Willy Wonka fits two of those categories – the adaptation and the icon. Personally, I’m of the opinion that an adaptation should (at its finest) take what was brilliant about the original, hone it as highly as possible, and alter it as necessary to suit the medium. There’s a reason the property was picked up for adaptation. It’s special, not just as a work, but to the people who loved the original.
And I did love the original as a kid. Where Roald Dahl shone as an author is in creating a world that shows terror through the eyes of a child. Cruelty is a matter of course, much like life, because your childhood is idyllic only if you forget how horrible it really was. The times you felt the world was against you, when things weren’t stacked up fair, with no one telling you that despite the stories, life isn’t meant to be fair. It simply is what people, and the people around them, decide it to be. And right around the time a child realizes it, they also realize they have very little in the way of decisions to make.
I knew as an adaptation, it had a possibility of stumbling over or ignoring certain parts that I found important in the original work. But I also knew that I would have trouble getting in to the movie. That’s a problem that has nothing to do with the movie itself: its iconography.
I have seen, by way of parody, almost every scene in this film. So while I knew how the book’s story unfolded, my ability to be surprised by its telling in film (or much in the way of surprise at all) was lost. When that happens, my ability to invest myself in the film in its own right becomes difficult, unless the story itself happens to be spectacular.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t. Because the specifics of the rewrites by David Seltzer to Dahl’s script are unknown to me (beyond the addition of Slugworth), I can’t say who exactly is responsible for what in this script. But it is structurally screwy, with the five contestants to Wonka’s factory being discovered over the course of about 45 minutes of a 100 minute movie. I would be fine with this, had that time been largely devoted to Charlie himself, with the other children used more explicitly as a contrast to Charlie and his situation. Creating a strong and identifiable protagonist was another of Dahl’s strengths, but the film misses that mark spectacularly in favor of elongated sequences with the other children.
Charlie’s character simply… isn’t. His selfless behavior, displayed early in the film, is forgotten when he finds a bit of money in the sewer. A more subtle hand to the script would have shown how taxing his life and selflessness had been on him, and the regret that came through so strongly in the book even as he ate the chocolate. And a better director would have created a more oppressive and bleak feel for Charlie’s world, to capture the strength of the original work, show Charlie as a more three dimensional character, and contrast this world with the wonder of Wonka’s factory.
And it is really in the tone that I take exception to the movie. It’s whimsical, with just hints of the fantastic. But I don’t believe the talent behind the scenes was capable of evoking a comparable feeling of wonder you found in the books. Not because they were hampered by the budget, or were required to recreate the factory you saw in your head as a child. It was the lack of effective contrast with the starkness of Charlie’s life prior to the factory, and certain elements of the cinematography within the factory that didn’t fully show off the wonderful work of the set designers.
But before you get the wrong impression that I am here to hate a classic, let’s talk about the things I liked. Charlie’s actor, when given the chance to shine, was absolutely fantastic. I wanted to see more of him on screen, not just for story purposes but because I liked seeing how well he captured the character. When his mother and grandparents were discussing how the final golden ticket had been found, and we see a wordless shot of him crying, it felt absolutely in keeping with everything I had hoped from the movie.
Charlie’s teacher steals every scene he’s in, getting as much humor out of every line as he could. While you could make the argument that his character could have been portrayed much more harshly, I still enjoyed every second he was on screen, and so admired his performance that I would have happily seen him play Willy Wonka in this adaptation.
The initial reveal of the candy room, and the parents and adults alike indulging, was an incredibly effective scene. It was pure, uncomplicated joy, the kind you get when life has you so beaten down and you take that moment that belongs only to you – a song you love, a good book, a walk in the rain, and yes, even just a piece of candy.
I mentioned the work of the set designers, who were forced to do quite a lot with a much smaller budget than I had initially thought. The team responsible for it, and the special effects in general, did a stellar job. Take a look at the animatronic geese for a particularly nice touch – most animatronic animals fail due to the uncanny valley effect, and anything which bypasses that is worthy of praise.
And of course, there’s Gene Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka. He’s the gatekeeper of whimsy, which is a difficult type of character to portray without going in to caricature, and buoys up the second half of the movie where the script’s lack of focus on character becomes most apparent. Wilder’s delivery is far more natural than the other actors, and the little touches he brings to the screen are fantastic.
It’s not right to talk about a musical without discussing the music itself. The songs are, for the most part, taken from Dahl’s original book, and I enjoyed them. They are also so well known that I can’t imagine what I could add to the discussion, beyond my personal favorite being Augustus Gloop’s exit song. The score works,
Dahl outright despised this adaptation, even declaring that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator would never be brought to film. I didn’t have the same reaction. I hated Escape from L.A., not this movie. Unfortunately, I am stuck in the position of not understanding why it is so beloved. It is a familiar position, and not one I revel in taking.
Don’t take that lack of understanding as my saying the movie sucks. I started writing these columns to experience things people love, and to learn to understand why they people hold them so deeply in their hearts. My own appreciation for movies is limited, and I am trying to change that. I can’t promise to like everything I watch, but I do promise to do my best to keep my mind open, no matter the material. For those of you who wish to comment, I am not so proud or foolish that a good argument will fail to convince me that there is merit that I have missed.