Uncategorized | July 20, 2005

Last week while traveling–ironically, not a Kiss’ throw from Hershey, PA–I heard an essay on NPR by recent TMR contributor Steve Almond (“My Mouth, Her Sex, the Night, My Heart,” Spring/Summer 2005) giving his preview opinion of the then-soon-to-be-released Charlie and the Chocolate Factory vs. Gene Wilder’s 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Unfortunately NPR hasn’t posted an audio file of the essay, but I have since found the text from which he drew, an essay written for Salon (you’ll need to get a site pass).

The gist of Almond’s opinion: he’s not going to bother seeing Burton and Johnny Depp’s Wonka because Gene Wilder’s Wonka (which he’s viewed 27 times) capture’s the sugar-coated essence, the luscioulsy seductive danger and the sweet yearning of his childhood fantasy to own a chocolate factory. In case you’re wondering, Almond’s credential for making his judgment (and making it so publicly) is that he’s the author of CandyFreak, a memoir of his obsession and exploration of the candy business in America, wherein he claims to have eaten candy every day he can remember, and to think about candy every hour (hear Almond on Talk of the Nation here. Almond’s take on what Wilder brings to the role–in part his own charisma, in part the sensibility of director Mel Stuart–I think are right on: a whimsical and even mystical genius that infuses the film with a penetrating other-worldy-ness (reminiscent of one’s best candy-eating experiences).

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Of course this milieu is derived in large measure from it having been made in the 70s, but for those of us who were kids then, who first met Wonka through Wilder, we recognize a brand of truthfulness in the film that endures because we may be the last generation to have had childhoods with even a chance at innocence.

I don’t begrudge Almond his view, or his choices about how to spend his movie-going dollar, but as one who’s worn down well over a thousand Wonka Jawbreakers to their delicious sour center, who admires the work of the originating book’s author, Roald Dahl, and as one who’s seen both films, I’d suggest that Almond mischaracterizes Burton’s film as a “remake” of Stuart’s 1971 film. His correctly titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is rather a re-interpretation of Dahl’s classic book, and I would argue on the whole (one can make what one will of how Depp plays Wonka, widely decried as too reminiscent of Michael Jackson) captures Dahl’s dark-but-hopeful vision more thoroughly than Stuart’s. Burton’s Wonka, rather than the magical, poetic candy man, is himself–like the children whose perverted desires architect their fates in the factory–a human being undermined by a frustrated self-love. Wilder’s Wonka is so ethereal a father-figure–one whose grace in the end forgives and rewards Charlie–we lose one of Dahl’s primary imaginative thrusts: it’s Charlie Bucket who rescues a regressive Wonka from himself. Wonka’s drive for artistic perfection (and in Burton’s version, an abusive father), having driven out his capacity to accept the flaws of nature, of human society and human love (our very need for chocolate in the first place, no?) finds only in an act of extreme benevolence the way toward regaining the balance that Charlie, in his poverty, possesses. One might even call it a vision of how one passes from childhood to adulthood.

I don’t expect this film to make the same lasting impression on the generation who are now kids, but then it’s difficult for anything to make that kind of impression on children (of whom many are adult age) in a society abundantly populated by the over-stimulated archetypes of Veruca, Valerie, Augustus and Mike, incapable of the wonder for which only Charlie seems to possess the capacity. To this end, I see great value in a new, maybe better interpretation. If the film saves a couple of us from such a fate, if it inspires just one of us to contemplate the mysteries of an Everlasting Gobstopper rather than devour Purplicious Wonka Cakes, I say the trouble’s worth it.

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