Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr. Willy Wonka, by Roald Dahl

Okay, so after a downer like We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was feeling the need for a literary pick-me-up.  Last weekend, while sick, I watched the Tim Burton version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and decided the time was ripe for a re-reading of the classic Roald Dahl tale.  

I say re-reading, but the fact is, I had this book read to me when I was about five years old.  All I remember from that reading was my mother forgetting to censor the line where Wonka instructs an Oompa Loompa to ‘burp you ass, burp!’  I was immediately smitten with the book.  Not only was the main character extolling the virtues of being rude in a way my parents were trying to teach me not to be, he was swearing while doing it.  I found it charming.  So, when my Dad joined Columbia House Video Club (oh yeah, I’m totally dating myself here, but remember VHS kids?!) one of the first flicks he bought was the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Needless to say, I watched that tape over and over again, and it replaced my memory of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the book in favour of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the movie.

Of course, when you love something so much at such a formative age, it’s bound to skew your impressions of certain things in adulthood.  For example, I could never understand how Sammy Davis Jr related to the candy man, because the candy man in my world is a tall white British dude – this is, and seems destined to remain, a serious gap in my adult knowledge.  More importantly, the movie skewed my memory of the book.  While the movie holds closely to Dahl’s tale (and, in fact, Burton’s flick is even more accurate), there’s still no escaping Wilder’s brown bowler, purple velvet morning coat, and green inexpressible.  While reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was unable to disassociate the visual and aural memories of the flick from the book.  However, the book stood up to my memory of the movies, so it was fabulous.

Now, my copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory contains the second Charlie/Wonka story, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  This second story is a far cry from the first.  To start off with, it’s simply not believable.  I know how silly that notion sounds – the first story is about a magical chocolate factory run by a group of imaginary creatures.  But still, it’s more believable to me that a glass box that can travel to space, aliens, age-reversal pills, a River Styx-like existential crisis, and aging pills.  Oh, and don’t forget the President of the United States plays a key roll in this one.   

More than just the plot, it’s also the quality of writing that drops off in the second story.  The first story is rich and textured with vocabulary and aural play, while the second tries to riff off the first, but falls short in every attempt.  While the first one slipped this colour in almost effortlessly, it seems as if Dahl had to try and shoe-horn it into this one.  Moreover, the first story is clearly a morality tale (about greed, hubris, and manners) – the second story also tries to be a morality tale, but it’s done in a ham-fisted kind of way.  The first story might get kids under the radar, but the second story seems designed to bash them over the head with messages about restraint and sharing.  Blarg.

So, final verdict?  Read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and skip Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  However, watch the movies.  I can’t say enough for the visual texture of the Wilder version, and the sensibilities of the Burton version.  Needless to say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a big part of my childhood, and it’s a part that I still like to go back to when I can.  In that context, I’d encourage everyone to try and capture their youthful spirit with this book.  

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