matching that of Wonka himself (53). Wonka exits the factory and his appearance is described as such:

And what an extraordinary little man he was! He had a black top hat on his head. He wore a tail coat made of a beautiful plum-colored velvet. His trousers were bottle green. His gloves were pearly gray…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 (57).

As he skips towards the gates with a “quickness of his movements”, he is depicted as being “full of life.” His open arms, smile, and “flutey” voice which greets the children in an exuberant manner, being demonstrated by the abundant use of exclamations and endearments printed in italics (“My dear boy, how good to see you!”) round off the picture of a positively excited and welcoming Wonka. While he greets all parents and children in this manner, the reader gets the first taste of his slightly mean humor upon meeting Veruca and exclaiming: “My dear Veruca! … You do have an interesting name, don‘t you? I always thought a veruca was a sort of wart that you got on the sole of your foot! But I must be wrong, mustn’t I? How pretty you look in that lovely mink coat!” (58). Here, one can argue that Wonka gives a very offending statement to the girl and reveals a slightly sinister kind of humor. But the way this remark is cleverly enclosed in endearments, a self-depreciating question and a compliment regarding her coat is a perfect example of his wit and skill to mask this humor. This also exemplifies his relationship towards the children which is ambiguous in that he relates to them in his childlike manner, adores their innocence and imagination, and does want to find an heir for his factory, but also detests spoiled children with vices like those depicted in the characters. This dark, yet hidden humor foreshadows his attitude and behavior towards the children in the rest of the movie.

In Mel Stuart’s movie, the scene can be regarded as a relatively close adaptation of the novel’s chapter as there are only few changes. One change is the chocolatier’s factory’s inviting look as the sun is shining in a summery setting (unlike the novel’s cold and snowy one). This change could have been motivated by a desire to let the scene appear more friendly, matching the genre of a children’s movie, or simply because the small budget of the film did not allow spending for artificial snow. As Wonka steps out, most elements regarding his outer appearance seems to have been kept: he wears a top hat and a plum colored velvet suit and walks with a cane. Although the colors of hat and trousers have been changed, this has little effect on the slightly strange and eccentric look to his outfit Wonka’s character also carries in the novel. The gloves mentioned in the novel have been omitted which will become important when looking at the second movie.

Regarding his attitude, one can confirm his truly “sparkling eyes” and excitement as he greets the children by shaking their hands and ushering them inside. He does speak in an exclamatory way and seems genuinely happy to see his guests. Interestingly, the children’s text has been changed in a way that emphasizes their individual vices and makes them even more unlikeable: Whereas the children in the book merely introduce themselves, the film shows Veruca stressing the number of coats she owns, Violet impatiently asking for gum, and Mike “shooting” Wonka with his toy revolver. With regard to Wonka, this change is employed to make him seem like a calm man as he patiently smiles on during the children’s remarks and gently averts the parents’ obtrusive offers. This reinforces the impression of Wonka as truly excited and good natured which is further underlined in his greeting of Veruca. Dahl’s words for Wonka have been modified in that they completely omit the rude remark about her name being mistaken for a “wart … on the sole of your foot” (Dahl 85). Stuart’s Wonka simply states: “My dear Veruca, what a pleasure! And how pretty you look in that lovely mink coat!” Thus, the edge has been taken out of the statement of the novel’s Wonka. There is no underlying humor so that the complexity of Wonka’s character seems to be reduced in this scene.


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Uncovering the sinister side of Willy Wonka. Mystery and Dark Humor in Film Adaptations of Roald Dahl’s "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"
University of Göttingen  (Philosophische Fakultät)
Theorizing Film Remakes
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roald dahl, willy wonka, charlie chocolate factory, adaptation, film studies
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Amelie Meyer (Author), 2012, Uncovering the sinister side of Willy Wonka. Mystery and Dark Humor in Film Adaptations of Roald Dahl’s "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/537855


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