Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: old or new?

I generally think of myself as a book person. I read far more books than I watch movies and I generally much prefer the book to the movie. For example, I enjoyed Cooper’s Last of the Mohican’s but hated the movie. Sure the Lord of the Rings trilogy was better than I would have ever imagined but I still prefer the books.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently stumbled upon an example of the reverse: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I have always loved the classic Gene Wilder version Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I love Gene Wilder’s rather schizophrenic portrayal of Willy Wonka; happy and good one moment, sinister and dangerous the next. I love the oompa loompa songs. This was just a classic movie of my childhood.

When an updated version of the movie was released staring Johnny Depp I wasn’t real excited about seeing it. It was bound to disappoint given the iconic nature of the first film for me. But looking for something to watch during the Thanksgiving break with the in-laws we decided to watch it anyways.

Not surprisingly I was disappointed. The biggest flaw in the movie for me was Depp’s Wily Wonka. Perhaps my bias is too strongly tied to Gene Wilder’s performance, but I thought Depp was too pale, too odd, and too flat. Instead of the underlying edge of Wilder we get creepy eccentricity mixed with effeminate dandy. I didn’t think Tim Burton’s invented childhood for Wonka added anything to the story either. And having a digital Deep Roy play all the Oompa-Loompas was off putting. Burton’s dark and grey tone just didn’t seem to work for this story.

Having watched both films I thought it might be interesting to read the books they were based on, so upon returning home I picked up Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

Also not surprisingly, after having watched the movies numerous times, the books were anti-climatic. With the basic plot spoiled I found Charlie and the Chocolate Factory rather pedestrian and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator downright bad. Perhaps, one has to read and appreciate these books during one’s childhood. Or maybe the movies have simply ruined the pleasure of reading the stories; preventing me from bringing a fresh eye to the books.

I understand that Dahl disapproved of the original movie. I admit the remake is more in line with the book, although it obviously adds material as well. Probably its best scene – the squirrels sorting the nuts – is not in the original (instead it is geese sorting eggs). But I still prefer the original. I think this is another case of where trying too hard to bring a classic book to the screen results in a awkward film. Often the most skillful directors make significant changes in bringing a story to life while still managing to capture the spirit of the book. Or maybe I am just nostalgic for my youth.

What say you? Did you read the books as a child or an adult? Which movie did you prefer? Do you generally enjoy movies based on books? What is your favorite book brought to the big screen? What is the worst?

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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2 Comments

  • I have seen both movies and read the books. I am too old (;-) ) to have read the books as a child but have read them to my children who enjoy them a lot. I think CGGE is a pale imitator of CCF, it reads to me like a rushed, “cashing-in” sequel. There was no need to write anything else after CCF, which I think is pretty good as children’s books go (not as good as what I think of as Dahl’s masterpiece, “Matilda”, but better than most of Dahl’s other books).
    I agree that Gene Wilder is weird in the “original” movie, which I have sat through on video a few times when my children were younger. He sort of seems to be leering or conspiring with the adult viewers via his sidelong looks, as if to say “we know this is all stupid, but let’s indulge the children”. It is also very long.
    The Johnny Depp version was considered excellent by my children (better than the GW version they said). JD’s interpretation was certainly idiosyncratic — did he base it on Michael Jackson as was said at the time? I thought the JD version was creepiest in the Oompa Loompahs all being played by one actor, I don’t know why but I found this very disturbing. I thought the “awful children and parents” were pretty good, most particularly the mother and daughter who wore the matching designer leisure gear.
    I don’t think the “character motivation” subplot (Christopher Lee as the dentist dad) worked at all, seemed to me patronising to anyone over the age of about 12 watching the movie and unnecessary to anyone under. This “psychology” seemed misplaced: Willie Wonka is a fantasy character living in a magic land, even small children are aware of this. One reason I think Dahl’s books remain so popular with children is that he accepts the impossible as normal — as I think all the best children’s books do (eg Rowling, CS Lewis). The “his dad was horrid to him and wouldn’t let him eat sweets” explanation is not only naffly simplistic, but counter to the whole premise of the story.
    I also found the sentimental ending even more saccharine than the chocolate factory. The book’s ending was better. I guess Tim Burton put in his ending for the American audiences? ;-)
    But essentially all of the above is irrelevant, becuase children (target audiences) loved the JD version (and I think the GW version still sells well on DVD). So what do I know?
    Now a question back to you: how does Danny De Vito’s movie of Matilda compare with the book?

  • I have seen both movies and read the books. I am too old (;-) ) to have read the books as a child but have read them to my children who enjoy them a lot. I think CGGE is a pale imitator of CCF, it reads to me like a rushed, “cashing-in” sequel. There was no need to write anything else after CCF, which I think is pretty good as children’s books go (not as good as what I think of as Dahl’s masterpiece, “Matilda”, but better than most of Dahl’s other books).
    I agree that Gene Wilder is weird in the “original” movie, which I have sat through on video a few times when my children were younger. He sort of seems to be leering or conspiring with the adult viewers via his sidelong looks, as if to say “we know this is all stupid, but let’s indulge the children”. It is also very long.
    The Johnny Depp version was considered excellent by my children (better than the GW version they said). JD’s interpretation was certainly idiosyncratic — did he base it on Michael Jackson as was said at the time? I thought the JD version was creepiest in the Oompa Loompahs all being played by one actor, I don’t know why but I found this very disturbing. I thought the “awful children and parents” were pretty good, most particularly the mother and daughter who wore the matching designer leisure gear.
    I don’t think the “character motivation” subplot (Christopher Lee as the dentist dad) worked at all, seemed to me patronising to anyone over the age of about 12 watching the movie and unnecessary to anyone under. This “psychology” seemed misplaced: Willie Wonka is a fantasy character living in a magic land, even small children are aware of this. One reason I think Dahl’s books remain so popular with children is that he accepts the impossible as normal — as I think all the best children’s books do (eg Rowling, CS Lewis). The “his dad was horrid to him and wouldn’t let him eat sweets” explanation is not only naffly simplistic, but counter to the whole premise of the story.
    I also found the sentimental ending even more saccharine than the chocolate factory. The book’s ending was better. I guess Tim Burton put in his ending for the American audiences? ;-)
    But essentially all of the above is irrelevant, becuase children (target audiences) loved the JD version (and I think the GW version still sells well on DVD). So what do I know?
    Now a question back to you: how does Danny De Vito’s movie of Matilda compare with the book?

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