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July 26, 2005 > Dark Chocolate

Dark Chocolate

Getting to the sweet (and nutty) center of Roald Dahl's classic creepy children's tale

In this new age of Hollywood remakes, sequels and adaptations, it's important to remember that some of the big screen stories and treatments floating around out there were actually once original ideas.

Like books. You know, for reading.

It was this realization that prompted me to not only go back and watch Mel Stuart's 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (note the change in title) starring Gene Wilder, but to dig up a copy of Roald Dahl's classic work of imagination, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to see just how far along this timeless tale has come since Dahl dreamt up his first Oompa Loompa. It turns out that, after 40 years, Dahl's vision and message still remain predominantly intact even through two Hollywood treatments of his original story. Like the book, both films are cautionary tales of how little children should and shouldn't behave. Dahl's warnings: don't be greedy or rude, don't watch too much television or chew too much gum, parents don't spoil your children, and lastly, well-behaved children who deserve and want their prize the most shall be the ones to receive it.

Each film approached the basic outline with a unique take. The 1971 Willy Wonka added a side plot about the importance of integrity (remember Slugworth and the ever-lasting gobstopper?) while Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory delivers a message about the importance of family. Structurally, Burton's Chocolate is a lot easier to swallow than Stuart's. In addition to a tighter narrative structure, Burton injected his own back story explaining, among other things, why Wonka decides to start making candy for the children of the world. This is an especially good idea considering today's audience, which craves depth and complexity but above all understanding.

As always, Tim Burton is right at home in the fairy tale realm, so his whimsy comes across as fitting and acceptable while the '71 version has trouble finding its footing. It's as if the makers of Willy Wonka didn't feel comfortable fully committing to the fairy tale aspect, and weren't certain where to hang their purple coat and top hat. As a result, we get a movie that by today's standards is fun, but ultimately cheesy and "old school." Burton's Charlie doesn't take itself quite so seriously, and the tone and structure of the film benefit from it greatly. For instance, characters from the '71 version of the film spontaneously burst in to song no less than three times before we even enter the chocolate factory while the '05 version uses its pre-factory screen time to establish a poignant and touching plot with the heroic and selfless Charlie at the center. To be fair, both films take way too long getting the audience into the factory. Especially the '05 version, considering it's a remake. We all know by now that Charlie gets the golden ticket, otherwise the movie would just be called Charlie Watches from the Gates. As a result, all the fake-outs and annoyingly long character intros (designed to make us hate each child more than the last) come off like a stubborn candy wrapper: way too slowly. The kids are dreadful enough as it is, get on with it!

Once the factory gates open, both films pick up considerably. It's worth mentioning that the two factories, the '71 version (which was actually Munich gas works in Germany) and the computer-generated '05 version look and feel considerably different from one another. The '71 version looks quaint and old-style from outside, while the '05 version stands as a shining and magnificent testament to modern technology. Inside's a different story. You might be tempted to say that the factories look the same (I know I was, when sitting in a theater watching the '05 version) but they really are different. After having re-watched the original, Burton's vision of the factory stands out as more vibrant and better laid-out than the '71 factory. It's also more faithful to Dahl's original description.

There is an opinion floating around out there that the new film is truer to the original story than the old film. I don't think this is necessarily correct. It is true that the '05 version incorporated more of Dahl's original (and very specific) visual descriptions: the boat with a hundred Oompa Loompa rowers, the squirrel room and the Oompa Loompas themselves, about knee-high in the book and, subsequently, in the new film. This, however, has little to do with the story. Both films use a considerable amount of Dahl's original dialogue and both maintain the basic outline for the story: five winners and a handful of parents travel into the factory and are eliminated one by one by various candy-related perils.

As a matter of fact, the middle portions of all three versions of the tale (the book and both movies) are almost exactly the same. Each film took liberties with the story: the '71 version had Charlie and his Grandpa Joe stealing a taste of the "Fizzy Lifting Drinks," and the Mr. Slugworth business while the '05 version adds an entire subplot and a brand new ending. I won't spoil the new ending, but it's much more poignant and meaningful than the half-hearted and goofy final lines of '71s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "But Charlie, don't forget the story about what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted."

"What happened, Mr. Wonka?"
"He lived happily ever after!" Hug and fade to black.

Many assume that just because the '05 version is directed by Tim Burton, it's a darker tale. True, modern technology renders a girl turning into a blueberry in a much creepier fashion than the screen tricks of old ever could. But there are many more disturbing facets of the original film - and even the book - that out-creep the Burton remake any day of the week. We all remember the '71 boat trip down the chocolate river. Just to refresh your memory, that scene had a demented Gene Wilder screaming at a boatful of scared children as images of snakes, insects, and chickens getting their heads chopped off flashed across the screen.

The book becomes borderline sinister at certain parts (mostly during the Oompa Loompa songs); Dahl does this so subversively that young children might not even pick up on it, then his version of Wonka writes it off: "Oh, those Oompa Loompas sure love to joke. And they are joking... I hope." Let's not forget that Dahl places each of the naughty children through a very specific and ironic type of torture (one is squeezed thin, one stretched tall, one dropped into a chute of garbage, and another juiced like a berry). There are enough subtle implications in the book to put it up there against the Burton flick in terms of creepiness. This isn't to say that the Burton version isn't fittingly dark. A lot of it comes through in the humor. Wonka has a line where he says, "Everything in this room is edible. Even I'm edible, but that's called cannibalism, and it's generally frowned upon in modern societies." In the end, all three versions of the tale are sufficiently dark in their own ways.

Memorable portions of both films begin with the introduction of Willy Wonka. The difference between Wilder's Wonka and the Wonka played by Johnny Depp is what most readily sets one film apart from the other. Since the original Wonka is a literary character open to interpretation, it's impossible to say which Wonka is closer to the book; however, to me, Gene Wilder felt more like the literary version. This isn't saying that Johnny Depp's performance was worse, just different.

Before I go on, I must say that both Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp were immensely enjoyable as Willy Wonka. Wilder's Wonka was deliciously snide and, like the in book, relentlessly pushy. Depp's Wonka is a bit more "out there." He's childlike in nature, with a hint of insanity in his eyes that seems to come through when one of the children is in apparent peril. Depp has claimed that his portrayal of Wonka is based on a mixture of reclusive aviator Howard Hughes and a rock star. Depp's Wonka is more obsessed with his chocolate than Wilder's. When Wilder meets the guests for the first time, he shakes their hands enthusiastically and sincerely and at once remembers all of their names. When Depp meets the children (in a most bizarre and off-putting manner), he is asked by one of them, "don't you want to know our names?" to which Wonka responds with a full toothy smile and a cheerful tone, "I can't imagine why it would matter."

Because of the added back story, audiences will understand Depp's Wonka a bit more than Wilder's, but that's a sign of the times. Audiences today demand a thorough understanding of their characters. They want them to have layers, depth, and complexity. In this light, it's unfair to judge one film against the other. Obviously, today's audience (especially the kids) will get more laughs out of the '05 version in addition to finding it more concise and easier to follow. However, the '71 version has a classic and timeless appeal that will make it hard for those who have seen both to choose one over the other. In the long run, they both owe a tip of their oddly-colored top hats to the creative mind of Roald Dahl, the man behind the original tale. Dahl would undoubtedly remind us that it's important to shut off the movies and TVs once in a while and let your own imagination, rather than Mel Stuart or Tim Burton's, run rampant through a good book. After all, if it weren't for books, where would Hollywood get all its ideas?
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