Thursday, January 24, 2008

Willy Wonka

First, I'm sorry to begin writing (again) with a screed.  But I just figured this out the other day, and it's been stuck in my head.  Maybe now it will crawl out and leave me alone.

Second, SPOILERS AHEAD.  I'm going to give away important details about a book and a movie.  However, since the book has been out for over 40 years, and since the first movie has been out for 35 years, I find myself well within reasonable limits for posting spoilers.

When I was a kid, I loved Roald Dahl.  I read his books over and over again, particularly loving The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.  For some reason, I never got around to reading any of the Willy Wonka stories before seeing the movie with Gene Wilder. And since several parts of the movie were disturbing (Augustus in the pipe and the chicken-head-lopping-off boat ride, to be specific), and I didn't enjoy it very much.  So I never read the Willy Wonka books.

This past weekend, we took a trip to Memphis (Tennessee, not Egypt) to visit some friends.  They had lived in Atlanta for a few years, leaving two years ago to help plant a church.  They have a great old house in a great old neighborhood near downtown. We had a good time, even though almost their whole family was sick when we got there.  Also, it was cold (below freezing for the entire weekend), so we only spent 5 minutes outside, down at the riverfront.  But they are great folks, and so we didn't mind staying inside all day with them.

The drive to Memphis is long, so my wonderful wife got some books on CD to help pass the time.  We ended up listening to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the way out and The Tale of Despereaux on the way home.

I liked Despereaux and think it's a great book for kids (our school apparently reads it in Second Grade, so there you go).  But, given my history, it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that interested me most.

As we listened to it on the way to Memphis, I was listening to how the book handled the scary parts.  Sure enough, Augustus Gloop did indeed get sucked into a pipe full of chocolate, get stuck, and then get pushed through by the pressure.  However, the boat ride in the book was made scary just by the fact that they were going fast through a tunnel.  Apparently that kind of excitement doesn't translate well into a movie, so they added a bizarre montage, including the chicken head removal, to make sure that we got the point.  Stupid movie.

With those issues out of the way, I settled down into the rest of the story.  As we got toward the end I noticed that the book lacked two things that were in the movie and that were very important to the plot.

First, Charlie and Grandpa Joe did not drink the Fizzy Lifting Drinks.  In the movie they do, and almost get cut to pieces by the fan.  In the book, Wonka explains about the drinks and the burping as the characters walk past the door (this explanation made my boys howl with laughter).

Second, while the book does talk about the spying done by other candy makers, the books does not have Slugworth approaching Charlie and trying to get an Everlasting Gobstopper.

Which leads me to my point.  The book and the movie are very different about one very important fact: how Charlie wins.

In the book, Charlie wins the contest by simply not being a spoiled brat.  This is shown in the story by him not breaking any rules.  The other four kids all break important rules, and they all disobey direct instructions from Willy Wonka.  It's made clear that each of the other children in the story are spoiled rotten by their parents and given whatever they want.  This leads to their downfall, sometimes with long-term consequences (Mike TV is 10 feet tall, Violet remains blue).

In the book, Charlie wins by following the rules. You can see why this would not be a popular object lesson in 1971, so the movie adds a twist.  

In the movie, Charlie breaks a rule, just like all the other children.  He and Grandpa Joe do go back and try the Fizzy Lifting Drinks.  So everybody breaks rules, but only those very clever people manage to avoid the consequences of disobedience.  Classic.

But if Charlie disobeys in the movie, how then does he win the contest?  I remember vividly what happens  They're standing in Wonka's office, he's just told them that they broke the rules by drinking the drink and dismissed them.  Charlie has lost.

What does Charlie do?  How does he make himself different from the other contestants?

He gives back the Gobstopper.  You see, all of the kids took a Gobstopper to give to Slugworth, even Charlie.  But he gives his back to Wonka.  Then the celebrations begin.  Charlie wins by not giving in to corporate greed.  He stuck it to The Man.  You can almost see this story line being written by the 1969 graduating class of Wellesley College.

There.  I've said it.  Whew.

There are other interesting differences.  In the book there are two parents per kid.  You can see why they reduce this down to one parent each in the movie, since that would be a lot of people on screen at one time.  But in the book, one parent is actively involved in spoiling each child, while the other parent stands back and lets it happen.

The language in the book is decidedly un-PC.  Augustus is called "fat," with a description of his appearance that made Jonah laugh out loud.  The Bucket family is described vividly as starving to death.  Mike TV's dad only speaks once (in my memory), and then only to tell his son to "Shut up."  Charlie's grandparents speak ill of the other contestants, as do the Oompa Loompas.

Books are better than movies.  We've gotten used to that fact, and we've tried our best to pound it into our boys' heads.  But it's bizarre to see a movie take such a wonderful book, remove the core, and then use the book's surface features to tell the opposite message.  

We'll read the book again, I'm sure.  Although I sound nothing like Eric Idle, and he does such a wonderful job with the voices.


At 3:10 PM, Blogger fiorinda said...

I've always been saddened at how they changed charlie in the movie, too.

This is also why I am not as huge of a fan of the LOTR movies as I wanted to be. They changed the essential nature of Faramir. And I just couldn't stand it. Why take the noblest character in the whole series and make him as base as the others. Makes me mad.

Glad to see you blogging again.

At 5:49 PM, Blogger 4BoyDad said...

Thanks very much. It's good to be back, and it's especially good that you're reading. And I mean that "you" as a general "everybody who reads" and also as a specific "Fiorinda". What a wonderful word, that "you."

I agree with you completely on the LOTR movies. Along with the Harry Potter movies, I find them unwatchable. We saw The Two Towers in the theater, and the uber-extended-slumberfest version on DVD, but I haven't watched it again since. Mostly because of Faramir. But they massacred other characters in that one as well (including Treebeard).

I know it's a personal preference, but I just can't stand movies made from books. As the boys read through the HP books, and as Timothy and I read LOTR together, I know we'll have to watch the movies. But I don't think I can bear to do it.

Perhaps I'll make a sacrifice for the boys and watch the movies with them, even if it only relays to them yet another of my manias.


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