I have a confession to make. I hate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in all its forms. This is not easy and I know Roald Dahl fans will give me a hard time about it. Heck, I’m giving me a hard time about it as I usually love Dahl.
The problem is that this book upset me when I read it as a child. As a plump, female, only child, with a mop of curly hair, this book had it in for me from the start! And the parallels did not escape the attention of some less than friendly fellow Dahl fans at my school!
I hated the book when it first came out. I am old enough to have read the original 1964 edition of the book, as well as the revised later one. When I first read it I found it scary and cruel. I know Dahl’s books can be dark and most children love him for that but this time there are problems. The trouble starts with his creation of the less than human Oompa Loompahs but it soon gets worse. Wonka himself is a disturbing character, childlike but in a very creepy, uncomfortable way. Then there are the villains Dahl takes his revenge on. In this story they are not nasty adults, who deserve their fate, but ‘naughty’, disturbed children, who probably don’t.
The Original Oompah-Loompahs and why they still matter.
Few people remember that the original Oompa Loompahs in the first edition were tiny black African Pygmies. They were later completely re-invented as the colourful, less than human creatures we know now. This happened after the book was banned in parts of the US and criticised for racism. The overt racism has gone from the later editions but I am still left with an uncomfortable feeling that these small, less than human creatures are Wonka’s slaves. Even in the revised editions the Oompah-Loompas still live in “thick jungles infested by the most dangerous beasts in the entire world,” and are still a “tribe” who do not learn English until they come to Britain. It is not hard for children to assume they come from Africa, or at the very least that they are ‘not from round here’!
Then there is the way they are treated as conveniences and devices to be used for Wonka’s purposes. I know they provide a convenient Greek chorus for the book and no doubt in the musical as well, with their ‘impromptu’ songs. They give voice to the darkest, cruelest view of the ‘bad’ children. For example their song about Augustus Gloop
“Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop!
The great big greedy nincompoop!
How long could we allow this beast
To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast”
I know that Dahl himself insisted there was no racist intent and I am sure the new musical will be a very sanitised version of the original but the underlying problems of the Oompah-Loompas will remain.
Willy Wonka – Peter Pan, Citizen Kane or Michael Jackson?
There is something very uncomfortable about the character of Willy Wonka in the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are obvious surface similarities with Michael Jackson and the notorious Neverland. They weren’t there when the book was written but the feeling he evoked was still disturbing. Wonka is, I suppose, the archetypal child in an adult body.
He takes a childlike glee in the glorification of sweeties and sugary treats, he is the creator of this amazing factory that draws in children and tempts them to indulge themselves, yet punishes those who do so. There is something psychotic about this seemingly all powerful adult/child who sets children up to meet a literally sticky end. It is a sort of passive aggression that Dahl is playing with here and it is seriously twisted. When asked about the parallels with Jackson and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Wonka, Tim Burton (director of the film) said:
“..There’s a big difference: Michael Jackson likes children, Willy Wonka can’t stand them. To me that’s a huge difference.” (Steve Head (2005-07-08). “Interview: Tim Burton”. . )
It remains to be seen how the musical will handle Wonka. We do know he will be played by Douglas Hodge (currently giving Tony nominated performances as Cerano de Bergerac on Broadway), so perhaps closer to the Gene Wilder character from the earlier film than to Depp’s foppish version. In a recent interview in the Torygraph (what? this is an opinion piece you know ) he said he wanted to play Wonka as “a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Dalí”.
“There’s a kind of Dalíesque feel to the world of it all. But there’s also this innocence – something pure, simple and very appealing,” (source )
I like Hodge. He is a good singer, not to mention singer/songwriter ( I love Tall Ship!) and an excellent actor but I’d rather see him in something else. Almost anything else.
The ‘Naughty’ Children – demonising children.
Finally we get to the way the story treats the ‘naughty’ children. As a plump child I cringed at the description of Augustus Gloop:
“The picture showed a nine-year-old so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump. Great flabby folds of fat bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a monstrous ball of dough with two small greedy curranty eyes peering out upon the world.” (Dahl, 36)
Augustus has no redeeming features, he is described as and is nasty, greedy, and fat. Being overweight is continually associated with unpleasantness and greed throughout the book. (See also the parents of the other ‘naughty’ children). August is eventually transformed, after falling into the chocolate river because of his greed. He becomes thin, and one assumes ‘nice’ (!) after being pushed and pulled through a series of pipes.
The two female children Veruca and Violet are equally unpleasant and meet equally nasty transformations. Veruca seems to be an only child with overindulgent parents and she is stereotyped as selfish and demanding. Violet has “great big mop of curly hair” (and so did I, spotting a pattern here?!), talked fast and constantly chewed gum. We assume from this she is probably American though it is never stated. She is loud and overly competitive. One ends up permanently purple, the other covered in three weeks’ worth of foul-smelling rubbish and only escapes death because the incinerator is broken at the time. Funny? Maybe. I didn’t laugh.
Suitable for School Trips?
Lots of school parties visit a West End show and I think that’s a great thing. Nothing beats the excitement of live theatre and I am all in favour of getting children into the idea of theatre going as soon as possible. Schools have found Matilda an excellent trip and educationally very rich. So why not do the same with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?
The show is coming to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane with previews from May the 18th 2013 and an opening night in June 2013 and the tickets are already on sale. There are big discounts available for school parties and the management obviously see the school trip as a major part of their business model.
Like many of the current West End musicals, the official website has a whole section on ‘education’ with high quality, free, downloadable resources for schools all linked to the curriculum and more promised. The first one (of 3) focusses largely on the book but the next one, due to be released in Feb 2013 promises to give an insight into the staging of the new production. I’ve had a look at the first one and it has some interesting, if surprisingly pedestrian, activities. Have they never heard of technology or the internet?
There is also an ‘Inventing’ competition with great prizes for schools. All in all they are doing lots to encourage school trips. However I am still not convinced.
I’ll leave the last word on the book, and the musical, to Ursula Le Guin. She felt that it was fine if children found and read the book for themselves and enjoyed it but it was not one she thought suitable for school or library use:
“I boggle at the thought of an adult-parent, librarian, or teacher — actually sitting down to read such a book to children. What on earth for? To teach them to be good “consumers”? The idea of education is a leading forth, isn’t it? — not a stuffing with endless candy, on the model of Mr. Dahl’s factory.” Ursula Le Guin (Source)