and the Chocolate Factory
Directed by Tim Burton
106 minutes (PG
Commentary by Kevin
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
knowing, all loving, and steadfast in his devotion. In
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
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.
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.
@ 2005 Kevin Miller.