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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Directed by Tim Burton
106 minutes (PG rating)
Warner Brothers

Commentary by Kevin Miller

In terms of my childhood influences, Roald Dahl occupied the same rare air as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Dr. Seuss. He was a master storyteller; one whose work I savored much like Charlie Bucket savored his Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight chocolate bar on his birthday each year—bit by precious bit.

Needless to say, when someone like Tim Burton ventures to bring a book like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the big screen, for me and countless other former children, he is treading on holy ground. Thankfully, even though Burton’s account of the gospel of Wonka is eerily unorthodox, he avoids falling into full-blown heresy. I wouldn’t necessarily call the changes he has made to the story improvements, but Burton’s film is definitely an intriguing adaptation of Dahl’s beloved children’s tale.

One of the most significant and fascinating deviations from the book is Burton’s characterization of Willy Wonka. As written by Dahl, Wonka was a mysterious, delightfully childlike man with a heart like Santa Claus and a face like Uncle Sam. He was also a genius, a “magician with chocolate,” according to Charlie’s Grandpa Joe.

In Burton’s film, Wonka is still a genius, but he has more in common with Howard Hughes or Michael Jackson than Santa Claus. And his face, well… Let’s just say it’s more disturbing than comforting. Burton’s Wonka is also childlike in his own way. But rather than portray him as an old man who has managed to retain his sense of childlike wonder, Burton depicts him as more of a man-child who hasn’t really gotten over the trauma of his early years but who doesn’t know how to grow up either. He is clumsy, gawky, unsure how to relate to others, and uncertain if he even wants to. He doesn’t seem to like children, so it’s a wonder he ever issues the invitation for the children to tour his chocolate factory at all. But perhaps it’s his way of reaching out, a desperate cry for help from a troubled man who realizes he is losing his grip on reality and that somehow only the wisdom of a child can bring him back.

In these and other ways, Burton’s take on Wonka couldn’t be more different from Dahl’s original vision. However, even though I regard myself as somewhat of a Dahl purist, I don’t see these changes as intrinsically negative. Not only have Burton and actor Johnny Depp managed to create an entirely original character who is captivating in his own right, the choices they made also enabled them to showcase Dahl’s delightfully wicked sense of humor, which is one of the most attractive features of his work. In fact, my only real complaint about the film is the superfluous backstory that explains how Willy Wonka became the troubled genius we see on screen. Mystery, says screenwriter William Goldman, is one of the key ingredients of an effective character. While Burton’s Wonka definitely starts out as an enjoyable enigma, eventually it is revealed that he is nothing more than the product of (yawn) a troubled childhood. As I’ve stated elsewhere in regard to George Lucas’s laborious exposé of Darth Vader’s origins in Star Wars Episodes I–III, sometimes you just need to leave well enough alone.

That said, Burton’s ambiguous depiction of Willy Wonka does lead to some interesting spiritual reflections. In terms of structure, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory bears a strong resemblance to C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. In Lewis’s tale, a group of people get the chance to take a bus from hell to heaven. If they like it there, they will be allowed to stay. If not, they are free to return to the dreary, rainy place from whence they came. Strangely enough, after a short stint in Paradise, one-by-one, each passenger decides to retreat below, where they were free to pursue their vices, so back on the bus they go. Only one character decides to stay, and he is gloriously transformed as a result.

Similarly, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, five children and their guardians are invited to leave the dreary, hopelessness of their lives (hell) and visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory (heaven). At the end of the tour, Wonka (an admittedly bizarre stand-in for God) promises that one of the children will receive a prize far greater than they can imagine. However, as in The Great Divorce, one-by-one, the children fall victim to their vices—whether gluttony, greed, pride or anger—turn their back on Wonka and the factory and return to the world from whence they came. In the end, only Charlie remains. By virtue of his stalwart character, he has proven himself worthy to receive the prize, which is nothing less than Wonka’s glorious chocolate factory itself!

However, in a surprising departure from the original story, rather than give the factory to Charlie outright, Wonka reveals one final stipulation: To inherit the factory, Charlie must say goodbye to his family forever. Suddenly, what appeared to be a gift from God looks more like a deal with the devil. Charlie refuses, and Wonka goes away angry. But he is also troubled. How could Charlie turn down such an offer? Never having experienced familial love himself, he simply cannot understand Charlie’s motivation. Only when Charlie helps Wonka reunite with his own father does he finally see what Charlie was on to.

Wonka’s surprising about-face mirrors some of the images of God prevalent in today's culture. In Dahl’s book, Wonka recalls the God I heard about in Sunday school—all knowing, all loving, and steadfast in his devotion. In Burton’s film, however, Wonka is nasty, confused, and socially awkward—hardly what you would call divine attributes. At times, you can’t help but wonder, is Wonka good or evil? Are his Oompa Loompas angels or demons? Is the chocolate factory heaven or hell? Should the children love Wonka or fear him?

Some of our depictions of God bring to mind the same questions. Does God delight in seeing us fall victim to our vices? Is he some sort of eccentric misfit who needs us as much, or more, as we need him? Could it be that, like Wonka, God has a thing or two to learn from us as well? Can he be trusted? At times, we may see him as unable or unwilling to relate to common people like ourselves. We may also suspect that, like Wonka at the opening of the factory tour, God is just putting on a show for his own amusement—and not a very good show at that.

I prefer images of God closer to Dahl's original description of Wonka—a kindly, self-assured being with an eye to celebrating redemption rather than glorying in defeat. A God of grace and constancy certainly has been my experience. Faced with a double-dealing God similar to Burton's version of Wonka, the choice to re-board the bus back to hell would almost seem to make sense.

Copyright @ 2005 Kevin Miller.


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