Viking Night: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
By Bruce Hall
September 7, 2016
When I learned of the passing of Gene Wilder, like many who admired his work, I started to think about his films, and what they meant to me. Then, I realized I was going to have to think hard. Wilder stepped away from the public eye many years ago, as it turns out, because of the terrifying illness that he chose to keep a secret. For his most memorable work, you have to go back some ways. For my money, it doesn’t get any better than Young Frankenstein (1974). Coming in a very close second is The Producers (1968), which I’ve covered in this column, and of course, Blazing Saddles (1974).
I said as much to someone the other day, to which they replied:
“What about Willy Wonka? That was good!”
I had to admit, I hadn’t considered that. Partly because I haven’t seen Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory since I was probably five. And, while the Tim Burton version was watchable, it didn’t exactly make me want to go back and catch the original. Then of course, there’s the fact that it’s a musical. Call me uncultured swine if you want, but I can’t stand musicals. I’ll grant you, song can be an effective and brilliant form of exposition. I can name exceptions (The Blues Brothers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch come to mind) of course, but by and large when people start singing in the middle of a story, it makes me nuts.
But I decided to give it a go, partially because I like making non-obvious choices when I can. But also because the one and only time I saw Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I was so young that parts of it scared me. More than once in my adult life, I’ve been catapulted awake because I had a nightmare about Violet turning into a blueberry.
Laugh if you want, but childhood trauma sticks to your ribs. No doubt this applies to every child who visited Willy Wonka’s fabulous house of chocolate, forced perspective and existential despair.
Let me explain. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is, of course, based on the beloved novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which everyone in America but me has apparently read. That’s because the best way to guarantee I’ll never read your book is to let me see the movie version first. And this one I saw fresh out of toddlerhood, so that’s a no-go. I can go book to movie, but not movie to book. It’s just a thing with me.
Anyway, the film concerns a kindhearted young boy named Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum). Charlie lives with his mother and all four grandparents (no word on what happened to the father). They survive, crammed together into a drafty one-bedroom flat. Charlie is an attentive student in school by day, and afterward he maintains a paper route while his friends hang out at the candy store. The money he makes he brings home to his family. Whenever he comes across a scrap of food he brings it home to share, where everyone spends a half hour nobly insisting that someone else take the first bite.